- Music of China
Music of China Timeline General topics Genres Specific forms Media and performance Music festivals Midi Modern Music Festival Music media National anthem Regional music
Chinese Music has been made since the dawn of Chinese civilization with documents and artifacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC). Today, the music continues a rich traditional heritage in one aspect, while emerging into a more contemporary form at the same time.
The legendary founder of music in Chinese mythology was Ling Lun, who made bamboo pipes tuned to the sounds of birds. Dynastic Era (1122 BCE – 1911)
According to Mencius, a powerful ruler once asked him whether it was moral if he preferred popular music to the classics. The answer was that it only mattered that the ruler loved his subjects. The Imperial Music Bureau, first established in the Qin Dynasty (221–07 BC), was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140–87 BC) 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 Central Asia.
The oldest known written music is Youlan or the Solitary Orchid, attributed to Confucius (see guqin article for a sample of tablature). The first major well-documented flowering of Chinese music was for the qin during the Tang Dynasty, though the qin is known to have been played since before the Han Dynasty.
In ancient China the position of musicians was much lower than that of painters, though music was seen as central to the harmony and longevity of the state. Almost every emperor took folk songs seriously, sending officers to collect songs to inspect the popular will. One of the Confucianist Classics, Shi Jing (The Classic of Poetry), contained many folk songs dating from 800 BC to about 400 BC.
The first European to reach China with a musical instrument was Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci who presented a Harpsichord to the Lee imperial court in 1601, and trained four eunuchs to play it.
The famous dragon dance with music is also a remembered tradition. It is seen on Chinese New Year across the world by millions. It is not known when the tradition started, but it is believed to be thousands of years ago, as entertainment of former emperors, royals, and nobles.
Republic of China era (1912–1949)
The New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 1920s evoked a great deal of lasting interest in Western music. A number of Chinese musicians returned from studying abroad to perform Western classical music, composing work hits on Western musical notation system. The Kuomintang tried to sponsor modern music adoptions via the Shanghai Conservatory of Music despite the ongoing political crisis. Twentieth-century cultural philosophers like Xiao Youmei, Cai Yuanpei, Feng Zikai and Wang Guangqi wanted to see Chinese music adopted to the best standard possible. There were many different opinions regarding the best standard.
Symphony orchestras were formed in most major cities and performed to a wide audience in the concert halls and on radio. Many of the performers added jazz influences to traditional music, adding xylophones, saxophones and violins, among other instruments. Lü Wencheng, Li Jinhui, Zhou Xuan, Qui Hechou, Yin Zizhong and He Dasha were among the most popular performers and composers during this period.
After the 1942 Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art, a large-scale campaign was launched in the Communist controlled areas to adapt folk music to create revolutionary songs to educate the largely illiterate rural population on party goals. Musical forms considered superstitious or anti-revolutionary were repressed, and harmonies and bass lines were added to traditional songs. One example is The East Is Red, a folksong from northern Shaanxi which was adapted into a nationalist hymn. Of particular note is the composer, Xian Xinghai, who was active during this period, and composed the Yellow River Cantata which is the most well-known of all of his works.
People's Republic of China era (1949–1990s)
The golden age of shidaiqu and the Seven great singing stars would come to an end when the Communist party denounced Chinese popular music as yellow music (pornography). Maoists considered pop music as a decline to the art form in mainland China. In 1949 the Kuomintang relocated to Taiwan, and the People's Republic of China was established. Revolutionary songs would become heavily promoted by the state. The Maoists, during the Cultural Revolution, pushed revolutionary music as the only acceptable genre; because of propaganda, this genre largely overshadowed all others and came almost to define mainland Chinese music. This is still, in some ways, an ongoing process, but some scholars and musicians (Chinese and otherwise) are trying to revive old music.
Pop music in mainland China was revived after the marketing reform by Deng Xiao Ping. Today, China's music diversity has a combination of pop and classical music. Just like in most modern countries, China has a fast production of different types of new music, while the old music is also kept alive.
After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, a new fast tempo Northwest Wind (xibeifeng, 西北風) style was launched by the people to counter the government. The music would progress into Chinese rock, which remained popular in the 1990s. However, music in China is very much state-owned as the TV, media, and major concert halls are all controlled by the Communist party. The government mainly chose not to support Chinese rock by limiting its exposure and airtime.As a result, the genre never reached the mainstream in its entirety.
Mainland China has a high piracy rate along with issues of intellectual properties. As a result, most albums are released in Taiwan or Hong Kong first. It is often one of the business decisions made by record companies. Normally there is some delay before the products are released into mainland China, with occasional exceptions, such as the work of Cui Jian who was released in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China simultaneously. Consequently, a delay in release time is also the biggest driver of piracy, since individuals would rather pirate from the outside. The modern market is not only hindered by rights issues, as there are many other factors such as profit margin, income and other economical questions.
Annual events such as the Midi Modern Music Festival in Beijing attracts tens of thousands of visitors. There was also the "Snow Mountain Music Festival" in Yunnan province 2002. The term "Chinese Woodstock" has been thrown around by Western media for these two events. Both draw sizable crowds outdoor, but the term is not quite official. The Chinese rock movement differed from its Western counterpart in that it never fully made it into mainstream culture due to restrictions by the state.
Today, rock music is centered on almost exclusively in Beijing and Shanghai, and has very limited influence over Chinese society. Wuhan and Sichuan are sometimes considered pockets of rock music culture as well. It points to a significant cultural, political and social difference that exist between China, the West, or even different parts within China. While rock has existed in China for decades, the milestone that put the genre on the international map is when Cui Jian played with The Rolling Stones in 2003, at the age of 42.
Traditional music in China is played on solo instruments or in small ensembles of plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes, and various cymbals, gongs, and drums. The scale is pentatonic. Bamboo pipes and qin are among the oldest known musical instruments from China; instruments are traditionally divided into categories based on their material of composition: animal skins, gourd, bamboo, wood, silk, earth/clay, metal, and stone. Chinese orchestras traditionally consist of bowed strings, woodwinds, plucked strings and percussion.
Chinese vocal music has traditionally been sung in a thin, non resonant voice or in falsetto and is usually solo rather than choral. All traditional Chinese music is melodic rather than harmonic. Chinese vocal music probably developed from sung poems and verses with music. Instrumental pieces played on an erhu or dizi are popular, and are often available outside of China, but the pipa and zheng music, which are more traditional, are more popular in China itself. The qin is perhaps the most revered instrument in China, even though very few people know what it is or seen and heard one being played. The zheng, a form of zither, is most popular in Henan, Chaozhou, Hakka and Shandong. The pipa, a kind of lute, believed to have been introduced from the Arabian Peninsula area during the 6th century and adopted to suit Chinese tastes, is most popular in Shanghai and surrounding areas.
Ethnic Han music
Han Chinese make up 92% of the population of China. Ethnic Han music consists of heterophonic music, in which the musicians play versions of a single melodic line. Percussion accompanies most music, dance, talks, and opera. Han Chinese Folk Music had many aspects to it regarding its meaning, feelings, and tonality. This genre of music, in a sense, is similar to the Chinese language. This relationship is made by tones, sliding from higher tones to lower tones, or lower to higher tones, or a combination of both. These similarities mean that the instrument is a very important part in mastering technique with both left and right hands (left hand is used to create tonality on the string, right hand is for plucking or strumming the string), particularly for the classical (literati) tradition. Sometimes, singing can be put into the music to create a harmony or a melody accompanying the instrument. Han Chinese Folk's feelings are displayed in its poetry-like feeling to it with slow soothing tempos that express feelings that connect with the audience or whoever is playing the piece. Han Chinese Folk is delivered in a way, using silences that alter its meaning, this also creates a sound similar to poetry.
Chinese opera has been hugely popular for centuries, especially the Beijing opera. The music is often guttural with high-pitched vocals, usually accompanied by suona, jinghu, other kinds of string instruments, and percussion. Other types of opera include clapper opera, Pingju, Cantonese opera, puppet opera, Kunqu, Sichuan opera, Qinqiang, ritual masked opera and Huangmei xi.
Han folk music thrives at weddings and funerals and usually includes a form of oboe called a suona and percussive ensembles called chuigushou. Ensembles consisting of mouth organs (sheng), shawms (suona), flutes (dizi) and percussion instruments (especially yunluo gongs) are popular in northern villages; their music is descended from the imperial temple music of Beijing, Xi'an, Wutai shan and Tianjin. Xi'an drum music consisting of wind and percussive instruments is popular around Xi'an, and has received some popularity outside China in a highly-commercialized form. Another important instrument is the sheng, pipes, which is an ancient instrument that is an ancestor of all Western free reed instruments, such as the accordion. Parades led by Western-type brass bands are common, often competing in volume with a shawm/chuigushou band.
In southern Fujian and Taiwan, Nanyin or Nanguan is a genre of traditional ballads. They are sung by a woman accompanied by a xiao and a pipa and other traditional instruments. The music is generally sorrowful and mourning and typically deals with love-stricken women. Further south, in Shantou, Hakka and Chaozhou, erxian and zheng ensembles are popular.
Sizhu ensembles use flutes and bowed or plucked string instruments to make harmonious and melodious music that has become popular in the West among some listeners. These are popular in Nanjing and Hangzhou, as well as elsewhere along the southern Yangtze area. Sizhu has been secularized in cities but remains spiritual in rural areas.
Jiangnan Sizhu (silk and bamboo music from Jiangnan) is a style of instrumental music, often played by amateur musicians in teahouses in Shanghai, that has become widely known outside of its place of origin.
Guangdong Music or Cantonese Music is instrumental music from Guangzhou and surrounding areas. It is based on Yueju (Cantonese Opera) music, together with new compositions from the 1920s onwards. Many pieces have influences from jazz and Western music, using syncopation and triple time. This music tells stories and myths maybe legends.
One of the most popular folk songs of China is Mo Li Hua (Beautiful Jasmine).
Music forms an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. While chanting remains perhaps the best known form of Tibetan Buddhist music, complex and lively forms are also widespread. Monks use music to recite various sacred texts and to celebrate a variety of festivals during the year. The most specialized form of chanting is called yang, which is without metrical timing and is dominated by resonant drums and sustained, low syllables. Other forms of chanting are unique to Tantra as well as the four main monastic schools: Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa and Sakyapa. Of these schools, Gelugpa is considered a more a restrained, classical form, while Nyingmapa is widely described as romantic and dramatic. Gelugpa is perhaps the most popular.
Secular Tibetan music survived the Cultural Revolution more intact than spiritual music, especially due to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which was founded by the Dalai Lama shortly after his self-imposed exile. TIPA originally specialized in the operatic lhamo form, which has since been modernized with the addition of Western and other influences. Other secular genres include nangma and toshe, which are often linked and are accompanied by a variety of instruments designed for highly-rhythmic dance music. Nangma karaoke is popular in modern Lhasa. A classical form called gar is very popular, and is distinguished by ornate, elegant and ceremonial music honoring dignitaries or other respected persons.
Tibetan music has influenced the pioneering compositions of Philip Glass and, most influentially, Henry Eichheim. Later artists made New Age fusions by pioneers Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings. These two collaborated on Tibetan Bells, perhaps the first fusion of New Age and Tibetan influences, in 1971. Glass' Kundun soundtrack proved influential in the 1990s, while the popularity of Western-adapted Buddhism (exemplified by Richard Gere, Yungchen Lhamo, Steve Tibbetts, Choying Drolma, Lama Karta and Kitaro and Nawang Khechong) helped further popularize Tibetan music.
In the mid- to late 1980s, a relaxation of governmental rules allowed a form of Tibetan pop music to emerge in Tibet proper. Direct references to native religion is still forbidden, but commonly-understood metaphors are widespread. Pure Tibetan pop is heavily influenced by light Chinese rock, and includes best-sellers like Jampa Tsering and Yatong. Politically and socially aware songs are rare in this form of pop, but commonplace in a second type of Tibetan pop. Nangma karaoke bars appeared in 1998 and are common in Lhasa, in spite of threats from the Chinese government.
Guangxi is a region of China, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Its most famous modern musician is Sister Liu, who was the subject of a 1960s film that introduced Guangxi's cultures to the rest of the world.
The Gin people (ethnic Vietnamese) are known for their instrument called duxianqin (独弦琴, pinyin: dúxiánqín; lit. "single string zither"), a string instrument with only one string, said to date back to the 8th century.
Yunnan is an ethnically diverse area in southwest China. Perhaps best-known from the province is the lusheng, a type of mouth organ, used by the Miao people of Guizhou for pentatonic antiphonal courting songs.
The Nakhi of Lijiang play a type of song and dance suite called baisha xiyue, which was supposedly brought by Kublai Khan in 1253. Nakhi Dongjing is a type of music related to southern Chinese forms, and is popular today.
Sichuan is a province in southwest China. Its capital city, Chengdu, is home to the only musical higher education institution in the region, the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. The province has a long history of Sichuan opera.
Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is dominated by Uyghurs, a Turkic people related to others from Central Asia. The Uyghurs' best-known musical form is the On Ikki Muqam, a complex suite of twelve sections related to Uzbek and Tajik forms. These complex symphonies vary wildly between suites in the same muqam, and are built on a seven-note scale. Instruments typically include dap (a drum), dulcimers, fiddles and lutes; performers have some space for personal embellishments, especially in the percussion. The most important performer is Turdi Akhun, who recorded most of the muqams in the 1950s.
Kuaiban (快板) is a type of rhythmic talking and singing which is often performed with percussive instruments such as a clapper called paiban. The center of the kuaiban tradition is Shandong province. Kuaiban bears some resemblance to rap and other forms of rhythmic music found in other cultures.
These are genres that started after 1912 to coincide with the New China.
Western Classical Music
Whereas orchestras organised by, run solely by and nearly always exclusive to the expatriate community in China are recorded from the early days of the International Settlement in Shanghai (i.e. 1850s) and a Russian orchestra was in operation in Harbin from the early 20th century, the beginnings of a unique classical music tradition in China lie with the first foreign trained Chinese conductor, Zheng Zhisheng. Zheng was raised in China's Guangdong province and affected by Western Church Music from an early age, studying in Lyons and Paris before returning to China in the 1930s and being employed the first Chinese conductor of a Chinese orchestra - the Chongqing Symphonic Orchestra. Performances were given of Beethoven and Mozart.
The revolutionary spirit of Zheng Zhisheng's style has been continued by the first generation of composers immediately following the accession of the Chinese Communist Party to power, namely Li Delun and Cao Peng. The former provided the driving force and often the life force that kept a tradition alive through the Mao years, especially in his adopted city of Beijing, and the latter has been instrumental in maintaining a high standard of symphonic music, as well as working hard for the popularization of the tradition further into the fabric of Chinese culture, across his long career, which continues to the present. At the same time as this tradition has continued, new generations have sought to bring classical music in China along another path, away from the strict professionalism of the elite trained Li and Cao (who were both at the Russian conservatory in the 1950's) and towards a less nationalistic, but arguably more encompassing attitude towards the tradition. Most influential in this new movement has been the young Shanghai composer Long Yu.
Chinese popular music found its beginnings in the shidaiqu genre. The shidaiqu genre was founded by Li Jinhui in mainland China and was influenced by Western jazz artists like Buck Clayton. After the establishment of the Communist Party in China the Baak Doi record company headquartered in Shanghai in 1952 left China. The 1970's saw the rise of cantopop in Hong Kong, and later mandopop in its neighboring country Taiwan. Mainland China remained on the sidelines through the decades that followed with only a minimal degree of participation in popular music. Only in recent years has the youth of mainland China once again become a consumer in the mandopop music market of Taiwan. Despite having a much larger population China is not yet considered a major production or consumption hub for popular music. Hong Kong's icon Anita Mui was banned from returning to the mainland concert stage after performing the song "Bad Girl" during the 1990s in China; this was her punishment for what the Chinese government called her rebellious attitude. As Mui based much of her dance choreography on the style of Madonna, Mui's moves, (in retrospect), were no more rebellious than what would seem today to be a comparably subdued western popular dancing style. Somewhat like Mui's early attempts, many mainland Chinese artists often begin with some commercial success in Hong Kong or Taiwan and then attempt to re-introduce themselves into mainland China as part of the gangtai culture.
Since the end of the 20th century pop music in mainland China is experiencing a rise in popularity. The beginning of the 21st century has seen mainland Chinese artists producing a wide range of Mandarin pop songs and the release of many new albums.
Many popular mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese music artists were included in promotions for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Hip hop and rap
Mandarin rap music gradually became popular in mainland China, especially in Shanghai and Beijing where pop culture is very diverse and modern. Although Chinese perform rap in different dialects and languages, most Chinese hip hop artists perform in China's most popular language:Mandarin. Mandarin rap music has also been popular in Taiwan.
Cantonese rap is also very diverse in cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
Rock and heavy metal
The widely-acknowledged forefather of Chinese rock is Cui Jian. In the late 1980s he played the first Chinese rock song called: "Nothing To My Name" ("Yi wu suo you"). It was the first time an electric guitar was used in China. He became the most famous performer of the time, and by 1988 he performed at a concert broadcasted worldwide in conjunction with the Seoul Summer Olympic Games. His socially critical lyrics earned him the anger of the government and many of his concerts were banned or cancelled. After the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, he played with a red blindfold around his head as an action against the government.
Following, two bands became famous Hei Bao (Black Panther) and Tang Dynasty. Both started during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hei Bao is an old-school rock band whose first CD, Hei Bao used the popular English song ("Don't Break My Heart"). Tang Dynasty was the first Chinese heavy metal band. Its first CD "A Dream Return to Tang Dynasty" combines elements of traditional Chinese opera and old school heavy metal. The album was a major breakthrough releasing around 1991/1992.
Around 1994–96: the first thrash metal band, Chao Zai (Overload), was formed. They released three CDs, the last one in cooperation with pop singer Gao Chi of the split-up band The Breathing. At the same time the first Nu Metal bands were formed and inspired by Western bands such as Korn, Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park. China would have their own with Yaksa, Twisted Machine, AK-47, Overheal Tank.
Black metal is becoming a prominent scene in mainland China, particularly central China.
Punk rock became famous in China around 1994–1996 with the first Chinese artist of the post punk genre being He Yong and his debut record Garbage Dump. The first real wave of band formations erupted in 1995 concentrating in Beijing, and the second generation of punk bands followed around 1997.
Patriotic / Revolutionary
Guoyue are basically music performed on some grand presentation to encourage national pride. Since 1949, it has been by far the most government-promoted genre. Compared to other forms of music, symphonic national music flourished throughout the country. In 1969 the cantata was adapted to a piano concerto. The Yellow River Piano Concerto was performed by the pianist Yin Chengzong, and is still performed today on global stages. During the height of the Cultural Revolution, musical composition and performance were greatly restricted. A form of soft, harmonic, generic, pan-Chinese music called guoyue was artificially created to be performed at conservatories. After the Cultural Revolution, musical institutions were reinstated and musical composition and performance revived. At the height of the Mao Zedong era, the music accelerated at the political level into "Revolutionary Music" leaning toward cult status and becoming mainstream under pro-Communist ideology.
- List of traditional Chinese musical instruments
- Culture of China
- Music Bureau
- Music of Hong Kong
- Music of Taiwan
- World music
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- (French) Audio clips: Traditional music of the China. Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): Shanghai tea-houses. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): Chinese opera in Beijing. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): Buddhist harvest celebrations. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): The Uighur people of Xinjiang. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): Music of the Hani and Yi People. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): The Uyghur people and the muqam. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- BBC Radio 3 Audio (45 minutes): Silk and Bamboo music, the gugin and Pingtan music. Accessed November 25, 2010.
- CRC Jianian Inc. (China Record Corporation) - Official Government Record Label (oldest and largest record label in China)
- An article about Chinese music from the classical (literati) tradition)
- Listen to and download Pop Chinese music
- Listen to traditional Chinese music
- The Internet Chinese Music Archive
- listen to chinese erhu music
- Detailed Archive about Chinese Rock Music in English
- Donhi there :Dohoe's Shi Jing Ancient Book of Songs takes ancient Mandarin songs and puts them into a new light
- (Japanese)中国古典テキストデータベース（中国思想史研究室） Archive of some Classical Chinese texts about Music theories.
- Watch New Chinese Music Videos
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- HQ-Videos: Traditional Chinese Pipa Songs 陽春白雪 (White Snow in the Spring Sunlight) and 小月儿高 (The Moon is High)
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