Published in The Musical Quarterly, April 1976.
In spite of those few who find it possible to cross the disciplinary boundaries with competence, primary sources are not infrequently mistranslated and misinterpreted, while secondary sources of dubious validity are often left unchallenged and sometimes perpetuated. An obvious example is provided by J. A. Van Aalst's Chinese Music, published almost a century ago, in 1884, but reprinted successively until as late as 1964 in New York and 1965 in Taipei. One of its contentions based on misuse of primary sources is still being cited and theorized upon.
The Lore of the Chinese Lute by Robert Hans van Gulik, is one for which we should feel grateful, since it has for long filled a great need. It remains required reading and the best introduction in Western languages to the important ch’in tradition.
Another interesting example is Van Aalst’s statement that an eight-tone scale, with three successive semitones in the middle, was used during the Yuan dynasty. His citation gives Shih Tien K’ao as his source. Shih Tien K’aois actually the first chapter of Huang Kung Ching Shih by Kuei Liang, published in 1835, a treatise on sacrificial procedures in honor of early sages. It is not known why Van Aalst relied solely on treatise of such late date and on so specialized a topic or why he would refer to it in the book as one of his “best and most reliable” Chinese sources. His information is found in the eighth section of the second chapter, which presents the composition Chung Ho Shao Yueh in notation with explanatory passages. In this the ten kung ch’ih symbols were used. The kung ch’ih p’u or kung ch’ih tzu p’u is a notation system in use at least since the time of Shen K’uo (1031-1095), who was the first to have written about it.
…With prefixes added to some of the characters, sixteen composite symbols are used to denote all the chromatic tones within the range of an augmented ninth. These symbols, however, are to be used selectively according to the pentatonic or heptatonic mode in question. As a matter of fact, the prefixes (hsia and shang) are often not given; thus the symbols szu, i, kung, fan and wu may imply either hsia or shang positions (which are a semitone apart) according to the mode in question. Therefore, the ten standard symbols, without the prefixes (ho, szu, i, shang, kou, ch’ih, kung, fan, liu, wu) must not be construed as a scale of, say, C, D, E, F, F-sharp, G, A, B (C, D) as is given in Van Aalst’s book. The text of his source lists these ten symbols and then adds, “shih tzu ch’uan yong,” i.e., “all ten characters are used.” The context of this phrase simply indicates that these symbols are all used in Yuan Dynasty, without any reference to a scale. The source of Van Aalst’s problem, aside from his questionable methodology, may well be the word zu, which means “word,” but also “symbol” in a notational system, and therefore could be taken to mean a tone, thereby implying a scale-tone.