Chinese Music yīn yuè

China has a strong historical tradition in music even though she has now embraced the modern ‘Western’ style of music too. These days you can hear a very diverse range of music in China. Music has also been an essential part of the Chinese opera tradition. The character for 'music' yuè is written the same as ‘happy’, surely demonstrating a harmonious connection.

music, guzheng, people
Guzheng players at Lantern Festival Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Traditionally the Chinese musical instruments are placed into categories based on the material they are made from:

Stone Includes the Bianqing which is a set of ‘L’ shaped stones suspended from a stand and hit with a hammer. They are traditionally made from jade. They date back as far as 1500BCE (Shang dynasty). The musical stone ( qìng) represents steadfastness.
Metal Bells; gongs (luo) and cymbals (bo) are often used in Beijing Opera music
Silk/Strands All the stringed instruments are in this category. Stringed instruments represent faithfulness and in particular, the lute represents the moon and marital harmony. There are many types in two main groups: bowed string: Erhu (the two stringed violin); Sihu (four stringed); Jinghu (used in traditional opera orchestras); Gaohu; Gehu; Banhu; Matouqin and plucked strings: Guzheng; Pipa; Liuqin; Yangqin; Ruan; Yueqin; Guqin (seven stringed); Sanxian (three stringed); Zheng (thirteen string zither). Of these the guqin is perhaps the best known, it is four feet long and played on a table using the seven silk strings.
Bamboo Wind instruments are traditionally made from bamboo. They include: . Dizi (flute, side blown); Xiao (flute, end blown, five holes in upper section one in lower); Xun; Sheng (mouth organ with 13 or 17 small pipes).
Wood The Suona a type of trumpet is usually made from wood. The Guan has a double reed and has 8 or 9 holes. Percussion instruments are often made from wood. They play an important part in the accompaniment of Chinese Opera. Examples are wooden blocks, clappers, and wooden xylophones.
Skin Skin is traditionally used to cover drums. The ancient forms were made of earthenware with animal skin; there is also a narrow, long drum made of a bamboo tube with a snakeskin sounding surface sometimes called a fish drum. Great drums (gu) have been used for signaling and time keeping for thousands of years. Xian has a famous drum tower that announced sunset each day.
Gourd The Sheng (mouth organ) has a body made out of a gourd with bamboo pipes affixed to provide different notes. Some have as many as seventeen bamboo tubes inserted into a gourd. Legend has it that the goddess Nüwa invented it and it symbolizes the phoenix and was played at many formal occasions. The sounds are produced just as much while sucking in air as while blowing.
Clay The Ocarina dates back to the Shang dynasty and is a small egg shaped instrument with six holes.
music, Ming dynasty
The image is reproduced in 琴芸 (Chinese Guqin Playing Technique), available under a Creative Commons license .
music, erhu
Erhu street musician in Xinjiang Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Chinese music videos

To appreciate Chinese music it is best to hear and see it being played, so here are a number of videos showing musical performances .

Playing the Erhu


YouTube video of an erhu player

Playing the Pipa

The Pipa came to China from Central Asia at about the time of the Han dynasty.


YouTube video of a pipa player

Playing the Chinese flute (Dizi)


YouTube video of a dizi player

Playing the Chinese zither (Guqin)


YouTube video of a guqin player

Playing the Chinese hammered dulcime (Yangqin 扬琴)


YouTube video of a Korean yangqin player

Playing the Chinese mouth organ (Sheng)


YouTube video of a sheng player

Playing Chinese bells (Bianzhong)


YouTube video of a bianzhong performance

Traditional Ensemble piece

Blossoms on a Moonlit River in Spring

A range of traditional instruments played together


YouTube video of a traditional music ensemble

Music is documented as far back as the Zhou dynasty and forms an important thread in the Confucian tradition. Musical harmony was believed to bring harmony to life. Confucius said he could predict a kingdom's problems from the music played at court. He disapproved of 'immoral' dance music and thought that the noisier the music was the more likely that the state was in jeopardy. Music was more than mere background entertainment it set the whole mood and character of thought. Chinese music was an harmonious emanation tied up with the concept of ‘qi’ the all pervading life-essence. In the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng dating to about 430BCE 124 musical instruments of all types and sizes were found.

Chinese bells have survived from the days of the early dynasties, arranged in a series of twelve notes , the bells were struck with a rod. The notes do not form a scale - a scale is built from choosing notes from them. The tuning of notes followed a different approach to the Western octave. The octave attempts to divide a doubling of frequency evenly with notes. The old Chinese method did not use an octave instead notes were progressively tuned relative to existing ones. Notes were tuned to a frequency 2/3 and 3/4 of the current note, so the whole sequence of notes were in harmonious relation to each other. This method avoids the problems of tuning in octaves known as temperament . However it was Zhu Zaiyu who discovered equal temperament in 1584 before that in Europe but it was not taken up. The Legendary Yellow Bell huáng zhōng is associated with the Yellow Emperor whose minister developed the perfect flute nine Chinese inches long.

Drums have played a very important in ceremonial occasions for centuries. They were used to announce the start of a battle and are still used at all kinds of festive occasions. It marked the pulse of daily life as the great drum housed in the town's central Drum Tower announced the start and end of day.

music, bell, sheng
A musician playing a sheng in front of an array of ancient Chinese bells
,单弦
Dú mù bù chéng lín, dān xián bù chéng yīn [du mu bu cheng lin, dan xian bu cheng yin]
only tree no accomplish forest , single string no accomplish sound
A single tree does not make a forest; a single string can not make music.
Many things require people to work together to achieve an end
All pull together
Chinese Tortures

Chinese Tortures

Culture

China since early Imperial times has had a system of brutal punishments for crime. Torture was routinely used to extract a confession and there was no defence attorney to help you. For high treason a particularly gruesome and painful death was devised - death by a thousand cuts. Even today China uses the death penalty more frequently than the rest of the world put together.

After the Zhou dynasty the five note (pentatonic) scale was adopted. It consists of five tones associated with the five elements and is mentioned in Zhou dynasty records. The five notes are C;D;E;G and A in Western notation. A seven note scale was also used with the notes of C;D;E;F;G;A and B. Each dynasty was associated with one of the five elements so the court music changed to use the appropriate key note. Five different modes were used with notes in different orders: gong, shang, jiao, zhi and yu. However the combination of the twelve notes series with the five notes leads to sixty distinct tones .

By the Han dynasty the imperial court had employed scholars to collect and record tunes and folk songs all over China. Central Asian music came into China during the Sui dynasty and became widely popular in the following Tang dynasty; it displaced traditional Chinese music. During the Tang, groups of musicians began to perform as an orchestra and the Gongche Chinese musical notation was devised to write down the score - as just a list of the twelve basic tones without duration. Music for the guqin is known from 3,000 ancient scores and these are probably the world's oldest recorded instrumental music. A scholar-official was expected to be proficient with a musical instrument, in particular the guqin. They would meet in the evening and spend the time reciting poems; playing music and writing calligraphy. The splendor of Tang music was exported to Japan, and the tradition has survived virtually unchanged there.

In Suzhou there is a strong tradition of 弹词 Tán cí where a story-teller accompanies him or herself with a musical instrument (typically a pipa or sanxian).

弹琴
Duì niú tán qín [dui niu tan qin]
face ox play musical qin
To play a qin (a traditional Chinese musical instrument) to a cow
To address an inappropriate and unappreciative audience
Pearls before swine

Traditional Chinese music came back into popularity during the Cultural Revolution when 'Western music' particularly orchestral music was denigrated and forbidden. The step had a large touch of hypocrisy because at the same time many other ancient Chinese customs and traditions were rejected and forbidden. Since the Deng Xiaoping reforms of the 1980s, music from all corners of the world has been accepted and welcomed in China.

China A to Z

book cover Covers etiquette, traditions and a fair bit more: film stars, history summary. A very useful guide to anyone moving to China and wanting a quick introduction to the culture. Written by Chinese authors so this is authentic information.
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