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 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 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); Jinghu; Gaohu; Gehu; Banhu; Matouqin and plucked strings: Guzheng; Pipa; Liuqin; Yangqin; Ruan; Yueqin;Guqin (seven stringed); Sanxian (three stringed); Zheng (thirteen string zither)
Bamboo Wind instruments are traditionally made from bamboo. They include: Suona (a type of trumpet). Dizi (flute, side blown); Xiao (flute, end blown, five holes in upper section one in lower); Guan; Xun; Sheng.
Wood 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 earthernware 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 琴芸术 (Chinese Guqin Playing Technique), available under a Creative Commons license .
music, erhu
Erhu street musician in Xinjiang Copyright © Dreamstime see image license


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

Playing Chinese bells (Bianzhong)

Playing the Pipa

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

Playing the Chinese flute (Dizi)

Playing the Chinese zither (Guqin)

Playing the Chinese mouth organ (Sheng)

Traditional Ensemble piece

Blossoms on a Moonlit River in Spring

A range of traditional instruments together

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 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 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 have an octave, notes were progressively added 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 . 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
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
double happiness

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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.

By the Han dynasty the imperial court had employed scholars to collect and record tunes and folk songs in 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. Music for the guqin is known from 3,000 ancient scores and these are probably the world's oldest recorded instrumental music scores. 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).

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 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.

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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Chinese Traditional Music', last updated 24 Nov 2016, Web,

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