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For several thousand years Chinese culture was dominated by the teachings of the philosopher Confucius, who conceived of music in the highest sense as a means of calming the passions and of dispelling unrest and lust, rather than as a form of amusement.

The ancient Chinese belief that music is meant not to amuse but to purify one's thoughts finds particular expression in the cult of the qin, a long zither possessing a repertory calling for great subtlety and refinement in performance and still popular among a small circle of scholar-musicians. A famous Qin scholar once said, "Though the qin player's body be in a gallery or in a hall, his mind should dwell with the forests and streams."

Also, traditionally the Chinese have believed that sound influences the harmony of the universe. Significantly, one of the most important duties of the first emperor of each new dynasty was to search out and establish that dynasty's true standard of pitch. A result of this philosophical orientation was that until quite recently the Chinese theoretically opposed music performed solely for entertainment; accordingly, musical entertainers were relegated to an extremely low social status.

Melody and tone color are prominent expressive features of Chinese music, and great emphasis is given to the proper articulation and inflection of each musical tone. Most Chinese music is based on the five-tone, or pentatonic, scale, but the seven-tone, or heptatonic, scale, is also used, often as an expansion of a basically pentatonic core. The pentatonic scale was much used in older music. The heptatonic scale is often encountered in northern Chinese folk music.

Chinese musical instruments traditionally have been classified according to the materials used in their construction, namely, metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, clay, skin, and wood. Of these, the stone and wood instruments are obsolete. The older instruments include long zithers; flutes; panpipes; the sheng, or mouth organ; and percussion instruments, such as clappers, drums, and gongs. Of later origin are various lutes and fiddles, introduced to China from Central Asia.

Chinese music is as old as Chinese civilization. Instruments excavated from sites of the Shang dynasty (c. 1766-c. 1027 BC) include stone chimes, bronze bells, panpipes, and the sheng.

In the Chou dynasty (c. 1027-256 BC) music was one of the four subjects that the sons of noblemen and princes were required to study, and the office of music at one time comprised more than 1400 people. Although much of the repertoire has been lost, some old Chinese ritual music ( yayue ) is preserved in manuscripts. During the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) music was denounced as a wasteful pastime; almost all musical books, instruments, and manuscripts were ordered destroyed. Despite this severe setback Chinese music experienced a renaissance during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), when a special bureau of music was established to take charge of ceremonial music. During the reign (AD 58-75) of Liu Zhang the Han palace had three orchestras comprising in all 829 performers. One orchestra was used for religious ceremonies, another for royal archery contests, and the third for entertaining the royal banquets and harem.

During the Tang dynasty (618-906) Chinese secular music ( suyue ) reached its peak. Emperor Tai Zong (597-649) had ten different orchestras, eight of which were made up of members of various foreign tribes; all the royal performers and dancers appeared in their native costumes. The imperial court also had a huge outdoor band of nearly 1400 performers. Portions of Tang music are preserved in Japanese court music, or gagaku.

Among the many genres of Chinese music is a form of music drama often called Chinese opera. Formerly these operas were based on old tales of heroes and the supernatural. Today the stories often deal with heroes of the Communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past. The first fully developed form of Chinese opera, called northern drama, or beiqu, emerged during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qin (1644-1912) dynasties, southern drama, also called xiwen, flourished and underwent much stylistic development. The variety of Chinese opera known as Peking opera, jingxi, is the most familiar in the West. It developed in the 19th century as a synthesis of earlier provincial forms.

During the first half of the 20th century Chinese music was considerably influenced by the music of the West. Three major schools of thought arose in response to this influence. The first school aimed at reviving the old thousand-piece orchestras that once delighted ancient princes and sages and resisted the influence of Western music. The second school concerned itself almost exclusively with Western music. The last school of Chinese music took great pride in traditional Chinese musical culture but did not hesitate to apply it to Western techniques of composition and performance.

During the 1950s Western influence penetrated Chinese music to an unprecedented extent. The Chinese Communist regime, established in 1949, gave special prominence to Russian music. Whether China can assimilate Western influence and still maintain a fundamentally Chinese musical culture remains an unanswered question, but the evidence seems to indicate that a synthesis will eventually develop. In contemporary China notable facilities exist for the training of musicians in both Chinese and Western styles. Many symphonic orchestras and Chinese-style instrumental ensembles exist, and large choral groups are commonly found in large cities, universities, and factories. Both Chinese and Western instruments are manufactured in large quantities and are used in government-maintained schools and conservatories throughout the country.