28.1.12

Chinese Music Through the Ages, briefly...

Music has always been an important and integral part of the Chinese society throughout its history and the earliest known records of writings about music date back to the Spring and Autumn Period, an era in which Confucianism and Taoism were the two major schools of thought.

Confucius (孔子) believed that music is an important tool which could be used to affect society. It should thus be formal and strictly adhering to ritualistic processes and should not become something which is excessive or overly emotional or wild because it will cause moral standards to break down.

His school of disciples also follow similar pattern of thoughts, with a few variants. Mencius (孟子) believed in the inherent goodness of every person and music should be shared with everyone. However, even though his ideals were more progressive than the other philosophers of his time, he still believed that music is better to be made only by the royalty. Instead of music being a creative process of the population, his idea was of the royalty sharing their music with the common people, thus “influencing the population for the better”.

Xun Zi (荀子) was another of Confucius' disciples who furthered his idea of musical aesthetics. In addition to the Confucianism ideas that music can affect society, he went on further to conclude that in order for society to be gracious and harmonious, music has to be moderate. He also emphasizes the importance of ritual music, believing it to have the power of strengthening, or conversely, causing the downfall of an empire.

The other major school of thought during this era was Taoism. The originator of Taosim, Lao Zi (老子) based his ideas of music upon his Taoism philosophy, giving rise to the ideas that the best music is silence and nothingness. Music he believes, should be from nature, and man-made music is at best, second-rate.

The Han Dynasty saw a flowering in new forms in music. Writings regarding music during that time included the “Huai Nan Zi” (淮南子) in the beginning of the Han Dynasty, the “Yue Ji” (樂記), “Shi Ji” (史記) and “Li Ji” (禮記) during Han Wu Di's (漢武帝) reign, and the writings of the philosopher of idealism, Dong Zhong Shu (董仲舒). The common belief during this time was that music came from nature, to a person's heart, to become sound, and only when they all merge together does music occur. Taoist influences were prominent and silence was seen as the best music of all. Music was also believed to be able to affect humans and so good music was necessary for a ruler to control his subjects and rule the world.

The Wei, Jin, North South Dynasties have somewhat contrasting ideas about the aesthetics of music as compared to the previous Han Dynasty. There were beginning ideas about the absolutism of music; there was also a merging of the previously conflicting ideas about music in the Confucianism and Taoism schools of thoughts. A few major philosophers and writers of this era were Ruan Ji (阮籍), Ji Kang (嵇康), Wang Bi (王弼) and Liu Xie (劉勰).

In the previous few eras, philosophers discussed mainly about court music because they believed that this was the only proper form of music. Folk music of the common people were not healthy and was not suitable for educated people because they might erode moral values, and cause the downfall of an empire. There have been a few attempts to collect folk music but they are never accepted into high society. Even so, folk music is very much alive, although they do not conform to the ideas philosophers have about good and beautiful music.

During the Sui and Tang era, there came great changes in the structure of society. The formalization of the imperial examination created opportunities for scholars who are not necessarily born into royalty. Education became more widespread and ideas, culture and traditions could be passed to the population easily instead of remaining tightly within the court. There was also great acceptance of varied ideas. The Emperor Tang Tai Zong (唐太宗) held the believe that the people were of great importance, more so than the ruler, and encouraged freedom of speech and ideas. The opening of the waterways and the Silk Road also brought about great influx in ideas and music. Folk music in China flourished especially during this time and many instruments now endemic to the Chinese such as the pipa, were in fact brought in from other lands during this era. Major writers and philosophers of this era who touched on music included the Emperor Tang Tai Zong (唐太宗) and the poet Bai Ju Yi (白居易). There are also a collection of other writings whose authors are now unknown in “Yue Fu” (樂府) and “Qin Jue” (琴訣). Taoist and Confucian ideas still provide a major influence to the ideas and beliefs about music at this time. Moderation was encouraged, and many believed music to be for education, for uplifting of the soul, and not for entertainment. This was a common thread that runs through much of China's history within the royalty and educated people - music was serious, and used for purposes of education, of shaping people's thoughts, of stabilizing a country's rule and was not for flippant entertainment.

In the Northern Song Dynasty, cities began to grow and trade flourished. The folk arts was thriving and creative forces strong. Printing was invented during this time and music and ideas could spread even more easily then ever. With the downfall of the Northern Song and movement to the south, life became more difficult and the peaceful and prosperous times came to an end. However, music and art flourished even more in times of hardship and strive and music added a perspective of realism. Notable writers and philosophers of this era included Su Shi (蘇軾), Ou Yang Xiu (歐陽修), Zhou Dun Yi (周敦頤), Shen Kuo (沈括), Zhu Xi (朱熹), Jiang Kui (姜夔), Chen Yang (陳暘), as well as the writings in the book “Tong Zhi” (通志).

The Yuan Dynasty saw the Han Chinese being conquered by the Mongolians. There was blatant racism and many Han Chinese lost the chance of becoming a court official. Life for the Han Chinese was full of hardships but this gave birth to the contents of many touching music and operas. Music started to move away from moderation and educating or uplifting the soul to portraying real life. The aspect of social commentary of music which has always been present albeit only in folk music became more widespread. Professional method books for the Qin and Operatic singing were also written such as “Qin Lun” (琴論) and “Chang Lun” (唱論).

After the Mongolians were defeated, China entered into it's next era, the Ming Dynasty. This was a period of even greater growth in the cities and advances in farming and trade. Many forms of folk art were rampant within the cities, reflecting the lives and emotions of the ordinary people, a far cry from the times of Confucius who believed that good music must be moderate and come from the royalty. This was also a period of great scientific developments and plenty of scientific theories on music were written.

The Qing Dynasty which came after saw a restriction in the freedom of ideas and thoughts of the previous era. Many scholars and philosophers who were more progressive in their thinking were executed and Taoism alone was pushed forward as the mainstream thought. China was slowly closed to the rest of the world and music of the past was encouraged within official grounds and music became more and more detached from real life. Music within the courts seemed to move back into the past with progresses discouraged. Within the realm of the common people however, folk music continued to flourish and grow. Notable scholars during the Ming and Qing Dynasties were Wang Shou Ren (王守仁), Li Zhi (李贄), Li Yu (李漁), Xu Da Chun (徐大椿), Xu Shang Ying (徐上瀛), Tang Xian Zu (湯顯祖) and the Yuan (袁) brothers of the “Gong An Pai” (公安派).

Finally, towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, with the opening of China to the rest of the world, new ideas started to flow into China. The abolishment of the imperial examination and the setting up of schools saw education for the masses. Music was made as a tool of education, an idea not unlike that seen in the days of Confucius, but with an entirely different idea about the aesthetics of music. No longer was music meant to be moderate, to be devoid of strong emotions. Liu Tian Hua, Shen Xin Gong, Xiao You Mei were a few of those who took the music of China to a different level.

With the years of internal conflict and external conflict that plagued China from the 1920s to 1940s, music was also used as a means of spurring on the emotions, of creating feelings of patriotism. Nie Er and Xian Xin Hai, and later Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing during the Cultural Revolution, contributed to shaping the music of China into a yet different direction; one which believes strongly in the power of music to effect changes in the society.


The development of music in a society has a myriad of inexhaustible influences from events during the time, from geographical influences, from human influences, and from natural influences. We cannot re-create the exact intent the creator of a certain music has or the exact ideas and emotions they intend to evoke; we can at best approximate it through a greater awareness of beliefs, ideas and historical background of the time that music was created.


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DeWoskin, Kenneth J.. “A Song for One or Two – Music and the Concept of Art in Early China”. Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies No. 42. The University of Michigan Centre for Chinese Studies, 1982.

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Jiang Qing. ‘On the Revolution in Peking Opera. Speech in July 1964 at Forum of Theatrical Workers Participating in the Festival of Peking Operas on Contemporary Themes’. Chinese Literature, 1967 (8): 119-120.

Lee Lan Qing. Essays on the Modern Music of China. Beijing: Gao Deng Jiao Yu Chu Ban She, 2009.

Mao Zedong. ‘A Talk to Music Workers’ in Chinese Literature, January 1980: 82–90.

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