Han-era musicians and dancers
J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “China provides some of the earliest traces of music making. These are mainly in the form of well-preserved musical instruments, the tangible evidence of music. Over several millennia, musical instruments from regional indigenous traditions as well as from India and Central and West Asia were assimilated into the mainstream of Chinese music. Some of the most ancient instruments have been retained, transformed, or revived throughout the ages and many are in common use even today, testifying to a living legacy of a durable art. This legacy is frequently celebrated in the visual arts of China, documenting rituals and celebrations, or as status symbols of those whose lives were enhanced by the resonate sounds of instruments made from hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk, and bamboo. [Source:J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“ Eight thousand years ago, people in central China delighted to the airy timber of tonally precise flutes. Made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, these remarkable Neolithic end-blown flutes, the world's oldest playable instruments, are witnesses to a dynamic musical tradition that was astonishingly sophisticated both acoustically and musically. Unearthed in Jiahu, Henan Province, in 1986 and preserved in the Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou, the flutes, known as gudi, possess five to eight perfectly spaced and fastidiously drilled fingerholes. These rare instruments clearly document the maker's hand in applying acoustic accuracy in the service of music. It is believed that the flutes played a role in ritual as music was often connected to cosmology and the stability of the state. \^/

“In the period between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago, Chinese rulers constructed elaborate tombs containing weapons, vessels, and remains of servants and, in some cases, full ensembles of musical instruments such as stone chimes (known today as qing), ovoid clay ocarinas (xun, 2005.14), and drums. In addition to these instruments, Shang-dynasty finds (ca. 1600–ca. 1066 B.C.) include beautifully decorated dual-toned bronze bells with and without clappers (ling and nao, 49.136.10), barrel-shaped drums (gu), and bronze drums. Hints as to the use of these instruments were inscribed on small pieces of bone (oracle bones) dating from the fourteenth to the twelfth century B.C. These pictographs make reference to ritual dance and music and those depicting instruments are easily equated with modern Chinese characters. \^/

“Zhou-dynasty musical ensembles (11th–3rd century B.C.) contained highly complex and varied instruments. Orchestras consisting of exceptionally decorated instruments, notably one discovered in 1978 in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of the former Zeng state (Hubei Province, 5th century B.C.), reveal an astonishing understanding of the interplay between physics, acoustics, metallurgy, and design. Some 125 instruments, including sets of tuned bells and stone slabs suspended from ornate tiered stands, transverse flutes, bamboo panpipes, mouth organs producing several pitches at once (sheng), zithers, and drums comprise an ensemble that was the most sophisticated and complex of its time.”\^/

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

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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.

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.

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “Looking at the music in China 500 years B.C. we already meet most of the typical elements of traditional Chinese music: The wind and string instruments emancipated in order to present a more steady melodic sound against the percussive elements of the metal and stone instruments. If we include two other main instruments from later centuries, the most important overview for Chinese instruments is given. The lute Pipa is suggested to have traveled over the silkroad from Persia (with its relative “Oud”) to China. The fiddle “Erhu” may be originally Chinese, but as it only slightly differs from thousands of other fiddles found allover Southeast Asia, it is not verified yet which region was the first to develop such an instrument. Instruments of melodic purpose developed fastly to forms and appearances which did not change until today and still challenge a player with demands for highly developed playing skills. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“The early separation between ritual or ceremonial music and entertaining or folkloristic music opened a gap which is still present in the actual Chinese music today. This differenciation lead to two different groups of musical tasks, hence creating different ensembles consisting of different instrumentations with different playing skills. This seperation also lead to a first thought of instrumental orchestra music, like it later on appeared with the Japanese “Gagaku” or the Javanese “Gamelan” traditions. It might also have been an initiation for the first solo pieces composed for string instruments like the Qin. ***

The progression and evolution of instrumental music in Chinese history is also useful if compared to indicators in the Western traditions. Here, we also find an early seperation between divine and popular music. And we also face an emancipation of the single instrument and an evolution in creating colours in music by changing and experimentating with different instrumentations. If we listen and look closely, the Chinese music history will hopefully unveil many more relations between East and West, which might sound strange at first but more common to both cultures if listened to again. This source of elementary musical developments should be researched and preserved for the future, so that it might be an example for the respectfully treated sample of treasures belonging to one of the oldest cultural traditions in the world. ***

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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."

Variety of Ancient Chinese Musical Instruments

J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Zhou scholars provided the first classification system for musical instruments. The bayin (eight-tone) system presented in the Zhouli (Rites of Zhou, ca. 3rd century B.C.) organized musical instruments into eight resonating materials–hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk and bamboo. This breakdown complemented cosmological assumptions and concepts such as the eight compass points and the eight trigrams (ba gua). In later periods, as wind (bamboo) and string (silk) instruments became dominant, the term sizhou ("silk-bamboo") became a synonym for music itself. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

During the Han dynasty, in the first century B.C., the Yuefu (imperial music bureau) was established. Its purpose was to collect regional popular music and poetry, oversee ceremonies at court, hire musicians, and standardize pitch. (A version of this office continued to operate until 1911.) Many ancient traditions lost during the Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.), the dynasty preceding the Han, were recovered, and a Confucian musical ideology was disseminated.\^/

“In addition to the royal and ritual instruments found in tombs, many types of instruments serving popular and folk traditions existed and of these only vague written references or visual iconography survives. Significantly, instruments such as the harps, lutes, and drums depicted in the caves at Dunhuang and other oasis towns in Central Asia were making their way into China from the south and west as trade began along the routes that would become the Silk Road. \^/

“Beginning in the Han dynasty, musical instruments were among the items introduced and exchanged along the Silk Road. Among those brought from the west were lutes similar to today's Middle Eastern ud, oboe-type instruments, and metal trumpets; among those brought from India were long-necked lutes and drums. In China, the ud-like instrument, with its round back, was transformed into the flat-backed pipa. The same Middle Eastern instrument later migrated west and became the European lute, used from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. Indeed, "lute" is a corruption of the Arabic al ud—an etymological clue to the instrument's origin.\^/

“Music in Tang-dynasty China underwent a radical change in the sixth and seventh centuries as a result of the mass migration of peoples from Central Asia, many of whom came to the interior of China as musicians and dancers at the imperial court or in popular venues. Patronage of music at court peaked during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–55), when thousands studied at the Imperial Music Academy and hundreds of the best musicians resided at the palace.” \^/

Ancient Chinese Bells

J. Kenneth Moore of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From the earliest historical periods, particularly in ritual music from the Bronze Age onward, bells have been an essential component of instrumental ensembles in China The earliest known bronze bells, from the Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.), are the type called nao (49.136.10), in which the mouth of the bell faces up, and seem to have been played singly or in sets of three or five. After the tenth century, during the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046–256 B.C.), sets of bells of the zhong type, suspended from a wood frame, were used. [Source: J. Kenneth Moore Department of Musical Instruments, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“Both the zhong and the nao are struck externally and, thanks to their unique construction, are capable of producing two accurately tuned tones of intervals sounding a major or minor third. Both types are expertly cast, with sides that flare from the crown to the mouth, which is elliptical in cross section and concave in profile. Such a shape, used for small animal bells since 1500 B.C., provides one tone when struck in the center and another when struck on the side. The earliest evidence of a chromatic scale is a set of ten nao from the tenth or eleventh century B.C., unearthed in 1993 in Ningxiang, Hunan Province. The handlelike stem projecting from the crown helps to secure the bell to a frame. Tuned bells ranged greatly in size; some were only about nine inches tall, while the largest found to date is about forty inches tall and weighs 488 pounds.\^/

“Bells and stone chimes were the chief instruments in Chinese ritual music from the Bronze Age until 1911. There is now a revival of their use at the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province. The Museum houses a bell and a jade chime made within a year of each other for ceremonial and ritual use at the court of the Qing-dynasty Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722). Each is a single piece from a large set of instruments made at the imperial workshops, which were operating at the highest standard of craftsmanship during the early decades of the eighteenth century.\^/

One of the world’s oldest and amazing musical instruments was found in the 5th century B.C. the tomb of the Marquis Zeng Hou Yi in Hubei Province), The sets of bell are in various sizes and hung up on stands. Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “These bell sets ("Bian Zhong") are not surely declared in function, but it is clear that the first purpose was that of a musical instrument. Bell sets differ in appearance, but most of them show at least a range of three octaves, including all chromatic pitches of the temperized scale. This way, one might think of a bell set as a melodic one, but it is also possible that the bells were used in ensembles to give accents and represent the master tuning for other instruments. All bells found are still playable, and all of them hold carvings and scripts, which do not only indicate the two sounds a bell can produce, they even give playing advice and the first solmisation in music history, which is outstanding, as mostly all instruments in this time only hold dedications if carved. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“The first bell sets seem to go back to 12th century B.C., The 5th century B.C. ones seem to require 5 players to be played, while it is still unclear whether the smaller bells which were hung nearly 3 meter above were played or not. As with the bronze drums of the Dong Son culture in Vietnam we still have to be cautious with interpretations. Bells can be found worldwide, next to China we find bells in Persia very early, then followed by the signal giving hung bell in Christian churches. Worldwide, bells may be found as signal instruments used for cattle as for temple ceremonies, but only the Chinese bell sets surely function as a musical instrument, built with clearly defined pitches and carved with the two pitches and playing advices. Though the bells do not appear in the order we would nowadays expect them to, this is still another indication for the playing skills that were needed to be part of such a bell ensemble. ***

“It also seems as if the first set of bells found dating back to the 12th century B.C. were collected over the time and not produced at the same time. This diatonic set with bells collected from different ages and locations seemed to be the initial set for all following productions - this means, there was no “how to make a bell tuned C”, they just copied a bell further on for later bell sets, using it as the basic model for copies. This also is important for the historical impact of the bell tuning on other Chinese musical instruments. ***

Ancient Chinese Ritual Music

On the ensemble practiced used during the Confucian era, Zhou Yu wrote in the second chapter of Guo Yu from the 4th century B.C. "Start with metal and stone, move along with silk and bamboo”

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: Starting with the early Confucian ages we discover a gap between ritual and entertaining music which stayed and got more wide until today. The quite uniform ritual music was even experienced as “boring” by the rulers of the Warring States. This is why we have a breakdown in the tradition of ritual music until the renaissance of the Confucianism in the A.D. 9th century, which did not only bring this philosophy back to life, it even turned it into a religion with temples and liturgical rituals that demanded for the old ritual music again, even if it had to be renewed. Today, the ritual music is mainly lost, only parts of it survived in Taiwan or Korea. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“The importance of the old traditional ritual music is still present for much of Chinas musical attitude until today. It was in the early ages until 9th century B.C. that most ensembles had their main focus on percussive elements, since this importance of the timbre was shifted to concerns about pitch and tuning. There was following a more frequently use of melodic instruments like wind and string instruments. The chime stones and huge bell sets might be understood as a link between percussive and melodic instruments. Bells were able to be used both ways, even if the pitches were not really precise and it was hard for other instruments to assemble the tuning. ***

As the ensembles changed, so did the music. We can assume that the ritual music reflected more and more content of traditional folk and entertaining music. On the other hand, the ritual music always tried to separate from the entertaining music and appear as to be more intelligent, educated and of higher skills. These opposite intentions had a serious impact on the development of the traditional ritual music, as it was giving birth to several musical art forms like, for example, the intimacy and intellectuality of Qin playing. ***

“The biggest importance for the actual music of China lies in the possibility to look back through two thousand years of musical history - and see that even the most powerful aspects of the basic Chinese ritual music was already there. It was the germ-cell for the later chamber and court music as like those survived until today. ***

Ancient Chinese Musicology, Tones and Scales

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: Why do we find two melodic scales in the pitches of the ancient instruments if only one was used? The bell sets for example seem to be approximately chromatically tuned, but it is verified that they were played pentatonically in spite. So, why have there been pitches which did not function by resounding in music? We can speculate that these tones only represented ideas of completement in a cosmological sense. On the other hand, different pitches mean the possibility to play pentatonic scales in several tonalities, and this already foreshadows the development of movable bridges under the chords of the Guzheng zither, providing more freedom in tune and for single pitches. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“We do also already find a lack of polyphonie or counterpoint in the ancient ritual music, which still matches the classical music of China today. Most of the instruments tried playing unisono, if split in octaves or not. Only few instruments may have intercoursed with ornamentations, and the variety of this music was created by changing the groups of playing instruments. There is no engagement for harmonical shiftings like in the Western major/minor system. ***

“Rhythm and tempo of the music remain unsure, but it might be speculated that the music was very slow. Even more important for our actual research is the existenz of written down textes and musical theory, starting from the Tang dynasty. Here we already discover that there is no notation for rhythmical elements, but all other aspects of playing the right tone in the right manner are given. If we now assume that rhythm was not important enough to be written down, we might oversee correlations in different meanings for significant symbols which were used for transcription. ***

“All these facts may be summarized in a dialectic way to involve theoretical aspects into ancient Chinese music: On one hand we do face a cosmological and mythological aspect of music, where pitches and tunes stand for celestial and divine relations to human life. On the other hand, the inscriptions of the early bell sets and writings of musical theory and notation later on show that there were several differencies, whether a written down theory of music was able to be applied so that the music was percieved as “correct”, or if the music was just played to be “enjoyable”. This, partially, may still be transmitted as a problem of traditional Chinese music today: If the traditional music is played “correctly”, mainly the ritual music of ceremonies, many people, many Chinese also, experience it as “boring”, even if this does not match the living celestial music as it was performed in the ancient days. “ ***

Image Sources: Nolls , except flutes (Natural History magazine with artwork by Tom Moore); Naxi orchestra (UNESCO) and Mao-era poster (Landsberger Posters

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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