An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Feiyue 非樂

Sep 20, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Feiyue 非樂 "Against music" is a famous chapter of the Mohist collection Mozi 墨子, in which the author (presumably Mo Di 墨翟, c. 476-c. 390 BCE) attacks the lavish spendings for ritual and entertaining music of his times, the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). As all core chapters of the Mozi, there were originally three versions (corresponding to the three sub-schools of Mohism) of the Feiyue of which only the first one survives. Yet the differences between the three versions are generally very small.

Critique of musical performance can also be seen in other chapters of the collection Mozi, namely Sanbian 三辯, Qihuan 七患, Feiru 非儒 and Gongmeng 公孟. In the broad sense of the word, Mozi opposes all enjoyment of pleasure, including extravagant clothing, food, housing, and travelling; in the narrow sense, the Mohists opposed music, be it the bells and drums of the regional rulers, the flutes and zithers of their servicemen (shi dafu 士大夫), or even the jar-drums (lingfou 瓴缶) of the common folks. The main reasons are the fact that the sacred rulers of high antiquity, Yao 堯 and Shun 舜, had lived in grass-thatched huts and abstained from any prodigy – music "does not fit the cause of the sacred kings" (bu zhong shengwang zhi shi 不中聖王之事), and second, that music was of no practical use for the common people (bu zhong wanmin zhi li 不中萬民之利). Resources necessary to perform music would exploit and impoverish the people. Moreover, while musical entertainment became ever more widespread at the courts of the regional rulers, the tradition of the ancient venerated music at the royal court declined constantly and had thus lost any sense.

A benevolent ruler (renzhe 仁者) would have to analyse whether his policy would benefit the people or not, and had to abstain from personal enjoyments that would harm the people. In the chapter Feiru, the Mohists even attacked Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551-479 BCE), for whom music was an essential part of education and instruction because music had the power to stimulate morality, and thus had an integral function for the stabilisation of state and society. The Mohists could not see such a function in music, but interpreted it as a tool to "dull the minds of the people" (sheng wei shengyue yi yinyu min 盛為聲樂以淫愚民).

Chen Ying 陳瑛, Xu Qixian 許啟賢, eds. (1989). Zhongguo lunli da cidian 中國倫理大辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 415.
Ji Liankang 吉聯抗 (1989). "Mozi Feiyue 墨子·非樂", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Yinyue wudao 音樂 舞蹈 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), 469.
Li Chunqing 李春青 (1987). "Feiyue 非樂", in Wang Xiangfeng 王向峰, ed. Wenyi meixue cidian 文藝美學辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning daxue chubanshe), 775.
Nie Zhenbin 聶振斌 (1990). "Feiyue 非樂", in Li Zehou 李澤厚, Ru Xin 汝信, eds. Meixue baike quanshu 美學百科全書 (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe), 130.
Sun Xingqun 孫星群 (1996). "Feiyue 非樂", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Yishu 藝術卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 5.
Yang Yanxing 楊雁行 (1997). "Feiyue 非樂", in Men Kui 門巋, Zhang Yanjin 張燕瑾, eds. Zhonghua guocui da cidian 中華國粹大辭典 (Xianggang: Guoji wenhua chuban gongsi), 889.