Critical & Historical Essays eBook

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Having described the musical instruments in use in China we still have for consideration the music itself, and the conditions which led up to it.

Among the Chinese instruments mentioned in the preceding chapter, the preponderance of instruments of percussion, such as drums, gongs, bells, etc., has probably been noticed.  In connection with the last named we meet with one of the two cases in Chinese art in which we see the same undercurrent of feeling, or rather superstition, as that found among western nations.  We read in the writings of Mencius, the Chinese philosopher (350 B.C.), the following bit of gossip about the king Senen of Tse.

  “The king,” said he, “was sitting aloft in the hall, when
  a man appeared, leading an ox past the lower part of it. 
  The king saw him, and asked, ‘Where is the ox going?’

  “The man replied, ’We are going to consecrate a bell with
  its blood.’

  “The king said, ’Let it go.  I cannot bear its frightened
  appearance as if it were an innocent person going to the
  place of death.’

  “The man answered, ’Shall we then omit the consecration
  of the bell?’

  “The king said, ’How can that be omitted?  Change the ox
  for a sheep.’”

As stated before, this is one of the few cases in which Chinese superstition coincides with that of the West; for our own church bells were once consecrated in very much the same manner, a survival of that ancient universal custom of sacrifice.  With the exception of this resemblance, which, however, has nothing to do with actual music, everything in Chinese art is exactly the opposite of our western ideas on the subject.

The Chinese orchestra is composed of about sixteen different types of percussion instruments and four kinds of wind and stringed instruments, whereas in our European orchestras the ratio is exactly reversed.  Their orchestras are placed at the back of the stage, ours in front of it.  The human voice is not even mentioned in their list of musical sounds (sound of metal, baked clay, wood, skin, bamboo, etc)., whereas we consider it the most nearly perfect instrument existing.  This strange perversity once caused much discussion in days when we knew less of China than we do at present, as to whether the Chinese organs of hearing were not entirely different from those of western nations.  We now know that this contradiction runs through all their habits of life.  With them white is the colour indicative of mourning; the place of honour is on the left hand; the seat of intellect is in the stomach; to take off one’s hat is considered an insolent gesture; the magnetic needle of the Chinese compass is reckoned as pointing south, instead of north; even up to the middle of the nineteenth century the chief weapon in war was the bow and arrow, although they were long before acquainted with gunpowder—­and so on, ad infinitum.

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Critical & Historical Essays from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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