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Timeline: Li Yannian, House Of Flying Daggers

Emperor Wudi was a warrior king. Under his rule, the Western Han Empire grew to a strength it would not see again for nearly a millennium.
U.S. Public Domain
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Emperor Wudi was a warrior king. Under his rule, the Western Han Empire grew to a strength it would not see again for nearly a millennium.

Let's continue our exploration through Lewis Holmes book The Mystery of Music and travel to ancient China around 100 BCE. Listen to the words of this beautiful ode written so long ago...

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Beautiful lady in a northern land, standing alone, none in the world like her, a single glance and she upsets a city, a second glance and she upsets the state! Care not whether cities fall or empires collapse, such beauty never comes around twice.

This is a translation of “The Beauty Song,” which was used quite extensively in the 2003 Chinese film House of Flying Daggers. The music and the text of this ode date back to the Han Dynasty, over 2000 years ago, written by the Director of the Imperial Bureau of Music, Li Yannian.

Li’s story begins in a dark place. As a young man he was convicted of a serious crime. We don’t know what it was but he was sentenced to castration and then forced labor in the royal kennels. However, his musical talents earned him his ticket out of the dog house. Even while he was serving the dogs, he was still asked to appear and perform his original songs in the court of Emperor Wudi.

Li Yannian’s “The Beauty Song” caught the emperor’s imagination. Wudi asked if such a woman could exist in real life and not just in poetry. The princess, Wudi’s sister, told him that she knew of such a woman; a dancer in her service. Upon seeing this young dancer, Emperor Wudi took her as his fourth wife, giving her the name Lady Li. It turns out that Lady Li was the sister of the composer/musician Li Yannian. So as she ascended to royalty, she brought her brother along as well.

Wudi was a warrior king. Under his rule, the Western Han Empire grew to a strength it would not see again for nearly a millennium. Wudi was also a champion of the arts. He expanded the Imperial Bureau of Music and placed Li Yannian as its director. The bureau existed to uphold the Confucian ideal, that good, proper music improves the moral fiber of the population. The Emperor was also quite superstitious, with an intense desire to gain immortality or at least, life after death. He wanted to bring the religious songs of the masses into his nightly sacrifices to Heaven and Earth. Li Yannian collected and arranged folk songs from across the empire for use in these religious ceremonies.

Li was known for his beautiful voice, along with his talents as a composer and arranger. Modern research suggests that Li Yannian and his sister, Lady Li, were both favorite lovers of the emperor. One ancient historian wrote that “Day and night he (Li) was by the emperor’s side.” Alas, this arrangement was short-lived. Lady Li bore a son to emperor Wudi but later died of complications. After her death, the Li family fell out of favor. Accounts vary, but Li Yannian and his brother were both accused of having affairs with women in the court and were sentenced to death. There are some scholars who believe this was the work of the cunning Empress Wei Zifu, Wudi’s second wife.

Learn more about Li Yannian in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

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