Category Archive 'Li Yannian'

14 Oct 2017

Popular Music in the Politics of Ancient China

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A rather fascinating article by Harvard professor Xiaofei Tian in Lapham’s Quarterly.

[A Chinese] monarch created an institution that put [the] musical aspect of political ideology into imperial practice. The institution was the Yuefu, the “Music Bureau.” The monarch was Emperor Wu of Han, an ambitious, energetic ruler who ascended the throne as a teenage boy in 141 BC and reigned for fifty-four years, a record not to be broken for more than eighteen centuries. During his rule, he centralized state power, expanded the territories of the empire, opened up the Silk Road and sent many missions to Central Asia, adopted Confucian doctrine as mainstream ideology, and was an ardent lover and patron of musical and poetic arts. Around 120 BC he ordered the establishment of the Music Bureau.

There is not much information about the workings of the bureau in extant historical sources; what little we know about it comes from terse statements made about the office and its leader, whose title, director of music, was apparently coined by the emperor and literally means “commandant of harmony.” According to the historian Ban Gu (32–92), the bureau was in charge of “collecting song-poems [during the day] and having them rehearsed at night.” The song-poems were reportedly “ballads selected from the lands of Zhao, Dai, Qin, and Chu,” encompassing all four directions of the empire. Music, like state power, was centralized in the imperial court, and in turn it was seen as a unifying force embodying all regions of the empire.

Before Emperor Wu established the Music Bureau, court music had fallen under the aegis of court ritualists. This new office now institutionalized imperial music and for the first time gave it an independent identity. Although the office did produce ceremonial music for state rituals, an equally important purpose was to provide well-managed imperial entertainment. As such, it was appropriately led not by a hoary ritualist versed in ceremonial music but by a young, handsome, talented castrato musician named Li Yannian, who made for a rather extraordinary and unconventional appointment.

Li Yannian was from a family of professional entertainers. When he was a young boy, he had received the punishment of castration for some offense. Being a castrato led him to career choices beyond his family’s usual orbit: as a eunuch, he found employment in the Directorate of the Palace Kennels, even though his true gift was apparently in music rather than in breeding and caring for the imperial hunting dogs. While Li Yannian was employed there, Emperor Wu met his sister, a stunning beauty and consummate dancer, and became smitten with her. Soon, Lady Li bore the emperor a son, cementing her eminent status in the harem. Meanwhile, the emperor came to appreciate Li Yannian’s musical talent deeply. The boy became the emperor’s favorite musician—as well as the emperor’s lover.

Having been castrated at a young age must have given Li Yannian, already a good-looking boy, a striking appearance (as we now know, the loss of testosterone can result in unusually long limbs and make a castrato taller than average). It was not a known custom in premodern China, as it was in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy, to castrate a talented young boy singer to keep his prepubescent voice. But we may well imagine how Li Yannian’s accidental acquisition of a voluptuous and sublime voice as a castrato might have greatly contributed to the charm of his singing. “All mouth and no trousers,” goes the saying—yet his fame came even more from his gift as a composer.

At the emperor’s commission, Li Yannian produced new music for state rituals, which were constantly being invented by Emperor Wu, who was obsessed with worship of the empire’s deities. (Neither these deities nor his devised rituals, however, were necessarily approved by orthodox-minded Confucian ritualists.) Li Yannian was apparently at his best in the composition of “new fancy tunes” that represented a “permutation” of serious ritual music (yayue, literally “elegant music”). He had modern, catholic, unconventional tastes: he not only reinvented contemporary regional melodies but also embraced foreign influences. He was famous for creating twenty-eight tunes inspired by the Central Asian music of what were called the Western Regions, astride the Silk Road. Even when the music was lost in later times, some of the tune titles endured and became established titles in the poetic genre known as yuefu, after the bureau.

At the peak of his career, Li Yannian would “sleep and rise with the emperor” and had his ear when recommending associates to offices. But the Li family’s good fortune did not last very long. Li Yannian’s sister died young, and the emperor’s favor faded. When Li Yannian’s little brother was caught having an affair with a palace lady, both brothers were executed, and, history tells us, “the entire family was exterminated.”


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