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Ling Lun (LIHNG-lewn) is mentioned in Chinese literary tradition as an official in the court of the mythological Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. Although the existence of either person has not been verified by archaeological evidence, the ancient Chinese classical texts include them near the very beginning of recorded history. They could be thought of as representing a period of transition from nomadic hunting-and-gathering societies to agricultural cities in Neolithic China.

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According to the Lüshi Chunqiu (compiled third century b.c.e.; commonly known in English as Lord Lü’s Spring and Autumn), an ancient compendium of natural philosophy, Ling Lun was ordered by Huangdi to establish the central pitch to which the nation’s music would be tuned. He traveled west to a valley north of the Tibetan Himalayas and selected stalks of bamboo of equal thickness. He chose a length of 3.9 inches (9.9 centimeters), and the pitch produced by blowing into this pipe became the standard pitch. Starting with this note, he observed the singing of six male and six female phoenixes (mythical birds that symbolized the harmony of marriage) and chose the lengths of eleven other bamboo pipes, added to the first, to reflect the birds’ beautiful voices. In this way, the cosmic male-female duality (yang and yin) was represented in a division of the octave into twelve parts.


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When Ling Lun returned, he cast bronze bells to these pitches, and all of the ceremonial instruments were tuned to these frequencies, thus ensuring that the emperor’s reign united earth and heaven and beginning a fascination with tuning that was inherited by China’s future rulers.

Additional Resources

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Liang, Mingyue. Music of the Billion. New York: Heinrichshofen, 1985.

Loewe, Michael, and Edward L. Shaughnessy, eds. The Cambridge History of Ancient China from the Origins of Civilization to 221 b.c.e. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in Ancient China. Vol. 4. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

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