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Yueqin player
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.

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: ; Library of Congress ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) List of Sources / ; Samples of Chinese Music ; Music from ; Internet China Music Archives / ; Chinese-English Music Translations ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie Books: Lau, Fred. 2007. Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York, London: Oxford University Press.; Rees, Helen. 2011. Echoes of History: Naxi Music in Modern China. New York, London: Oxford University Press. Stock, Jonathan P.J. 1996. Musical Creativity in Twentieth-Century China: Abing, His Music, and Its Changing Meanings. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.


Short History of Music in China

Sheila Melvin wrote in China File, “Confucius (551-479 BCE) himself saw the study of music as the crowning glory of a proper upbringing: “To educate somebody, you should start from poems, emphasize ceremonies, and finish with music.” For the philosopher Xunzi (312-230 BCE), music was “the unifying center of the world, the key to peace and harmony, and an indispensable need of human emotions.” Because of these beliefs, for millennia Chinese leaders have invested vast sums of money supporting ensembles, collecting and censoring music, learning to play it themselves, and building elaborate instruments. The 2,500-year-old rack of elaborate bronze bells, called a bianzhong, found in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng, was a symbol of power so sacred that the seams of each of its sixty-four bells were sealed with human blood. By the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty (618-907), the imperial court boasted multiple ensembles that performed ten different kinds of music, including that of Korea, India, and other foreign lands. [Source: Sheila Melvin, China File, February 28, 2013]

“In 1601, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620), sparking an interest in Western classical music that simmered for centuries and boils today. The Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722) took harpsichord lessons from Jesuit musicians, while the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96) supported an ensemble of eighteen eunuchs who performed on Western instruments under the direction of two European priests—while dressed in specially-made Western-style suits, shoes, and powdered wigs. By the early 20th century, classical music was viewed as a tool of social reform and promoted by German-educated intellectuals like Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940) and Xiao Youmei (1884-1940).

“Future premier Zhou Enlai ordered the creation of an orchestra at the storied Communist base at Yan’an, in central China, for the purpose of entertaining foreign diplomats and providing music at the famed Saturday night dances attended by Party leaders. The composer He Luting and the conductor Li Delun undertook the task, recruiting young locals—most of whom had never even heard Western music—and teaching them how to play everything from piccolo to tuba. When Yan’an was abandoned, the orchestra walked north, performing both Bach and anti-landlord songs for peasants along the way. (It reached Beijing after two years, just in time to help liberate the city in 1949.)

“Professional orchestras and music conservatories were founded across China in the 1950s—often with the help of Soviet advisors—and Western classical music became ever more deeply rooted. Although it was banned outright during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as was most traditional Chinese music, Western musical instruments were used in all the “model revolutionary operas” that were promoted by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, and performed by amateur troupes in virtually every school and work unit in China. In this way, a whole new generation was trained on Western instruments, even though they played no Western music—doubtless including many of those leaders who, in their retirement, were recruited to the Three Highs. Classical music thus made a quick comeback after the Cultural Revolution ended and is today an integral part of China’s cultural fabric, as Chinese as the pipa or erhu (both of which were foreign imports)—the qualifying adjective “Western” has been rendered superfluous. In recent years, China’s leaders have continued to promote music—and, thereby, morality and might—by channeling resources into state-of-the-art concert halls and opera houses.

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Chinese orchestra

Chinese Zithers

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “In the tombs unearthed and dated back to 5th century BC, we find another instrument that will be unique for countries all over East Asia, existing from Japan and Korea to Mongolia or even down to Vietnam: The zither. Zithers are understood as all instruments with strings stretching along a sideboard. Within the divers ancient zithers we do not only find disappeared models like the large 25-stringed Ze or the long 5-stringed Zhu which maybe was struck instead of being plucked - we also find the 7-stringed Qin and the 21-stringed Zheng zithers which are still popular today and did not change from the first century AD until today. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

“These two models stand for the two classes of zithers one can find in Asia today: One is getting tuned by movable objects under the chord, like wooden pyramids used at the Zheng , the Japanese Koto or the Vietnamese Tranh, the other one uses tuning pegs at the end of the chord and has playing marks/frets like a guitar. Namely, the Qin was the first instrument ever using tuning pegs in the musical history of China. Even today the playing of the Qin represents the elegance and power of concentration in music, and a skilled Qin player is highly reputated. The sound of the Qin has become a worldwide trademark for “classical” China. ***

“During the Qin dynasty, while the interest in popular music was increasing, musicians were looking for a zither that was louder and more easy to transport. This is believed to be a reason for the development of the Zheng, which first appeared with 14 strings. Both zithers, Qin and Zheng, were undergoing some changes, even the Qin was known with 10 string instead of 7, but after the first century no majestic changes were applied anymore, and the instruments, which were already widespread all over China at this time, did not change until today. This makes both instruments one of the oldest instruments worldwide which are still in use. ***

Chinese Wind Instruments

Ingo Stoevesandt wrote in his blog on Music is Asia: “The ancient wind instruments may be separated in three groups, consisting of transverse flutes, panpipes and the mouth organ Sheng. Wind instruments and zithers were the first instruments which became available for the common citizen, while drums, chime stones and bell sets remained for the upper class as a symbol of reputation and richness. Wind instruments had to challenge the task to be equally tuned with the chime stones and bell sets who had a fixed tuning. [Source: Ingo Stoevesandt from his blog on Music is Asia ***]

The traverse flute represents a missing link between the old bone flute from the stone ages and the modern Chinese flute Dizi. It is one of the oldest, most simple and most popular instruments in China. The ancient panpipes Xiao reflect a musical transition beyond historical or geographical borders. This musical instrument which can be found all over the world appeared in China in the 6th century B.C. and it is believed that it first was used for hunting birds (which is still questionable). It later became the key instrument of the military music gu chui of the Han period. ***

Another outstanding instrument still used until today is the mouthorgan Sheng which we also know with the names Khen in Laos or Sho in Japan. Mouth organs like these also exist in various simple forms among the ethnicities of Southeast Asia. It remains unresearched whether the early mouth organs were functionable instruments or just grave gifts. Today, mouth organs were excavated ranging from six up to more than 50 pipes. ***

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

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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.

Chinese Fiddles

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

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 , 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 May 2016

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