Entertainment & Arts

Rare book offers clues to China's musical past

Xian Di Pipa Pu, reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, University of Cambridge Image copyright Presser
Image caption It is believed the book was printed in China around 1770

A book stored in Cambridge for the last two centuries has been identified as a rare record of early Chinese music.

The significance of the book, entitled Xian Di Pipa Pu, was recognised last month by a visiting Chinese scholar.

According to Professor Zhiwu Wu of the Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou, the book is a "rare volume of pre-modern Chinese musical notation".

The book was brought to England from China in the early 19th Century after surviving a Napoleonic naval skirmish.

Traditional music notation

It was in the possession of the Reverend James Inman when the merchant ship on which he was sailing encountered a French naval squadron off the Malaysian coast in February 1804.

Inman survived to tell the tale and donate his collection of Chinese books to St John's College in Cambridge, one of which has now been identified as a possibly unique collection of musical scores.

The book contains an introduction to three Chinese instruments related to the lute, flute and recorder, followed by 13 pieces of music using the traditional musical notation known as Gongche.

Its significance was identified by Dr Jian Yang, a Chinese scholar who said its survival offered "the chance to learn more about Chinese culture and music... after 210 years of silence".

A spokesman for St John's College said the materials are available for research purposes and would form part of future exhibitions.

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