Liu Tian Hua (劉天華) 1895 - 1932

Chinese music most likely would not be what it is today without Liu Tian Hua.

Throughout the long history of China, music has been an integral part of its society.  Long before the birth of Western classical music, long before the West developed any means of notating music, long before there was systematic study of music in the West, the Chinese have written treatises on music, have a department specially for studying music in the courts, and have notated down many classical pieces of court and scholarly music.

However, with the decline of the Qing Dynasty by the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese music fell into an abyss.  The decline of court music left the street performers, opera players and the musicians who perform music for religious rites as the few remaining professional performers of Chinese music.  Needless to say, these were unglamorous jobs which were usually relegated to the lowest rungs of society.

Liu Tian Hua had the opportunity of having a Western education after the fall of the Imperial Examinations in China.  In his schooldays, he learnt the violin and the trumpet.  However, he was also extremely interested in the instruments of his own culture.  He went about learning the erhu and pipa from the religious performers and street performers to further understand his own ethnic music.

Liu Tian Hua saw that developing Chinese music and Chinese instruments was of the utmost importance.  And among the Chinese instruments, he felt that developing the erhu took the number one place.  In his words, he believed that in the China of his times, the wowotou (窩窩頭 - a form of staple) and straw shoes were more important than Western cuisine or leather shoes.  And to Liu Tian Hua, the erhu was like the wowotou and the straw shoes; it might seem lowly, but it served a greater purpose than anything imported from outside.

The erhu had been a very important instrument in Chinese music for a long time.  However in the past, it usually does the job of accompaniment.  It was only in the hands of Liu Tian Hua that it grew from a predominantly accompanying instrument into a solo instrument.

In developing Chinese music, Liu Tian Hua believes that education plays a major role.  He penned many articles regarding the development of Chinese music, the importance of Chinese music and of education.  He taught many students and because of his experience with Western education and Western instruments, he devised ways of teaching traditional Chinese music that was very different from what went on in China during that time.  Since 1922, he started writing progressive studies for the erhu and pipa - the first time such studies appeared in the literature of traditional Chinese instruments.

From 1923 to 1932 came the most productive years in Liu Tian Hua as a composer.  All his compositions date from these 9 years and he also arranged and transcribed many traditional tunes for the ensemble.

Liu Tian Hua's musical philosophy stems from his four basic beliefs:

  • his love for his country and the desire to improve and develop traditional Chinese music
  • the possibility of a coming together of Chinese and Western music, techniques, ideas, and sounds
  • that music is for the people in general, for the common people all around the world and not any elite
  • his hope of bringing Chinese traditional music to the same par as Western music
Close to a century has passed since Liu Tian Hua started on his work to change the face of Chinese traditional music.  His contributions are too many to be discussed within one article, but suffice to say, it is because of his daring to dream the impossible then, that we have possible, the Chinese music now.

Min Hui Fen playing Kong Shan Niao Yu

Song Fei performing Zhu Ying Yao Hong

Yu Ming on the pipa with Xu Lai

and we even have the violin playing Liu Tian Hua's music, something quite unimaginable during Liu Tian Hua's time


Chen Zhen Duo. Liu Tian Hua De Chuang Zuo He Gong Xian "劉天華的創作和貢獻". Guangzhou: Zhong Guo Wen Yi Chu Ban Gong Si, 1987.

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