In Shi Ji 28 of the Records of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE) recorded all sorts of information about ancient Chinese mythology and religious ceremony, as well as tales about magicians and other tidbits about occult topics. Filed away among the pages of Shi Ji 28, between accounts of charismatic mystics and elaborate sacrifices, Sima Qian included a short, but entertaining, tale about the origin of a musical instrument that was reportedly popular in ancient China—the 25-string zither.
According to Sima Qian, the zither (a soundboard with numerous strings covering the length of the instrument) was present in China back before the advent of recorded history. Interestingly, the first iterations of the Chinese zither were (according to the tale) very large instruments with many strings. Yet, one specific mythical emperor would bring about a new design. The circumstances and motivations behind this innovation, however, may not be what one would expect.
The Great Emperor Fu Xi, also known as The Great Bright One, was a curious mythical entity to whom the ancient Chinese attributed the development of many innovations that led to the rise of the Chinese civilization. From animal domestication, to metalworking and even the institution of marriage and religious practices, Fu Xi was said to have taught the ancients vital skills and social structures that served as the foundation of civilized life. Fu Xi was also a patron of musicians and had among his followers a talented woman called the White Maiden, who was a virtuoso with the zither. The model of zither that she played was a large instrument with fifty strings.
During a sacrificial ceremony, or some other social gathering, Fu Xi had the White Maiden play music for the occasion. His instructions were not specific, so the White Maiden delved into a song of her own choice. For unexplained reasons, the mythical musician decided upon a sad tune and, when her mind was made up, the White Maiden poured all of her talent into playing a song that was sure to wet the eyes of all her listeners.
Unfortunately, something went wrong. Perhaps, the White Maiden’s song did not fit the occasion, or maybe the Great Emperor Fu Xi was overwhelmed by the emotional power of the music emanating from White Maiden and her exquisite zither. For whatever reason, Fu Xi begged her to stop playing the sad song. Yet, the White Maiden (as often happens to musicians) was thoroughly entranced in her musical performance and, in spite of Fu Xi’s pleas, she was determined to bring the gloomy piece to its conclusion.
Fu Xi, however, was equally determined to end the song. According to the tale, he seized the zither from the White Maiden and, with remarkable precision, snapped the instrument lengthwise. As expected of a mythical entity of great power, it was a perfect break, splitting the wood right down the center of the soundboard. Unfortunately, Sima Qian did not record how the White Maiden responded to such a philistine move.
If the White Maiden mourned for her prized fifty-string zither, we will never know. Yet, she found some consolation in that the instrument was broken with a clean cut in the center of the soundboard, parallel to the strings. In effect, the larger zither had been snapped into two new instruments. Her song may have been rudely interrupted, but now the White Maiden had two revolutionary 25-string zithers, which apparently became the latest musical new trend.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Chinese watercolor, c. 1800s, of a woman playing a zheng (Chinese zither), and a portrait of Fu Xi from an ancient manuscript housed in Paris, on a landscape painted by Shūgetsu (1440? – 1529), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.