How Ancient Chinese Predicted a Dynasty’s Future by Its Music

Musicians in a scene from paradise, Yulin Cave, Tang Dynasty. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

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.”

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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.

Wall painting of a feitian playing pipa - pigment on stucco, Tang Dynasty, A.D. 600-800.
Wall painting of a feitian playing pipa – pigment on stucco, Tang Dynasty, A.D. 600-800. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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:

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.

A drawing of traditional Chinese instruments. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
A drawing of traditional Chinese instruments. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

His father, who was inside the house, was startled by the sound and hurriedly called his son in, telling him:

The emperor was indeed killed in Jiangdu, never to return.

Translated by Chua BC and edited by Emiko Kingswell

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