Chinese Orchestral Music

Most people nowadays may get their first introduction to Chinese music through the Chinese orchestra.
As a result, many might think that "classical" or traditional Chinese music is music of the Chinese orchestra.
This however, is not so.

Before the development of the Chinese Orchestra, there are various ensembles present around China. These ensembles are endemic - they play the music of their particular area. Some may be specialized in performing for religious rites, while others are opera troupes, court musicians, and so on.

The Chinese Orchestra as we know of it now, is a very recent invention, dating back to less than a century ago.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, China began to open her doors to the rest of the world.
Of course, before the turn of the century, there are missionaries and a few others from the west who brought Western music into China, but these were isolated people and events.
It was only after the turn of the century that western music really began to infiltrate the country, both from musicians from the west, as well as Chinese musicians who furthered their studies abroad.

The modern Chinese Orchestra could be traced back to the silk and bamboo ensembles (絲竹樂隊) from the southern part of China. In 1920, the Shanghai Da Tong musical group (上海大同樂會) was formed originally to revive music of the scholars (雅樂).
However, in 1925, Liu Yao Zhang (柳堯章) rearranged Xunyang Yue Ye (潯陽月夜) into the orchestral version Chun Jiang Hua Yue Ye (春江花月夜) which sparked off the development of new orchestral music.

In 1935, the former Central Broadcasting, Music Section, Folk Music Ensemble (中央廣播電台音樂組民樂隊) was formed, originally for the performance of Cantonese and Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo music. It was later expanded to include music from the northern parts of China as well, and by 1942, the structure of the ensemble has evolved with musicians for each of the four main sections of the orchestra - the wind, bowed, plucked and percussion instruments.

After the War of Liberation in 1949, many new ensembles sprung up.
In the Central Broadcasting Folk Music Orchestra, there came an important figure who stepped into the role of its conductor in 1952.
Peng Xiu Wen (彭修文) was instrumental in changing the face of the Chinese Orchestra into what we know of it now. He composed many new pieces and rearranged many other traditional tunes for the orchestra. He also started researching and developing the traditional instruments so that their sound becomes bigger, that they are able to sound well together, and at the same time, that the unique sound of the traditional instruments are not lost.

The Cultural Revolution that came in 1966 sadly, brought this rapid growth to a virtual standstill.
Through the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution, only a few pieces of orchestral music were produced and these were also mainly derived from music of the model operas (樣板戲) or revolutionary songs.

After the end of the Cultural Revolution, growth of the Chinese Orchestra slowly picked up again.
From the 80s onwards, Chinese Orchestras multiplied. New pieces are churned out endlessly for the orchestra.
Most provinces of China, where there once were only folk ensembles endemic to the area, each has a Chinese Orchestra as well.

And most of the pieces that we hear nowadays, even if they may be derived from traditional folk melodies, are played by modern Chinese orchestras, on modern Chinese orchestral instruments.


Zhong Guo Yin Yue Ci Dian. "中國音樂詞典-續編". Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, 2001.

Wang Yu He. Zhong Guo Jin Xian Dai Yin Yue Shi. "中國進現代音樂史". Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, Hua Yue Chu Ban She, 2002.

Chen Ming Zhi ed. Zhong Yue Yin Nin Geng Dong Ting - Min Zu Guan Xian Yue Dao Shang (Vol 1). "中樂因您更動聽-民族管弦樂導賞(上冊). Hong Kong: San Lian Shu Dian, 2003.

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