were constantly being invented by Emperor
Wu, who was obsessed with worship of the
empire’s deities. (Neither these deities nor his
devised rituals, however, were necessarily approved by orthodox-minded Confucian ritualists.) Li Yannian was apparently at his best in
the composition of “new fancy tunes” that represented a “permutation” of serious ritual music
(yayue, literally “elegant music”). He had modern, catholic, unconventional tastes: he not only
reinvented contemporary regional melodies but
also embraced foreign influences. He was famous for creating twenty-eight tunes inspired
by the Central Asian music of what were called
the Western Regions, astride the Silk Road.
Even when the music was lost in later times,
some of the tune titles endured and became
established titles in the poetic genre known as
yuefu, after the bureau.
At the peak of his career, Li Yannian would
“sleep and rise with the emperor” and had his
ear when recommending associates to offices.
But the Li family’s good fortune did not last
very long. Li Yannian’s sister died young, and the
emperor’s favor faded. When Li Yannian’s little
brother was caught having an affair with a palace
lady, both brothers were executed, and, history
tells us, “the entire family was exterminated.”
Stern Han moralists, including the Confu-
cian ritualists, must have resented Li Yannian’s
rise to stardom, his unorthodox musical cre-
ations, his sexual proximity to the emperor, and
his political influence. Rumors about his power
to bewitch the emperor with his musical gift had
begun early. Although contemporary sources in-
dicate that he was summoned to imperial audi-
ence only after the emperor became enamored
of his sister, the moralistic historian Ban Gu
claims that Li Yannian had enjoyed imperial fa-
vor before his sister did, and hints, not so subtly,
that Li had in fact manipulated the emperor’s
desire with his song—the only song attributed
to him whose lyrics have survived to this day:
In the north there is a fair lady,
She stands alone beyond compare.
She glances once, a city falls,
A kingdom falls when she glances again.
Surely you know that a lady so fair,
She for whom cities and kingdoms fall,
Will never be found again.
Emperor Wu reportedly listened to the song
in rapture and, after Li Yannian finished singing,
heaved a great sigh: “Can it be possible to find
such a fair lady in this world?” Thereupon Princess Pingyang, the emperor’s ever-solicitous sister, told him about Li Yannian’s sister. Emperor
Wu had her brought to him, found her to be indeed just as beautiful as described in Li Yannian’s
song, and became infatuated.
Ban Gu’s account portrays Lady Li as a
calculating woman who wanted to keep the emperor’s affections only in order to win favors for
her family. Li Yannian’s song is represented as a
skilled artist’s careful staging of his sister’s beauty,
an advertisement to arouse the emperor’s desire.
The beguiling words—Stands alone! Beyond compare! Will never be found again!—appealed to
the grandeur-loving and egotistic emperor. No
doubt the words were made even more powerful
by music and the castrato’s sublime voice.
But if this story is to be believed, then Emperor Wu would seem to have completely missed
a darker interpretation of the song, intimating
that cities and kingdoms can fall for such a fair
lady. The description echoes lines from the
Classic of Poetry: “A smart man constructs a city, / A
smart woman makes the city fall.” A wiser ruler
would have heard a different message.
In Chinese historiography, where the passing of moral judgment is considered the sacred
duty of a historian, and where the causality of
events is always represented in moral terms, Li
Yannian’s tragic ending must be seen not just as
a “fact” recorded by a dispassionate historian but
as a stern lesson to those born later. Despite Li
Yannian’s obvious gift and eminent competence
Music is a science, certainly, in which exists
sure and infallible knowledge.
—Aristides Quintilianus, c. 300