A fine musical ear

The jester Ding Xianxian 丁仙現 (Immortal Revelation Ding) was a Grand Commissioner of the Court Entertainments Bureau 教坊 at the court of Song Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1101-25).  Early in the Chongning reign period (1102-06), his musical skills were called upon as arbiter of whether the attempted re-creation of a defunct musical mode had been a success. 

Quotation - Shilin bishu luhua 石林避暑錄話 - Ye Mengde 葉夢得

Someone had the bright idea that the principal musicians of the Court Entertainments Bureau should try to re-create the zhi key.  Immortal Revelation pointed out that the kind of music in question had long since ceased to exist and was not within the capacity of the musicians, and so could not be re-created on a whim without giving posterity something to laugh at.  Duke Lu of Cai was not amused and forced the musicians to do it. 

The musicians were hastily gathered together and the music was performed in the chancellery courtyard, while Immortal Revelation was made to stand by listening to it.  When it ended, the duke looked smug, and asked Immortal Revelation what he thought of it.  The jester walked slowly forward, turned to look at the seated throng and said, `Nice lyrics, shame about the tune!’ The audience could not help but burst out laughing.


崇寧初,大樂闕徵調。有獻議請補者,併以命教坊燕樂同為之。大使丁仙現云: 「音已久亡,非樂工所能為,不可以意妄増,徒為後人笑。」蔡魯公亦不喜。蹇授之嘗語予云: 見元長,屢使度曲,皆辭不能。遂使以次樂工為之。踰旬,獻數曲,即今黃河清之類,而聲終不諧,末音寄殺他調。魯公本不通聲律,但果于必為,大喜。亟召衆工,按試尚書少庭,使仙現在旁聽之。樂闋,有得色,問仙現如何。仙現徐前環顧坐中曰: 「曲甚好,只是落韻! 」坐客不覺失笑。

There are several accounts of Ding Xianxian’s willingness to speak out in criticism of those in power, one one occasion being saved from the vengeful actions of a top minister.  Other times, he just poked gentle fun at things or people. 

See also another example of a Chinese jester’s acknowledged discernment in musical matters.


Source: Shilin bishu luhua 石林避暑錄話, Ye Mengde 葉夢得 (1077-1148), fol. 1, Siku Quanshu 四庫全書 (Shanghai: Guji Chubanshe, 1987), vol. 863, p. 652a-b.

Note: Qu seems to indicate `lyrics’ here, rather than `melody’, but it could mean something like, `Nice tune, shame about the key!’

Image credit: Columbia University, Department of Art History & Archaeology website – the image did not load well and so we’re currently unable to provide a source reference.

Image credit: Columbia University, Department of Art History & Archaeology website

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