The term qu 曲 is widely translated as "air" or "aria". The qu is a kind of song (or, without the melody, a poem) particlarly popular during the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) and ceases to be à la mode thereafter. It is quite comparable to the earlier ci 詞 style poems that were constructed on the base of one of about 350 musical airs with eight different tonal modes (diao 調), some of them are called "palace", like huangzhonggong 黃鐘宮 "Palace of the Yellow Bell", nanlügong 南呂宮 "Palace of the Southern Pipe", or shuangdiao 雙調 "double mode".
The verse of the qu is, like that of ci poetry, not equal in length, and the composer is free to add some padding words to the original melody. Every verse thus consists of base-words, padding words, and exclamatory interjections. The popular music of northern China during the rule of the Non-Chinese Liao 遼 (907-1125) and Jin 金 (1115-1234) dynasties was crucial for the development of qu airs. Additionally, the Chinese language underwent a great change with a simplification in the area of tonal pitches, and rhyme classes, making the old rhyme patterns superfluous, which had been very crucial for the older shi 詩 type poems. A third important reason for the upcoming of a new song type was the fact that under the Mongol rule, many intellectuals and literati renounced the civil service and made their lives by privatly gaining some income by writing poems and prose. They started including popular songs from the streets and taverns into their works and thereby supported a tendency that had already begun in the urban centres of the Song state 宋 (960-1279). Theatre and the songs performed by entertainers on markets and in the streets gradually became welcome also among the scholars and literati.
People of the upper class that engaged in writing the new style song created a high-class poetry style out of a street song pattern. Their poems are called sanqu 散曲 "scattered or isolated airs". The type of airs sung in the theatre is called xiqu 戲曲 "dramatic aria", a term also referring to the theatre play as a whole, like in the anthology Yuanquxuan 元曲選 "Selected Yuan operas". There are two different types of qu arias, first a single stanza type called xiaoling 小令. During the performance the poet or singer could repeat the song or parts of it (chongtou 套數 "da capo"), or he/she could combine two different airs in the same tonal mode (jiqu 集曲 or fandiao 犯調). The second type is the suite (taoshu 套數), a string of single-stanza arias of the same mode, which rhyme and are arranged according to a favored sequence pattern characteristic to the mode (see below a taoshu example by Ma Zhiyuan). All different kinds of qu, single stanza and suites, poetical lyrics and dramaticas arias, were sung on the stage or in teahouses.
The anthology Yuanqu sanbai shou zhuxi 元曲三百首注析 "Three Hundred Yuan qu arias with commentary" was composed by a scholar called Ren Ne 任訥 (Ren Zhongmin 任中敏) during late Qing period 清 (1644-1911). He was also the compiler of a collectanea of 15 books on older and contemporary qu arias, the Sanqu congcan shiwu zhong 散曲叢刊十五種 (Taibei: Taiwan Zhonghua shuju, 1964), which includes:
- Yangchun baixue 陽春白雪, 5+5+1 juan, comp. by Yang Chaoying 楊朝英 (Yuan)
- Yuefu qunyu 樂府群玉, 5+1 juan, comp. by Hu Cunshan 胡存善 (Yuan)
- Dongli yuefu 東籬樂府, 1 juan, by Ma Zhiyuan 馬致遠 (Yuan)
- Mengfu sanqu 夢符散曲, 2 juan, by Qiao Ji 喬吉
- Xiaoshan yuefu 小山樂府, 6 juan, by Zhang Kejiu 張可久
- Suan-Gan yuefu 酸甜樂府, 2 juan, incl. Suanzhai yuefu 酸齋樂府 by Guan Yunshi 貫雲石 and Ganzhai yuefu 甜齋樂府 by Xu Zaisi 徐再思
- Pandong yuefu 沜東樂府, 2+1 juan, by Kang Hai 康海
- Wang Xilou xiansheng yuefu 王西樓先生樂府, 1 juan, by Wang Pan 王磐
- Chuichuangrong 唾窗絨, 1 juan, by Shen Shi 沈仕
- Haifushantang cigao 海浮山堂詞稿, 4 juan, by Feng Weimin 馮惟敏
- Huayingji 花影集, 4 juan, by Shi Shaoxin 施紹莘
- Qingren sanqu xuankan 清人散曲選刊, by Zhu Yizun 朱彝尊 et al.
- Zuo ci shi fa shuzheng 作詞十法疏證, 1 juan, by Ren Ne
- Sanqu gailun 散曲概論, 1 juan, by Ren Ne
- Quxue 曲諧, 4 juan, by Ren Ne
Source: Zhongguo da baike quanshu, Zhongguo lishi
Translated by .
Han Guanqing (1230-1300): mode shuangdiao, tune "Drunken when the east wind blows"
Very near is the sky, like touching the earth north and south, but in a split second the moon will miss the flying petals.
While our hands hold the cup or farewell, tears fill our eyes.
I just heard the word "Take care and don't be hasty", but I can't stand my grieving sorrow.
"Have a good journey, before your eyes lie ten thousand miles."
Lu Zhi (1235-1314): Staying at the post station of Handan (mode nanlü, tune "Book of golden letters")
A dream (of richness) on the way to Handan - the second time I have come to this city.
It's not that a hermit's life demands a high price -
but from time to time mocking about myself, I cannot give up thoughts about my undeserved reputation.
No wonder I was shocked to see my hairs, white like frost just over night.
Ma Zhiyuan (1250-1321): Writing with Lu (Zhi) in a far recluse at West Lake (mode shuangdiao, tune "Water Fairy")
Springtime wind - untamed horses among the people at the five (Han) burial mounds; warm sun over the West Lake in the third month; and the tunes of flutes and zithers wandering over the water just to the oriol flowers in the city.
No unknown tunes are sounding here: well-suited songs with suitable wine and fitting poems.
Rain passing the hills knits the black eyebrows, willow fluffs like smoke among her silken temples - this scenery is just like the beauty of Xishi, when she awakes after a long sleep.
Zhang Kejiu (1270-1349): On the way through Kuo(cang) Mountains (mode zhonglü, tune "Welcoming fairy guests")
Clouds proceeding, tiny grass; whose hermit's hut is lying in this remote mountain area?
Cold-smoking water, precipitous creek paths; half rolled up the green curtain of an inn - the only plum blossom hut five miles around.
Qiao Ji (1270-1345): A rhapsody for Li Renzhong at the Leisure Recluce (mode shuangdiao, tune "Water fairy")
After passing a turbulent place full of joy, I draw back, take farewell from my bustling office for leisure, a busy throat cries for a pause.
I pick up my bamboo rods that have been lying on the stairs, and in my dreaming soul I know how to break the dream of Handan's (richness).
Although yesterday was the same like today, although this challenge is the same like that, don't you see that birds always know their way home?
Gao Ming (1300-1370): Song of a lonely wife (mode shangdiao, tune "Golden threads hanging from the Wutong trees")
Bashful I look at the flowers in my mirror; so sad I'm unable to be patient any longer; while my eyebrows are getting thinner, I am hesitating - what husband should I call to paint them for me?
My bitterest soul flies far around the horizon, as I cannot but believe that my hair is growing white with all these years.
Rosy cheeks since oldest time have an unrespectful fate; but we cannot hate the eastwind, the nature!
When nobody is in my room, I hiddenly shed so many tears over my lute.
I hate the day when I got to know my husband; so wholly I poured out my grieving heart.
Zhang Kejiu: Thoughts in a boudoir (mode zhonglü, tune "Goats on a hill")
Open and loose her spiral headdress, the warm fragrance still upon her bedcover.
Close my spring boudoir, cause if you wake me up, my spring dreams are destroyed.
Like flying willow fluffs, my sweet maid comes in, and with a "Snow come down, and bring us luck!" she wakes me up inmidst a perfect dream.
Who? Isn't is wonderful? Oh, it's you!
Ma Zhiyuan: Suite Autumn thoughts (mode shuangdiao, tune "Ships going by night")
(tune "Ships going by night") A life of hundred years is just like a dream of a butterfly (compare the Zhuangzi anecdote) -
move back your head to stand so many things!
Today the spring begins, from morning on the flowers greet;
let's empty our cups of wine before the lights go out.
(tune "Qiao Muzha") Think of the palaces of Qin and Han; all of them are pastures now for cows and sheep -
and if not, the fisherman and woodcutters would have nothing to talk about.
Overgrown the gravestones, broken the steles, and unreadable the snake-like (words) on them.
(tune "Celebrating and propagating peace") Fallen into fox holes and rabbit burrows, so many heroes!
All empires, if Wei, if Jin, if Shu or Wu (Three Kingdoms), are cut along their waist and gone away.
(tune "Wind blows away plum blossoms") Heaven taches you behaving well - never too wasteful, and after a while, you'll have good days and peaceful nights.
If then your heart should be like steel, you'll never miss a rich and joyful life.
(tune "Wind between pine trees") Before your eyes, the sun is setting fast, just like a cart is running down the hill.
No matter if your hair is getting white, you better wear your shoes when you go to bed.
Make easy your life like the cocoo, don't load too much upon your back.
(tune "Dispelling never ends")
Glory and names will be over, yes and no will have an end.
The red dust does not be stirring up your entrance door; green trees stand near the roof and cover it; and the blue hills are filling the breach in your wall.
Bamboo fences and a thatched hut.
(tune "Leaving the pavilion, ending the banquet") When the crickets stop to sing, and sleep, the rooms are quiet, but when the cocks are crowing loud, all the ten thousand things do never rest; the strive for fame and glory, when will it end?
Look at the ants, working and making, a row of soldiers; whirling and twisting, the bees make honey; higgledy-piggledy flies sucking blood.
Duke Pei in a green wilderness hall, and magistrate Tao Yuanming in the white lotus hermitage.
When the autumn comes, they loved to do: plucking yellow flowers with the dew; cooking purple crabs within the frost; stewing red leafs with warmed-up wine.
The cups a man can drink all have an end - how many spring festivals will we see?
Instruct your children never to forget: "If Master Donghai (Kong Rong) visits you, say you were drinking only at the eastern fence in the morning."