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. Confucius (551 ~ 479 B.C.) praised the "Instituting of Rites and Making of Music" by Duke of Zhou as the two greatest paragons of cultural institutions.

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 Silk road 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 folkloric music opened a gap which is still present in the actual Chinese music today. This differentiation lead to two different groups of musical tasks, hence creating different ensembles consisting of different instrumentations with different playing skills. This separation 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 separation 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 experimenting 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 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 completeness 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 existence of written down texts 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 differences, whether a written down theory of music was able to be applied so that the music was perceived 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. “ ***

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."

Ancient Bells in China

“The taozhong, the earliest kind of bell, appeared in primitive Chinese society. It was an instrument for labouring people to play after work. The introduction of metal brought about the tongnao (a bronze percussion instrument resembling an inverted bell, sounded by a hammer), tongling (a small bronze bell) and tongzhong (a bronze bell). Then they evolved into the bianling (a chime of small bells), biannao (a chime of percussion instruments resembling inverted bells) and bianzhong (a chime of bells). [Source:]

“Many chimes of bells appeared in the days before the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) unified China. Most of them were shaped uniquely like combined pairs of tiles. They produced quick and short notes. Each bell could produce two different notes when the front and the side of its lower part were struck. So such bells were also known as double-note bells. As they were used mainly for performances, they were also called musical bells.

“With the development of society and the elapse of time, the musical bells gradually became feudal sacrificial vessels and important symbols of power, rank and position of the ruling classes. According to The Junior Dancing Master, the Ministry of Rites, the Ritual of Zhou, ""The emperor could have bells on the four sides of his palace, a duke or prince could have bells on three sides of his residence, a minister could have bells on two sides of his residence and an official could have bells on one side of his residence."" This was a clear proof of the rigid hierarchy of power in those days.

“Due to the differences in the uses, shapes and regional features and the evolution of times, the ancient Chinese percussion instruments before the Qin Dynasty were divided into the nao (an ancient percussion instrument resembling an inverted bell, sounded by a hammer), duo (a kind of bell used in ancient China when proclamations were issued or in times of war), zheng (a bell-shaped percussion instrument used in ancient times by troops on march), goudiao (a long and narrow bell), yongzhong (a bell with a cylindrical handle on top), niuzhong (a bell with a semi-circular knob on top), yangjiaozhong (a bell shaped like a ram's horns) and tongzhong (a tube-shaped bell).

According to An age-old Chinese bell culture: “From the very beginning the bronze bells in China were endowed with strong emotional coloring and cultural connotations. In his Explanation and Study of Principles of Composition of Characters, Xu Shen of the Eastern Han Dynasty said, “The zhong (bell) is the sound of the Autumn Equinox. All crops have been zhong (cultivated).” In Chinese, zhong (bell) and zhong (cultivate) are pronounced similarly, but in different tones. Harvests were the result of toil in our ancient agricultural country with its yellow soil. The stroke of the bell at a feast conveyed feelings of joy for the bumper harvest as well as the emotion of a man with a heavy heart. “

“With the introduction of Buddhism into China after the Qin Dynasty, ancient bells gradually became important musical instruments for Buddhism. As the saying goes, ""There are bells at every temple. Without bells, there would be no temples."" Round bells took the place of those shaped like combined pairs of tiles. The strokes of bells became sweet and sonorous, spreading to distant places.

“With their imposing shapes and deep and prolonged sound, round bells were widely used in Buddhism and Taoism. They also entered the imperial court and became a symbol of imperial power. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, ancient Chinese bells were divided into musical bells, Buddhist bells, Taoist bells, imperial court bells and bells for sounding the night watches. Their functions and uses were broadened. According to a historical record, ""Bells are the leading musical instruments made of metal. The peals of big ones can be heard five kilometers away and the strokes of small ones can reach places half a kilometer off. When a monarch held court or an official leaves his office, a hell is struck to call together their subordinates. A bell is struck at a feast to accompany the singing of songs. A bell is struck at a Buddhist or Taoist temple to draw the devotion of worshippers and the awe of ghosts and gods."" In those days, bells served as musical instruments, sacrificial vessels and musical instruments used in Buddhist or Taoist masses, keeping up all the uses of bells during the pre — Qin period and the Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.

Oldest Bells in China: Carried on the Silk Road from Babylon?

Dozens of bells were unearthed at Sanxingdui, Sichuan at a site dates roughly to 12th-11th-century B.C.. Particularly interesting are the bronze shell and flower-shaped bells. Pomegranate reportedly were not introduced to China until Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 2200 According to A History of Chinese Science and Technology Western musicologists and historians of science proposed that the ancient bronze bells in Sanxingdui were a product of Babylonian culture spreading eastward, since the form of bells originated in the plant’s flowers and fruits — the pomegranate was introduced in the Han Dynasty from the West.

Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan: The round bell, however, unlike the indigenous local olive-shaped pottery bells, is known to have entered China with Buddhism, since the Qin and Han dynasties, most of the temple and court bells were round, and so the technology might have followed the path of Buddhism. Perhaps, the bells were carried East by Sogdian traders or Scythian groups along the Silk Road, whose horses bore bell contraptions, and whose blacksmiths were able to cast the bells. Zhou Dynasty bells in Xincheng, Henan had relief depictions of serpents and dragons, suggestion their ritual uses to call down rain in supplication or placation of the dragons and serpents, respective masters of the watery deep as well as of the skies. They were used in musical accompaniment for ritual ceremonies and for less solemn occasions. [Source:Aileen Kawagoe, Heritage of Japan website,]

“Many populations in East Asia were known to have valued the use of bells, the Amur Tungus peoples was known for their bell belts. Some non-Han ethnic group groups in China had bells with ram’s horns attached at the top, as ram’s horns throughout Turkic-Mongolic Eurasia symbolized fertility, the bell’s fertility-enhancing ritual functions can be inferred.

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.” \^/

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.

Last updated November 2021

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