Cuckoos and Dynastic Decline

In previous posts, I have written about school songs in the late Qing and early Republican Period and the figure Li Shutong. Many of Li's songs described the pending collapse of the Qing empire.

Li employed a number of onomatopoeic expressions such as the neighing of horses and the plaintive strains of the cuckoo to mourn the anguish of an empire left to die or perish under foreign aggression and domestic turmoil. The cuckoo has long been used as a literary device to describe a gamut of human emotions ranging from grieving for departed friends—dead or alive—to desperation and hopelessness.

In Biographies of the Kings of Shu (Shu Wang Benji), the Emperor Duyu abdicated his throne to his minister Bie Ling in the late Zhou dynasty and became a hermit. When he died his soul turned into a cuckoo, but he reappeared in late spring each year with the doleful call: 'Better return or go back' (bu ru gui qu). Another story relates to Wen Tianxiang (1236-1283), a patriotic statesman of the Southern Song. Helpless to prevent the pending collapse of the dynasty, he 'hoped that he could turn into a cuckoo, so that even though drenched in blood he might fly out of his captivity and back to his native place.'

The cuckoo's blood (dujuanxue) is also synonymous with grief, anguish and despair. In one song penned by Li Shutong in 1906 called 'Willow Dyke Sui,' 'cuckoos are weeping blood on this Sacred Land.' In a text clothed in historical allusions, Li writes of the slow lingering death of the Qing empire disintegrating under the pressures of external invasion by European powers and internal strife.

If we turn back the pages of Chinese history, we can find other expressions that talk of the empire or state nation left to die or perish under foreign aggression. Two expressions that readily come to mind are 'wangguo zhiyin' and 'shangnü buzhi wangguo hen.'

The first expression literally means ‘pitches or sounds that presage the death or passing away of a fallen dynasty, kingdom or state.’ When emperor’s proclaimed their dynasties, it was essential to tune the dynasty to pitches (yin) that harmonized and resonated in both the cosmic and earthly realms. Sounds that presaged the collapse of an empire were obviously no longer in tune, but raging in an ocean of dissonance.

It’s interesting that yin (pitch) and yin (from yin and yang) are homonyms, and that yin ('weak,' 'passive,' dark,' feminine') is also associated with turmoil and chaos. The 'yin' in 'wangguo zhiyin' could also be paraphrased as: 'chaotic or dissonant pitches that accompany the death and crumbling of an empire.'

The second expression ‘shangnü buzhi wangguo hen’ is found in a poem called Bo Qinhuai (Moored on the River Qinhuai) by the Tang dynasty poet Du Mu (803-852). In the poem, courtesans of the Emperor Chen Shubao of the Southern Dynasties sing songs ‘composed by a captive ruler’s hand.’

In time the song and its association with the emperor came to refer to 'music accompanying the collapse of a dynasty':

Cold water veiled in mist and shores steeped in moonlight
I moor on the River Qinhuai near wine shops at night,
Where song girls knowing not the grief of [a] conquered land
Are singing songs composed by a captive ruler's hand.

(trans. Xu Yuanzhong)

The importance of music in giving legitimacy to an existing order was a fundamental concern of Chinese rulers since antiquity. Ritual and court music was inseparably linked to statecraft and the stability of the empire. The aforementioned sounds or pitches associated with the demise of a dynasty were also associated with the 'vulgar' and 'baleful' influences of suyue ('popular music'). Suyue was a potential threat to maintaining or preserving political order.

It was no accident that many reformers in the late Qing wrote of the importance of ritual music (liyue) and court music (yayue) and the deleterious affects of suyue at a time of increasing foreign encroachment and dynastic decline. These reformers had an implicit faith in the potency of music to transform China. In the late Qing and early Republic, it was school songs, not ritual or court music that gave legitimacy to a new social and political order.


Chang Chin-ru (1997). 'The Rhododendron Brings the Cuckoo', Sinorama, Tapei: vol. 22, no. 5, May, 101.

Xu Yuanzhong (1995). 300 Tang Poems: A New Translation (English-Chinese), Zhongguo duiwai fanyi chuban gongsi, Beijing, 316.

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