The Sho of Japan and the Kou of China

by Helena Heath

National character comes out in a curious way in the music of the people, and the whistling of the children as they pass along the streets of China and Japan shows a marked difference between the races. The proud, shy Chinese wants nothing to satisfy his ears but the weird melodies of his own land, whilst to the cosmopolitan Japanese the songs of the world are welcome, and the newest jingle of Paris or London or New York mingles with the airs of Italian or German Opera. Japanese ears are curiously true in catching up airs, and they can imitate with great fidelity.

The national music of Japan finds a place in its mythology, and its origin is ascribed to the Goddess of the Sun, Amaterasu by name. She, thinking herself affronted by her fellow divinities, betook herself to a cavern in the mountains, and declined to come out. Finding the world gloomy without her warmth and radiance, the gods tried every possible form of inducement to make her emerge; but without success, until some original genius hit upon the happy idea of musical sounds, which so enchanted the angry goddess that indignation gave place to curiosity, and she came out to listen, when gods and men once more revelled in her brightness.

Learned Japanese have recently declared Hindostan to have been the cradle of their national music, whereas it was formerly supposed to have been brought from China; certainly both instruments and the music played on them are much alike in these two countries.

In both countries blind men take a large share in performances. They form unions, much after the fashion of our Trades Unions and Benefit Clubs, and have officers to look after the general interests as well as to see that each member receives a fair amount of support. The chief is a very important person, and has great power over his inferiors. Every member of the Guild is bound to work at some trade beside music, and to turn over all his earnings to the Treasurer.

The Sho. The Sho.
The Kou. The Kou.

Like music itself, this Japanese method of providing for the blind has a mythological origin. Teki, a favourite prince, was killed in battle, it is said, whilst fighting Joritomo, the Japanese god of war. His general was taken prisoner at the same time, and his captor treated him so well and kindly that, unwilling to seem ungrateful, and yet unable to endure the sight of the hand which had killed his beloved master, he put out his own eyes, and presented them to Joritomo, who, delighted with such courage and affection, set him at liberty. We, having heard and read both of the magnificent bravery of the Japanese soldiers in the late war as well as of their noble and humane treatment of their prisoners, may see in this story a proof that these virtues are hereditary and instinctive in the race. Returning to his own province the blind general sought for new worlds to conquer. He turned musician, and gathered a large following of persons similarly afflicted, finally forming them into a Society of Blind Musicians, and giving it the name of 'Teki,' his dead master.

The instrument called Sho is blown with the mouth, and corresponds to the Chinese Cheng or Mouth Organ. The pipes are made of wood, with reed mouthpieces, and the notes are made by stopping the holes with the fingers. In some ways the construction is like that of a harmonium, but it is much more troublesome to play, and the performer, having to use his own breath to make the sounds, cannot sing at the same time. Unlike a harmonium also, it is difficult to keep in tune, and Miss Bird, a well-known traveller, tells of a concert at which the performer was obliged to be continually warming his instrument at a brazier of coals placed near. Some years ago a Japanese Commission was appointed to consider which of the national instruments were most suitable for use in schools; it rejected the Sho because its manufacture was troublesome and its tuning even worse.

Kou is the Chinese word for drum, of which many kinds are used in China, Japan, and Burmah. Eastern drums differ from those of Europe in having their heads nailed on, not kept movable as ours are for tuning purposes. The body is usually made of sandalwood, cedar, or mulberry wood, or else of baked clay. They are used for many purposes: on State occasions, to tell the hour during the night, to scare away evil spirits as well as to invite visits from good spirits, and to play the 'Amens' at the end of verses in the Confucian services. Tiny drums are also carried by pedlars when hawking their wares. Etiquette insists that on any occasion when the Emperor is present all drums must be muffled by being rolled in folds of cloth.