CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC
Street musicians Impromptu traditional and regional music can be heard in local teahouses, parks and theaters. Some Buddhist and Taoist temples feature daily music-accompanied rituals. The government has sent musicologists around the country to collect pieces for the Anthology of Chinese Folk Music. Professional musicians work primarily through conservatories. Top music schools include the Shanghai College of Theater Arts, the Shanghai Conservatory, the Xian Conservatory, the Beijing Central Conservatory .
Chinese music appears to date back to the dawn of Chinese civilization, and documents and artifacts provide evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou dynasty (1027- 221 B.C.). The Imperial Music Bureau, first established in the Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.), was greatly expanded under the Han emperor Wu Di (140-87 B.C.) and charged with supervising court music and military music and determining what folk music would be officially recognized. In subsequent dynasties, the development of Chinese music was strongly influenced by foreign music, especially that of Central Asia.[Source: Library of Congress]
“Chinese vocal music has traditionally been sung in a thin, nonresonant voice or in falsetto and is usually solo rather than choral. All traditional Chinese music is melodic rather than harmonic. Instrumental music is played on solo instruments or in small ensembles of plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes, and various cymbals, gongs, and drums. The scale has five notes. [Ibid]
Some retired people meet every morning in a local park to sing patriotic songs. A retired shipbuilder who leads one such group in Shanghai told the New York Times, “Singing keeps me healthy.” Children are "taught to like music with small intervals and subtly changing pitches.”
Perhaps the best place to see traditional Chinese music is at a funeral. Traditional Chinese funeral bands often play through the night before an open-air bier in a courtyard full of mourners in white burlap. The music is heavy with percussion and is carried by the mournful melodies of the suona, a double-reed instrument. A typical funeral band in Shanxi Province has two suona players amd and four percussionists.
Good Websites and Sources: PaulNoll.com paulnoll.com ; Library of Congress loc.gov/cgi-bin ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) List of Sources /mclc.osu.edu ; Samples of Chinese Music ingeb.org ; Music from Chinamusicfromchina.org ; Internet China Music Archives /music.ibiblio.org ; Chinese-English Music Translations cechinatrans.demon.co.uk ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com
Links in this Website: CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; LANG LANG, YO YO MA, CHINESE WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSICIAN Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE POP MUSIC Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE ROCK, PUNK AND HIP HOP Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DANCE Factsanddetails.com/China ; PEKING OPERA, CHINESE OPERA AND THEATER Factsanddetails.com/China
Early Flutes in China
The oldest playable flute, a seven-holed instrument carved 8000 years ago from the hollow wing bone of a large bird, was unearthed in Jiahu, an archeological site in the Yellow River Valley in central China. The flutes were found in the late 1980s but were not described in the West until 1999. [Source: Zhang Juzhong and Lee Yun Kuem, Natural History magazine, September 2005]
Thirty-three flutes—including around 20 intact flutes and several broken or fragmented ones and several more unfinished ones—have been found at Jiahu. All are between seven and 10 inches in length and are made of wing bones from the red-crowned crane, a bird that stands five feet tall and has a wing span of eight feet and is famous for its courtship dance. It seems plausible that ancient flutes were also made from bamboo. Ancient myths described bamboo flutes but no ancient ones have been found in all likelihood because bamboo decays more quickly than bone and doesn’t survive burial for thousands of years like bone does.
The flutes were cut, smoothed at the ends, polished and finally drilled with a row of holes on one side. One of the broken flutes was repaired by drilling fourteen tiny holes along the breakage lines and then tying the section together with string.
The flutes have between five and eight holes. They play in the so-called pentatonic scale, in which octaves are divided into five notes—the basis of many kinds of music, including Chinese folk music and rock n' roll. The fact that the flute has a scale indicates that its original players played music rather than just single notes.
The flutes were probably used in some kind of ceremonial capacity but may have been played for entertainment. The flutes were found along with evidence early wine making (See Below), which suggests that the people who played them could have been a festive bunch.
In June 2009, a 35,000-year-old bird bone flute found in a cave in Tuebingen, Germany was declared the world’s oldest flute.
Types of Flutes in China
Music made by ancient flutes
Archeologists have divided the flutes found in Jiahu into three groups: 1) the early phase, those between 9,000 and 8,600 years old; 2) the middle phase, those between 8,600 and 8,200 years old; 3) the late phase, those between 8,200 and 7,800 years old.
Only two flutes from the early phase were recovered, both from the grave of an adult male. One has five holes and can produce six distinct pitches. The other has five holes and can produce seven distinct pitches, including two notes repeated an octave apart.
About two dozen flutes from the middle phase were unearthed. Fifteen are intact or could be reconstructed. One has two holes. The others all have seven holes and can play eight pitches. Despite some difference in the range of pitches the intervals between them are similar.
Seven flutes from the late phase were unearthed. One of them can still played. These have eight holes and pitch intervals close together and are capable of a variety of melodic structures. A flute from the late phase found 80 miles from Jiahu in Zhinghanzhai has tens holes, staggered on two parallel lines with the intervals between them close to half steps.
Notes from the playable flute have been recorded and analyzed. The flute produces a rough scale covering the modern octave, beginning close to the second A above middle C, and appears to have been tuned—a tiny hole was drilled near the seventh hole, with effect of raising that hole's tone from roughly G-sharp to A, completing the octave.
Ancient Chinese Music
According to Chinese texts, music began round 2700 B.C., when Huang Di, China’s legendary first emperor, ordered bamboo pipes of the right length to be cut so he could imitate the song of the phoenix.
Han-era musicians and dancers
Confucian classic from the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1030-221 B.C.)— Book of Rites (Li Chi) and Book of Songs (Shijing)—has sections on the philosophy of music and records folk songs, eulogies to the emperor, eulogies for princes and sacrificial rites.
To early Confucians music had political and moralistic functions and was regarded as a pursuit of virtuous men. In the 6th century B.C., Confucius said that music and dance were such important elements of political life they should not be squandered on entertainment. According to one story, Confucius found himself at a festival with singers and jesters and declared, "Commoners who beguile their lords deserve to die. Let them be punished!" The party was immediately stopped and the performers were killed.
Confucius put a great emphasis on music as an accompaniment for rites. According to the Confucian Book of Rites: “Music issues from within, the rites act from the outside. Serenity is the result of music issuing from within; refinement is the result of the rites acting from outside. Great music must be simple; great notes must be easy. When music is it at its best there is no resentment, when the rites are at their best we do not contend.”
In 120 B.C., during the Han dynasty, a bureau of music was established that presided over both festive music performed at festivals and banquets and solemn music performed at ceremonial occasions. Folk songs from this period were recorded and preserved in imperial archives. Although the music has been lost some of the words have survived and the way that phrases are repeated indicates the songs were performed by choral singers.
2,500 year-old bells of Marquis Yi
Ancient Musical Instruments in China
In 1977 an extraordinary 2,500-year-old tomb was found near the city of Suzou in Hubei Province. The four-chamber structure contained the remains of a marquis and the largest cache of ancient musical instruments ever found along with 21 sacrificed women (perhaps wives, concubines, or musicians), chariots, and weapons.
The musical instruments included zithers, bamboo flutes, pan pipes, bronze drums, stone chimes and a set of 64 cast-bronze bells in a lacquered wooden frame. The bells covered a range of five octaves, each with 12 semitones. The largest bell weighed 485 pounds. It is engraved with two elephants engaged in a greeting ritual. Such bells were used temple fairs, burials and other ritualistic events.
Sheila Melvin wrote in the International Herald Tribune, "The chime-bells hang from a three-level frame made of lacquered wood and copper. The frame is supported by stunning bronze posts shaped like warriors with muscled arms, loose robes and daggers sheathed at their waists. The bells, frames and hooks have 3,755 inscriptions that provide hanging and assembly instructions and reveal an elaborate theory of music...So sacred were the chime-bells that their seams were sealed with human blood and their inaugural performance was a state ceremony of the most importance."
Traditional Chinese Music
Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker: “With its far-flung provinces and myriad ethnic groups” China “possesses a store of musical traditions that rivals in intricacy the proudest products of Europe, and go back much deeper in time. Holding to core principals in the face of change, traditional Chinese music is more ‘classical’ than anything in the West...In many of Beijing’s public spaces, you see amateurs playing native instruments, especially the dizi, or bamboo flute, and the ehru, or two-stringed fiddle. They perform mostly for their own pleasure, not for money. But its surprisingly difficult to find professional performances in strict classical style.”
In the Li Chi or Book of Rites it is written, “The music of a well-ruled state is peaceful and joyous...that of a country in confusion is full of resentment...and that of a dying country is mournful and pensive.” All three, and others too, are found in modern China.
Traditional Chinese classical music songs have titles like Spring Flowers in the Moonlight Night on the River. One famous traditional Chinese piece called Ambush from Ten Sides is about an epic battle that took place 2,000 years ago and is usually performed with the pipa as the central instrument.
The Cantonese music from the 1920s and traditional music merged with jazz from the 1930s has been described as worth listened to, but is largely unavailable on recordings because it has been labeled by the government as "unhealthy and "pornographic." After 1949 anything labeled as "feudal" (most kinds of traditional music) was banned.
Music in the dynastic periods, See Dance
Musicology of Traditional Chinese Music
As odd as it may sound Chinese music is closer tonally to European music than it is to music from India and Central Asia, the sources of many Chinese musical instruments. The 12 notes isolated by the ancient Chinese corresponds with the 12 notes picked out by the ancient Greeks. The main reason that Chinese music sounds strange to Western ears is that it lacks harmony, a key element of Western music, and it uses scales of five notes where as Western music uses eight-note scales.
In Western music an octave consists of 12 pitches. Played in succession they are called the chromatic scale and seven of these notes are chosen to form a normal scale. The 12 pitches of an octave are also found in Chinese music theory. There are also seven notes in a scale but only five are considered important. In Western music and Chinese music theory a scale structure can begin at any one of the 12 notes.
Classical music played with a qin (a stringed instrument similar to a Japanese koto) was a favorite of emperors and the imperial court. According to the Rough Guide of World Music, despite its importance to Chinese painters and poets, most Chinese have never heard a qin and there are only 200 or so qin players in the whole country, most of them in conservatories. Famous qin pieces include Autumn Moon in the Han Palace and Flowing Streams. In some works silence is considered as important sound.
Classical Chinese scores indicate tuning, fingering and articulations but fail to specify rhythms, resulting in a variety of different interpretations depending on the performer and the school.
Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments
A Yueqin By one count there are 400 different musical instruments, many of them associated with specific ethnic groups, still used in China. Describing the instruments he encountered in 1601 the Jesuit missionary Father Matteo Ricco wrote: there were “chimes of stone, bells, gongs, flutes like twigs on which a bird was perched, brass clappers, horns and trumpets, consolidated to resemble beasts, monstrous freaks of musical bellows, from of every dimensions, wooden tigers, with row of teeth on their backs, gourds and ocarinas".
Traditional Chinese musical string instruments include the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), ruan (or moon guitar, a four stringed instrument used in Peking Opera), banhu (a string instrument with a sound box made from coconut), yueqin (four-stringed banjo), huqin (two-stringed viola), pipa (four-stringed pear-shaped lute), guzheng (zither), and qin (a seven-string zither similar to Japanese koto).
Traditional Chinese flutes and wind musical instruments include the sheng (traditional mouth organ), sanxuan (three-stringed flute), dongxiao (vertical flute), dizi (horizontal flute), bangdi (piccolo), xun (a clay flute that resembles a beehive), laba (a trumpet that imitates bird songs), suona (oboe-like ceremonial instrument), and the Chinese jade flute. There are also daluo (ceremonial gongs) and bells.
The guqin, or seven-stringed zither, is regarded as the aristocrat of Chinese classical music. It is more than 3,000 years. Its repertory dates back to the first millennium. Among those who played it were Confucius and the famous Chinese poet Li Bai.
An ehru The erhu is probably the best known of the 200 or so Chinese stringed instruments. It gives a lot of Chinese music it high-pitched, winy, sing-songy melody. Played with a horsehair bow, it is made of a hardwood such as rosewood and has a sound box covered with python skin. It has neither frets nor a fingerboard. The musician creates different pitches by touching the string at various positions along a neck that looks like a broomstick.
The erhu is around 1,500 years old and is thought to have been introduced to China by nomads from the steppes of Asia. Featured prominently in the music for the film The Last Emperor, it has traditionally been played in songs with no singer and often plays the melody as if it were singer, producing rising, falling and quivering sounds. See Musicians Below.
The jinghu is another Chinese fiddle. It is smaller and produces a rawer sound. Made from bamboo and the skin of the five-step viper, it has three silk strings and is played with a horsehair bow. Featured in much of the music from the film Farewell My Concubine, it has not received as much attention is the erhu because it has traditionally not been a solo instrument
Traditional Chinese Music Today
Nanguan (16th century love ballads), narrative music, silk-and-bamboo folk music and xiangsheng (comic opera-like dialogues) are still performed by local ensembles, impromptu teahouse gatherings and traveling troupes.
The soundtrack music from The Last Emperor, Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Zeming's Swan Song and Chen Kaige's Yellow Earth feature traditional Chinese music that Westerners might find appealing.
The 12 Girls Band—a group of attractive young Chinese women who played rousing music on traditional instruments, highlighting the erhu—were big hits in Japan in the early the 2000s. They appeared frequently on Japanese television and their album Beautiful Energy sold 2 million copies in the first year after its release. Many Japanese signed for up for erhu lessons.
Traditional Chinese Musicians
Yueqin player Traditional music can be seen at the Temple of Sublime Mysteries in Fuzhou, the Xian Conservatory, the Beijing Central Conservatory and in the village of Quijaying (south of Beijing). Authentic folk music can be heard in teahouses around Quanzhou and Xiamen on the Fujian coast. Nanguan is particularly popular in Fujian and Taiwan. It is often performed by female singers accompanied by end-blown flutes and plucked and bowed lutes.
The erhu virtuoso Chen Min is one of the most famous players of classical Chinese music. She has collaborated with Yo Yo Ma and worked with a number of famous Japanese pop groups. She has said appeal of the erhu “is that the sound is much closer to the human voice and matches the sensibilities found deep in the hearts of oriental people...The sound enters the hearts easily and feels like it reacquaints us with our fundamental spirits.”
Jiang Jian Hua played the erhu on the Last Emperor soundtrack. A master of the violin as well, she has worked with the Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa, who was moved to tears the first time he heard her play as a teenager. The Last Emperor won an Academy Award for best soundtrack as did Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, composed by Hunan-born Tan Dun.
Liu Shaochun is credited with keeping music of the guqin alive in the Mao era. Wu Na is regarded a one the best living performers of the instrument. On Liu’s music Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker: “It is a music of intimate addresses and subtle power that is able to suggest immense spaces, skittering figures and arching melodies” that “give way to sustained, slowly decaying tones and long, meditative pauses.”
The Twelve Girls Band is comprised of a dozen beautiful women in tight red dresses. Four of them stand at the front of the stage and play ehru, while two play flutes and others play yangqi (Chinese hammered dulcimers), guzheng (21-string zither) and pipa (plucked five-string Chinese guitar). The Twelve Girls Band generated a lot of interest in traditional Chinese music in Japan. Only after they became successful in Japan did people become interested in them in their homeland. In 2004 they did a tour of 12 cities in the United States and performed before sold out audiences.
Wang Hing is a musical archeologist from San Francisco who has traveled widely across China recording masters of traditional music playing ethnic instruments.
Image Sources: Nolls http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html , except flutes (Natural History magazine with artwork by Tom Moore); Naxi orchestra (UNESCO) and Mao-era poster (Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/)
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated October 2012