Folk Songs

A portion of traditional Chinese music which is still very much alive now are folk songs.
Simply put, folk songs are songs sung locally by the people of an area.
These people may come from all walks of life, and most are not professionally trained musicians.
Of course, more and more nowadays, professional musicians have taken these folk songs, performed them, made recordings of them, re-orchestrated them and transformed them.
However, folk songs never originate from the conservatories, or the performance halls. They came directly, spontaneously from the people.

China is an extremely large country. Just based on land area alone, it was not easy to traverse one side of China to another, especially in the past where the basic mode of transport was the feet or some beasts of burden.
Add to the fact that within this land mass, there are also geographical structures that made certain places virtually impassable.
As a result, each locale soon developed its own unique culture, dialect, way of life, and naturally, its own folk songs.

Folk songs play a very important part in peoples' lives and they can be used for education, to tell of historical events or legends and myths and to teach certain values, mark major life events, for religious rituals, for socialisation and for entertainment.

Historical development of folk songs
The earliest record of folk songs could be traced to the "Book of Songs" [詩經], in which the chapter guo feng [國風] recorded the folk songs of 15 nations spanning more than 500 years from 1100 B.C. to 600 B.C.. During the Han dynasty, xiang he ge [相和歌] and da qu [大曲] incorporated the folk songs of that period. The period of the Three Kingdoms, Wei Jin North and South dynasty had wu ge [吳歌] and xi qu [西曲]. Tang dynasty's qu zi [曲子] were the popular folk songs and by the Song dynasty, folk songs also found their way into shuo chang [說唱] and opera music. Further on to the Ming and Qing dynasties, city ditties or xiao diao [小調] start to develop as well.

Folk songs usually have simple yet poetic lyrics with short and simple melodies and economical use of musical materials. They are usually simple in their formal structure and the melody is easy to sing.

Because folk songs are so widely varied, so different not only in the dialect it uses, the content it elucidates, but also musically, classifying folk songs has always been something of a study.
Folk songs have been classified in a few ways: the contents of the folk song; the language (in this case the dialect) of the folk song; the period from which the folk song originated; the area from which the folk song originated; and the musical structure of the folk song.

Classifying folk songs by their musical structure, we see three main categories emerging.
They can be grouped generally into hao zi (號子) or working songs, shan ge (山歌) or mountain songs, and xiao diao (小調) or small ditty.

To read more about work songs or Hao zi, click here.

To read more about mountain songs or shan ge, click here.

To read more about xiao diao, click here.


Zhou Qing Qing. Zhong Guo Min Ge. "中國民歌". Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, 2003.

He Xiao Bing. Yin Yue Zuo Pin Shang Xi Jiao Cheng: Zhong Guo Min Ge. "音樂作品賞析教程:中國民歌". Beijing: Zhong Guo Chuan Mei Da Xue Chu Ban She, 2008.

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