Most ancient Chinese sovereigns could enlighten to some encoded meaning in music and placed great importance on what it signified. It’s been a common belief throughout Chinese history that music can express the ideas or feelings of the sovereign, its officials, and its people. Many were able to predict the future of a dynasty by listening to its unique rhythm and musical tone.
Predicting the auspicious Tang
In the first year of Tianshou (A.D. 690), Empress Consort Wu Zetian seized power and became the sovereign, turning the Tang into the Zhou Dynasty. In 705, the Imperial Ancestral Temple, or Taimiao in Beijing’s Imperial City, held a spring festival prayer and Pei Zhigu was summoned. Upon hearing the music, Pei whispered to a court official who could understand the lyrics, that: “With the harmony of gold and stone, the descendants of the Tang clan will experience an auspicious event.”
In the same month, Wu Zetian passed away. Zhongzong (or Li Xian), who had ruled briefly in A.D. 684, became Emperor again between 705 and 710, reviving the glory of the Tang Dynasty, thus fulfilling Pei’s prediction.
Li Xian predicts the end of the Tang Dynasty
At the end of the Kaiyuan era (A.D. 713-741) of the Tang Dynasty, as Emperor Xuanzong (A.D. 713-756) was entertaining his relatives with music, he noticed that his brother, Li Xian, remained quiet, while others were full of praise. The Emperor asked him: “Why are you so quiet?”
Li Xian replied:
“Although the music is beautiful, it’s already deviated from the start. The two lyrics of Gong (referring to the palace) and Shang (referring to court officials) were disorderly and even violently vicious. Your Majesty’s voice is not strong, signifying that the sovereign’s power is weak. On the other hand, the sound of Shang is too strong; the court officials will revolt against Your Majesty. Although the signs are weak and barely visible within the rhythm, it’s present in the song, suggesting that it will happen one day. I’m worried that it may not be easy for Your Majesty to escape.”
Hearing his brother, Emperor Xuanzong fell silent. Soon afterward, the An-Shi Rebellion by An Lushan and Shi Siming caused the Tang Dynasty to fall, as Li Xian had predicted.
Sui Dynasty musician predicts emperor’s disappearance
During the Sui Dynasty, there was a musician named Wang Lingyan, who was well versed in deciphering the rhythm of the music. His son one day, upon returning from the palace, began playing a piece of music called An Gongzi outside of the house on a traditional Chinese instrument called the pipa.
His father, who was inside the house, was startled by the sound and hurriedly called his son in, telling him:
“You’d better not accompany the Emperor to Jiangdu District. The emperor will certainly not return.” “Why?” his son asked. Wang replied: “The sound of Gong (represented by one string of the pipa) represents ‘going and not returning,’ and it relates to the Emperor — this is what I know.”
The emperor was indeed killed in Jiangdu, never to return.
Translated by Chua BC and edited by Emiko Kingswell