Gishi gakufu

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The Gishi gakufu (lit. "Musical Notations of the Gi Family") was a woodblock-printed book published in Kyoto in 1768, containing lyrics for fifty musical pieces in the style of the Ming Dynasty. It was compiled by Gi Shimei and his students, with the help of Okazaki Romon (aka Taira Nobuyoshi), and was widely circulated, with the intention of allowing people to study and practice Ming music on their own.

Gi Shimei was the great-grandson of Gi Shien (aka Wei Zhiyan), a musician from Fujian province who fled the Manchu invasion of China to settle in Nagasaki in 1672. Shien is traditionally credited with first introducing "Ming music" into Japan, and is known to have performed before the Emperor in 1673. Generations later, Gi Shimei trained over one hundred students over the course of his career, and performed before emperors, retired emperors, and court nobles on a number of occasions. According to the diaries of nobles such as Yanagiwara Motomitsu, Ming music became quite popular in Kyoto around that time; the Foreword to the Gishi gakufu says the same, and that the popularity of Ming music, and familiarity with it, was not limited to the elites but spread among the commoners as well. The extent to which this is true, however, remains unclear.

The book contains lyrics for fifty pieces, selected by Okazaki Romon from a broader corpus of over two hundred, compiled by Shimei's students from the broad repertoire he had introduced them to. Okazaki's Afterword in the Gishi gakufu indicates that the remaining 150+ pieces might be published later, but if they were, no extant copies nor references to their publication are known. The book also contains a Foreword by Ryû Sôro, an Introduction by Seki Nanrai, and a Postscript by Miyazaki Inpo, in addition to Okazaki's Afterword.

The book represents a significant advancement and tool for studying music in the Edo period. Music was traditionally taught purely by oral transmission, i.e. without any written notation, and continued to be taught in that fashion through the 20th century and in some cases is still taught in such a fashion today. Yet, a book such as this provided a valuable tool for students to be able to read the lyrics and the music, and to keep that as a record from which to practice. Lyrics in the book are accompanied by katakana pronunciation guides, which also incidentally are helpful to scholars today seeking to understand Ming period pronunciation. And though pitches, i.e. the musical notes themselves, are not indicated in the printed volume, blank space is intentionally left for students to be able to write in the pitches next to the accompanying lyrics. Some surviving copies of the book today contain precisely such handwritten notes, using the kôshaku-fu (C: gōng chě pǔ) notation system standard in both traditional Chinese and Japanese music, employing kanji such as 工 (J: , C: gōng) and 尺 (J: shaku, C: chě) to indicate instrument-specific finger positions.


  • Britten Dean, “Mr. Gi’s Music Book: An Annotated Translation of Gi Shimei’s Gi-shi gakufu,” Monumenta Nipponica 37:3 (1982), 317-332.
  • Gi Shimei, et al., Gishi gakufu 魏氏楽譜, Kyoto: Geikôdô 芸香堂, 1768. University of Tokyo Kokugo Kenkyûshitsu collection, call no. 4K 8.
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