Chinese Music through the ancient times

The first music to be created probably came from the working people. Prehistoric people who grunted and vocalized together during work probably gave rise to the first working songs. When the work got too heavy, they realized that by grunting together in rhythm, they could exert their strength better, not to say provide a welcome distraction from the monotony of heavy physical work.

Before the invention of writing or drawing, there were no means of notating down the songs that were sung and they were all passed down orally. As a result, songs were inevitably changed over the years.

Here, I'm going to stretch the definition for folksongs. They will be broadened to include all the music that is indigenous to the area, whether it is from the common working people or the royalty.

The earliest records we have now of folksongs in China may be the "Guofeng" (國風) section in the "Shi Jing" (詩經). It provides a record of some of the folksongs that were prevalent in the 15 countries in the north of China during the period of more than 500 years from Western Zhou (西周) to mid Chun Qiu (春秋) Dynasties. Sadly, only the words were recorded and how the music might have sounded like can no longer be deciphered. The songs were mostly quadruple-versed poems with content that was straight-forward and simple, natural and yet poetic.

The folksong tradition in the country of Chu (楚國) during the Chun Qiu era was already very well developed. By the end of the Warring Era (戰國) the poet Qu Yuan (屈原) and other scholars worked to compile a record of the folksongs of Chu. These can be found in the "jiu ge" (九歌) section of "Chu Ci" (楚辭). Songs like "Xia Li" (下里), "Ba Ren" (巴人), "Yang Chun" (陽春), "Bai Xue" (白雪) etc. were all records of the actual folksongs from Chu. Other works found in the "Chu Ci" were penned down by Qu Yuan and the other scholars, according to the tradition of the folk songs and dances from Chu of that time.

During the Han Dynasty, an organization for music was set up, the "Yue Fu" (樂府). The job of the music workers of the Yue Fu was immense; collecting folk music from all around the country, arranging and perhaps re-writing these folk music, composing new music and performing music. The folk songs that could be set to music were known as "Yue Fu poems" (樂府詩). The rulers during the Han Dynasty were poets and would pen down poems according to their moods.


This was a poem "Da Feng Ge" (大風歌) composed by Liu Bang (劉邦) in 196BC during a victory celebration in his hometown.

The Yue Fu songs and "Xiang He Ge" (相和歌) during the Han Wei era (漢魏) contains songs and music composed and re-worked during that time. They also later evolved into the "Xiang He Da Qu" (相和大曲).

During the "San Guo" (三國), "Jin" (晉) and "Nan Bei" (南北) era, "Xi Qu" (西曲) and "Wu Ge" (吳歌) were important genres in the southern areas.

In the Tang Dynasty, tunes from the folk songs were incorporated into "Qu Zi" (曲子) and intricately reworked. They were filled in with various lyrics and were widely popular. Although Tang Dynasty Qu Zi originated from folk songs, they have already been reworked and has taken new form.

The songs in the Song Dynasty are even more popular and they became the basis from which other art forms are built on such as oral theatre (說唱) and opera (戲曲). Scholars and poets from this era also wrote lyrics which are based on meter and structure of these folk music, giving rise to a new form "Ci Diao Songs and music" (詞調歌曲音樂). It was not until the Song Dynasty when music was notated more scientifically and we can obtain records of actual music notated from that era.

Further on to the Ming (明), and Qing (清) Dynasties, huge waves of immigrants arrived in the cities. Together with this people, the music from the various rural areas in China conglomerated in the city centre, and the whole music scene became very vibrant. Gradually, books and scores of these folk songs were also published, making dissemination of folksongs much more easier and rapid.

Most music in China have their basis in folk music. The melodies, structure, rhythmic structure and ideas can be found incorporated into most traditional Chinese music, and through understanding folksongs, we may better interpret and understand our traditional Chinese music.

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