The Obscure Zone In-Between: Early Chinese Theory on Empathy in Gu Yue Jing Zhuan

Art is prone to exert an empathetic power upon the audience by arousing their aesthetic senses. Yet where lies the source of art? Is there an instinctive source from human mind? Or an aesthetic element in a given object? These questions are modern thinking actually, but we can probably find an answer in early Chinese theories on Yue (Music) which plays a vital role in nurturing a person’s temperaments, virtues, and capacities to empathize.


This paper proposes to analyze the early Chinese theory on Yue (Music) in Gu Yue Jing Zhuan 古樂經傳, an official compilation of old texts on Yue in the Qing Dynasty. For the first part, this paper will present an overview of the ancient instruction on Yue, including virtues, aesthetic sensibility, and dancing; and the co-relations between Yue and rituals in early China. Furthermore, this paper will examine the musical theory on “empathy” closely, namely how a person is supposed to react to “matters” like a feather, or mountains, creatures, and even heavenly spirits. The sensibility of “empathy” is  thus subdivided into six categories, corresponding to six transitionary phases of Yue or music. As each phase of Yue is proceeding to the next, the ability to empathize with nature is also upgrading. Although the aesthetic zone between subject and matter is often perceived obscure, it is worth probing into as this paper endeavors to do.


  • East Asian Studies