The Classification of Folk Songs according to their area of origin

Chinese music may be a giant category for one of the most varied and diverse music in the world.  There are many ways in which folk songs can be categorized, one of which is according to its function, whether it is a mountain song, a work song, or a city ditty.  This however only provides the most basic generalization and songs within one category may sound totally different musically because of its area of origin.  Hence another method of classifying folk songs in China is based upon its area of origin.

When we study a folk song in terms of its area of origin, there are a few elements we can look at:
  • its tonality and characteristic tones such as a slightly raised 4 and a slightly lowered 7 in music of the Chaozhou area

  • the melodic structure such as whether the melody consists of a lot of jumps or a narrow melodic range and so on

  • the way its melody is decorated in terms of ornaments, tone color, tempo, dynamics and the language (in this case the dialect) used and its inflections

  • characteristic melodic phrases unique to a certain locale such as the phrase
     xcvbzxcjcxlcbh bgbndbngnbh ' xrac nbhrbna rbsbnrgbnrdbnrg ' ra ;' frequently used as a bridge in Jiangnan folk songs.

  • Because of the geographical variations and historical developments within this large land mass known as China, different cultures, linguistic characteristics, industries and societies evolved.  Music is never stagnant.  Hence the music of these different areas, due to all these different influences, developed differently as well, resulting in many diverse kinds of folk songs, each with its own unique color, yet distinctly Chinese as well.

    map taken from Paul and Bernice Noll Website

    Geographical characteristics
    The water masses, mountains, shape of the land mass, and the climate all make a difference in the geographical characteristics of a certain location.  The Chinese in China are spread over a huge area, each with its own geographical characteristics.  The two biggest rivers in China, the Chang Jiang (長江) and the Yellow River (黃河) have done the job of dividing the whole of China into northern and southern parts.

    Mountains are another important structure that divides an area too.  Not only are the physical climate, vegetation and the likes different on different sides of the mountains, people's culture, dialect and society are usually vastly different as well because of the inaccessibility across the mountain ranges.

    Because of these geographical structures, the culture of China can be divided into a few areas:
    • in the northern part of China around the Yellow River, the land mass can be divided into East (plateau) and West (loess highland)
    • in the southern part of China around Chang Jiang, the land mass can be divided into Southwest (highland), Central South (with mountains, valleys and water masses) and Jiang Nan (plateau)
    • Around the Pearl River, the Yue (粵) region

    Early Historical Development

    Way back in history, the Chinese have evolved in three separate regions - the Zhongyuan (中原) culture near the mouth Yellow River, the Dongyi (東夷) culture near the delta of the Yellow River and the Miaoman (苗蠻) culture around Chang Jiang.  Some historians have also divided ancient China into 8 diverse cultural sections - the Zhongyuan, Dongshi, Jianghan, Lower Changjiang, Huanan, Ganqing, Dongbei and the Northern Grassland cultures.


    The linguistic characteristic of a certain location is an area of interest for people studying folks songs as well because the dialect influences the way certain phrases are sung and of course the lyrics of a song.  The dialects of the different areas in China are not segregated according to the provincial lines we see today.  They evolve from historical movements of the people and some areas which may be just next to each other have totally different dialects because of inaccessibility due to geographical structures while others further away might speak almost the same dialect.

    Societal structures and characteristics

    The society and culture within each location is influenced by many aspects. Geographical structures, commerce, war, to name a few, all contribute to the unique characteristics of the culture of each location.  For instance, in an agricultural society, the people are more segregated from the outside and hence their music have a strong unique flavor which is seldom influenced by other sources outside of their area.  In the towns and cities, the folk songs may be less characteristic of its particular area because there are more movement and influences from people all over, even from other towns and provinces.

    Throughout history, there have been instances of mass migration due to famines, war and social unrest.  The ethnic Hans (the majority ethnic group in China) originated from around the Yellow River.  After the Zhou Dynasty, many moved south to the Chang Jiang area.  From then on, the population started to grow around these two pockets.  In the Jin Dynasty, the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, there were three more instances of mass migration to the southern parts of China.  Later on, in the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, many ethnic Hans migrated from Shandong, Hebei and Shanxi into the Dongbei area, thus changing the demographic of that area from originally minority tribe into mainly Han.
    Dongbei Folk Song 

    Also, in the past few hundred years, many ethnic Hans from the Northwestern part of China also moved into inner Mongolia, thereby also changing the culture of inner Mongolia
    Mongolian Folk Song

    In the south, a group of ethnic Hans known as the Ke Jia (客家) or "Guest" people settled around the Yue (粵) area.

    Ke Jia Folk Song

    There was also plenty of movement into the Yunnan area since the Yuan Dynasty and the music of this area hence showed influences from the Han culture, as well as its various minority cultures originally from the area.

    Yunnan Folk Song

    When looking at music, one must always remember that it is forever changing, evolving, being influenced by the society and the culture of the people who make the music.  A folk song is not just beautiful melody and lyrics.  It is a story of the people who make the song, their ideas, beliefs, hopes and life.


    Zhou Qing Qing. Zhong Guo Min Ge "中國民歌". Beijing: Ren Min Yin Yue Chu Ban She, 1993.

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