Confucius not only said interesting things, he sang them and accompanied himself on a kind of zither. The Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is opening a show Saturday of musical instruments from Confucius' time, 2,500 years ago. A collection of his lyrics - unfortunately there are no melodies - is one of the first pieces of Chinese literature handed down through the centuries.
"It is said that Confucius accompanied himself on a 'qin' while singing the odes of the Shi Jing, or the 'Classic of Poetry,'" says cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a guide to the exhibit. "We don't know what Confucius' qin may have looked like, but in popular accounts of his life, the image of the philosopher-musician became firmly established." The qin is a kind of zither. Today's Chinese musicians still use one kind. Ma is an American of Chinese ancestry, one of today's leading cellists playing classical western music.
Jenny F. So, the Sackler's curator of ancient Chinese art, said in an interview that some of the "odes" were just folk songs. Confucius reportedly made a practice of dancing with his disciples every day. In his time, music was considered of great social significance, linking rulers to subjects, parents to children. "It is by poetry that one's mind is aroused; it is by ceremony that one's character is regulated; it is by music that one becomes accomplished," he said.