Wan Baochang was a talented musician who lived in the Sui dynasty. He not only had a keen understanding of sound and music, but also had an ear for the semantics of music. Wan once accurately predicted the fall of a dynasty from the sounds of a piece played at the Sui emperor’s court.
Wan had served as a musician of the royal court since his childhood; music was something deeply imbued into his being.
When talking about music with a friend over dinner, Wan would demonstrate his musical ideas with tableware and random objects. Though he typically only operated in a two-octave range, he was about to make beautiful polyphonic music with an array of string and wind instruments.
A musical composition called Zhou Li was been known among musicians as an impossible piece during Wan’s time. When people asked Wan to try it, however, he picked it up right away and began playing. Everyone was wowed by his skill.
Before the Sui dynasty, there was no comprehensive sound system in Chinese music. When the Sui dynasty was established, Chancellor Zheng Yi and a group of officials created a sound system and various instruments under the Emperor’s instruction.
When the emperor asked Wan his opinion of their musical progress, Wan told the truth, “Such sounds of deterioration are not suitable for your majesty.”
The emperor was not happy to see his efforts so harshly criticized.
Wan then explained how the music sounded mournful, lewd, and indulging; not at all graceful or upright. He asked for the emperor’s permission to tune the instruments using a tool he had invented for this purpose. The emperor agreed.
Wan immediately set to work. He made various instruments, all pitched lower than Zheng’s. This made them sound more elegant. He also wrote a 64-volume collection, titled Sheet Music, with detailed descriptions of how to transpose music into a different key.
The musical system he created included 84 scales, 144 rhythms, and 1,800 sounds.
After listening to other musicians playing a piece at the royal court one day, Wan cried. When others asked him why, he responded, “This music sounds hedonistic, emotional, and sad. There will be a war soon and the fall of the nation is inevitable.”
It was a time of peace and prosperity of the Sui dynasty, and people didn’t take his words seriously. However, several popular revolts soon began, and eventually the Sui dynasty ended, just as Wan predicted.
Since the beginning of time, music has been a reflection of society’s moral standards. Music that is elegant and upright is believed to indicate a high moral plane, and suggest the stability of society and the longevity of a dynasty. On the other hand, music that is bawdy is thought to indicate moral censure and foretell the end of a society or dynasty in the near future.