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The Traditional Music of China

The Instruments
The Music
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The Traditional Music of China
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Chinese Folk Music

From Wikipedia

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.

According to the current archaeological discoveries, Chinese folk music can be dated back to 7000 years ago. Not only in form but also in an artistic conception, the Chinese nation has created the colorful culture of folk music. Besides, it is mainly about pentatonic scale. Different from western traditional music, Chinese folk music pays more attention to the form expression.

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 loveicken 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).

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 Vocal Music

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.

Modern Changes

These are genres and changes that started after 1912 coincidimg with the New China. As with all other things in the new china the modernisation of Chinese music has been along western lines this having a profound effect on the performance and sound of traditional Chinese music, for one today a western musical temperament is used to tune traditional instruments, seemingly less harsh and more harmonious according to modern ears but which robs the instruments of their traditional voices. In common with the music traditions of other Asian cultures, such as Persia and India, traditional Chinese music consists of a repertoire of traditional melodies with tempo and ornamentation varying according to the mood of the instrumentalist and the audience, and their reaction to what is being played. The adoption of western musical notation, time signatures, and the conservatory system of teaching has on the one hand helped preserve traditional Chinese music and promulgate it to new audiences, but on the other hand sees many performers attempting to perform pieces in a standard way rather than in the reflective individual way of tradition.

Chinese Classical Music


Generally speaking, there are two kinds of music traditions – classical and folk. Music from the "classical tradition" refers to art music or "sophisticated" music composed by scholars and literati in China's historical past. Chinese classical music often has thematic, poetic or philosophical associations and is typically played solo, on instruments such as the qin (commonly known as guqin), 7ing zither with over 3000 years of well-documented history, or the pipa, a lute with over 2000 years of history. Traditional music in the classical sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama, and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation.

The instruments demand not only a mastery of technique but a high degree of sensitivity (and inner power) to evoke the subtle sonorities and deep emotional expression that rely very much on the left hand techniques (such as sliding, bending, pushing or crossing of the strings to produce typical singing effects and extreme dynamic ranges), where synchronized ensemble playing is virtually impossible without losing certain subtlety. This type of music has come down to us as an oral tradition from masters to students, although written scores that combine numbers and symbols representing pitch and finger techniques respectively have been in use for nearly two thousand years. For instance, the earliest scores for guqin we still have today were from the third century. However it is almost impossible to play directly from the score without first having learnt from a master.

In traditional China, most well–educated people and monks could play classical music as a means of self-cultivation, meditation, soul purification and spiritual elevation, union with nature, identification with the values of past sages, and communication with divine beings or with friends and lovers. They would never perform in public, or for commercial purposes, as they would never allow themselves to be called "professional musicians". This was in part to keep a distance from the entertainment industry where performing artists used to be among the lowest in social status . In fact, masters of classical music had their own profession as scholars and officers, and would consider it shameful if they had to make a living from music. They played music for themselves, or for their friends and students, and they discovered friends or even lovers through music appreciation (there are plenty of romantic stories about music in Chinese literature).

Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, classical music had always belonged to elite society and it was not popular among ordinary people. Today it is really for everybody who enjoys it, and professional musicians playing Chinese classical music are as common as elsewhere in the world. However, it is still rare to hear classical music in concert halls due to the influence of the so-called "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1976), when all classical music was deemed to be "bourgeois" and outlawed, and the spiritual side of traditional arts was "washed out" through the "revolutionary" ideology. As well, the influence of modern pop culture since the 1980s has had a negative impact on the popularity of classical music performances.

While the classical tradition was more associated with elite society throughout Chinese history, the resources for folk traditions are many and varied. Apart from the Han Chinese, there are many ethnic minorities living in every corner of China, each with their own traditional folk music. Unlike classical music, folk traditions are often vocal (such as love songs and story telling etc), or for instrumental ensembles (such as the "silk and bamboo" ensembles, and music for folk dances, and regional operas). The various folk melodies have become a major source of inspiration for the growing repertoire of contemporary music. In fact, in many contemporary compositions, existing folk melodies were simply modified, enriched (creatively through advanced playing techniques and the use of harmonies), and extended. Some were transcribed so successfully that they may be regarded as an important part of the growing classical repertoire; for instance the famous "Dance of Yi People" composed by Wang Hui-Ran for solo pipa. The repertoire is further extended by pieces composed or arranged for multi-instrument ensembles. Needless to say, most contemporary works are quite Westernized, particularly those for ensembles and orchestras (modelled on orchestras in the West), which are easily accessible to the general public, yet veer further away from the classical traditions . Quite often some of the traditional classical masterpieces are presented in commercially-packaged shows to look and sound "modern", which often gives a wrong impression to listeners who never really knew the original flavor of the music, particularly the spiritual side of the classical tradition.

With all that said, there are still a growing number of performers and listeners who have begun to seriously rethink the spiritual side of the classical tradition, such that there seems to be a revival of traditional culture as part of a growing interest in Chinese classical philosophy, literature, traditional medicine, calligraphy, painting, Taiji and Qigong.

On the one hand, it goes without saying that some of today's excellent creations will become tomorrow's traditions (and faked arts will soon be forgotten); on the other hand, it requires a true master to deliver the vast spiritual and the profound meaning (inner-feeling) of the masterpieces from the traditional classical repertoire in such a way as to touch the souls of the listeners, and indeed, great masters from various musical traditions all over the world have never failed to support the famous statement: "Authentic traditional music remains forever contemporary."