What happened to the music in China after the Opium War

Throughout China's long history, ritual music or "ya yue" (雅樂) has been the representation of the music of the royalty, the court, the intellectuals. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, although still being used in religious rituals and certain court activities, such music have already lost their touch with the common people. Despite attempts to bring this ancient music back into popularity, it has not been a success.

Throughout much of China's history, popular folk music has frequently been relegated to the position of bad music, music that will bring along a society's downfall and the such. However, because these folk music are a product of the real everyday lives of the common people, they thrive and bloom and remain a very important part of the common people's lives.

By the end of the Qing Dynasty, people's dissatisfaction with the old feudal society, the crumbling of the declining Qing empire, as well as advances in the infrastructure that led to greater ease in communication meant the increase and greater ease of proliferation of folk music. Instruments are refined and new ensembles set up.

The Opium War in China could be considered one of the important watersheds in the history of Chinese Music.

Development of new folk songs

After the Opium War, there was a huge rise in folk songs that reflected the lives and hardships of the common people. There were also songs about the corruption and decadence of the old feudal society and the patriotism and nationalistic feelings of the common people.
Most of the songs evolved from familiar folk tunes that are popular in the areas they are found.

Development of "shuo chang" (說唱)

From the mid Qing Dynasty, the culture of "shuo chang" have slowly grew and matured in the big cities around China. In the north, there were various types of "shuo chang" with big drums which later further evolved into the different kinds of "da gu" (大鼓) music. In the south, there was the development of the "Suzhou Tan Ci" (蘇州彈詞) which was already prominent during the beginning of the Qing Dynasty.

Around the time of the "Xin Hai Ge Ming" or the Revolution of 1911, new songs were written which reflected the happenings of the time.

Development of operatic music

The Kunqu opera which was widely popular during the mid Qing Dynasty started to decline towards the time of the Opium War. Other forms of opera endemic to the various different areas of China also evolved and developed but during this time, the opera which was most widely popularised was the Peking Opera. Many prominent and fine opera actors came out during this time.

Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, Peking Opera actor Wang Xiao Nong (汪笑儂) penned many new librettos of Peking Opera which reflected his anguish and dissatisfaction with the Qing government of that time.

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Western plays also infiltrated China and led to the development of the new "Wen Ming Xi" (文明戲).

Development of instrumental ensembles

Instrumental ensembles started to become more and more popular with the common people during the end of the Qing Dynasty. The development of different types of opera also led to an explosion of new tunes and instrumental performance techniques. Besides these, there were also the rise to prominence of some instrumental soloists especially in guqin and pipa, and these musicians did a lot of work in helping to retain and organise the large body of traditional Chinese music.

Western musical influences into China and the development of songs sung in schools

The earliest Western music that might have entered China may be traced back to the Tang Dynasty when Nestorian Christianity came into China, bringing along with them, their hymns. Later on, other evangelists came and during the Ming Dynasty, even brought along a harpsichord and some other Western instruments as gifts for the royalty.

During the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century, Belgium Jesuit Ferdinandus Verbiest and Portugal Jesuit Thomas Pereira were employed by Emperor Kangxi as music teachers for the court. To facilitate their teaching, a theory book was even written in Chinese: "Lü Lü Zuan Yao" (律呂纂要). Within the sequel "Xie Yun Du Qu" (協韻度曲) of the music catalogue commissioned by Kangxi, "Lü Lü Zheng Yi" (律呂正義), there are also detailed records of the music scores and theory that have been brought into China by Thomas Pereira and his successor, Theodoricus Pedrini. It is also worth noting that there had been performances of Western music and even the staging of an Italian opera in the courts of the Qing empire.

These were the seeds of Western musical influences that were sown within China. However, because they were restricted to the Church and the courts during that time, the circle of influence was quite small.

After the Opium War in the mid-19th century, China was forced to open her doors to the west. More and more educated people learnt about new ideas and concepts from the West and Western music found a fertile ground for growth. Western music came through, largely from church music, formation of military bands and military songs, as well as songs and singing classes modelled from the West in schools. All these ensured that Western music reached not only the royalty, but also the common people.

Sacred music from the churches
Evangelistic activities always comes with plenty of worship songs. The language these worship songs are in is hence one of the most pressing problems for evangelising in China. By 1818, Robert Morrison has published a book of hymns in Chinese. Later evangelists and other church workers also added their efforts in translating other worship songs into Chinese and many other hymnals were published. Publishing increased over the years and by the early 20th century, there were many books of hymns that have been published, either in English or Chinese or even with dialectical variations. Most of these come with not only the lyrics but also the musical notations. There were even some newly written worship songs. The influence these songs brought to the people in China began with believers, but soon spread outside the church as well. Choral singing, modelled after the choirs in the churches were soon adopted. Western musical notation, western instruments also spread to the secular society. The influence was also not restricted simply to the more well-developed areas along the shorelines during that time, but also to the interior of China, to the minority tribes.

During the uprising of the "Taiping Tian Guo" (太平天國農民起義), songs were sung that were modelled after Christian worship songs, with one of their leaders, Hong Xiu Quan (洪秀全) being a Christian.

Christian songs and music were also not restricted to the churches. During festivals and celebrations, some churches also organised concerts and performances of Western music. Some missionary schools even provided instrumental classes, especially piano lessons and nurtured a new generation of music lovers well-versed in Western music. Some of these young people even had the opportunity of furthering their education abroad.

Military Bands

Military bands in the West were prominent not only within the army, but also in public events as well as in schools. Their use and areas of dominance was not unlike the forms of wind and percussion ensembles in Chinese folk music. However, the style of the two types of music is vastly different and soon during the end of the 19th century, some of the foreigners living in Shanghai got together and formed "The Shanghai - Public Band".
Soon after that, Sir Robert Hart also formed a band, the "Hart band" (赫德樂隊) in Beijing. The former comprised of purely Westerners while the latter depended on training up local youngsters. By the beginning of the 20th century, the band started to include string instruments as well. Sadly, when Sir Robert Hart retired back to Britain in 1908, the band was disbanded.

There have also been evidence of other bands formed by the locals as early as 1898 in the records of Yuan Shi Kai (袁世凱) "Bing Lue Lu Cun" (兵略錄存) which states the criteria and set up of a military band. Although records are sparse, it was evident that such a band was already in existence in the army of Yuan Shi Kai. The function and set up of such a band certainly influenced bands found in later military set ups and schools.

Military Songs

Military songs are a special type of communal songs and are present in China's long history of military set up. However modern military songs modelled from military songs from the West grew popular especially during and after the revolution of 1911 (辛亥革命). The new wave of patriotism also meant that some songs taught in the modern schools had ideas of nationalism, of fighting for one's country; for the purpose of driving the younger generation towards revolution and patriotic feelings. These songs that the youngsters learnt in schools would also provide the basis of new military songs that would be sung when this generation of young people graduated from schools and joined the army.

As military songs grew more widespread, there were even specific mentions of new recruits being taught military songs. In 1908 for example, the catalogue of military music published under Yuan Shi Kai, "Jun Yue Gao" (軍樂稿)  includes the lyrics of 56 military songs accompanied with 20 different melodies. Later on, the Northwest Army under Feng Yu Xiang (馮玉祥) also sang a large number of military songs. The Christian Feng Yu Xiang employed plenty of singing as part of his military training. He wrote a number of military songs and although written records can no longer be found, verbal records from soldiers during that time are still available and his ideas have profound influence on other military groups since that time.

Songs sung in schools

For the most part, Western musical influences entered China largely through the music and songs taught in the modern schools. Since the Opium War, many people in China are dissatisfied with the old way of things and look to the West for modern ideas in areas such as politics, science, culture and religion. Music education in China is hence also greatly influenced by these new thoughts.

The earliest records of modern music lessons could be traced to mission schools in the mid 19th century. A few officials who believed in these new ideas from the West also believed that music is an important part of education. This led to new syllables for music education in other modern schools as well.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Kang You Wei (康有為) wrote eloquently about the importance of modern education in China, espousing people to learn from Europe or even nearby Japan in their ways of education. Although attempts to revolutionise the education system in China at that time failed, certain ideas stuck and were slowly adopted. Liang Qi Chao (梁啓超) and other modern intellects also wrote prolifically on the importance of music as part of the education.

Some of these intellectuals also put their hands to writing new lyrics for these modern songs which were mostly fitted with well-known melodies to be sung. A little later, returning students from abroad and other intellectuals renewed attempts to promote singing of these modern songs into mainstream school activities. And from 1912, music grew to become a compulsory subject in teachers' training colleges. However, there was still a significant difficulty in producing a large number of qualified music teachers within a short time. Although the political situation after the founding of the republic of China was still full of turmoil, the push for modernisation in education was still relatively well taken care of.

The contents of songs sung in school (學堂樂歌)
During that time, many of the intellectuals and officials who believed in the modernisation of China do not look upon music education in schools simply as the inculcating of aesthetic values in the younger generation but also imbued upon these music lessons, ideas of patriotism, of modern thinking, values for the building of modern China. The importance of music education suddenly became infused with a much larger implication than what was originally meant. But it is also precisely because of this added implication that made so many people concerned about music education in schools.

The contents of the lyrics of these songs could be categorised into:

  1. Songs promoting the idea of strengthening China, of preventing foreign invasion of China. These songs were the most numerous and the influence the most widespread such as "He Ri Xing" (何日醒) by Xia Song Lai (夏頌萊), "Ai Zu Guo" (哀祖國) by Li Shu Tong (李叔同).
  2. Ideas about the overturn of the old feudal society, the formation of modern China embodied in songs such as "Ge Ming Jun" (革命軍) by Shen Xin Gong (沈心工).
  3. Songs with ideas for national education for the younger students such as "Chu Jun" (出軍), "Fu Nü Cong Jun Xing" (婦女從軍行). These songs reflected the heavy influence of Japanese music education ideas.
  4. Songs encouraging new feminism ideas. Although there were not many of such songs, but it was a rare thing during that era for people to recognise the idea of sexual equality and to change the position of females in the society. Some examples of such songs were "Nü Ge Ming Jun" (女革命軍) by Hua Hang Chen (華航琛) and "Chan Zu Ku" (纏足苦) by Shen Xin Gong (沈心工).
  5. Encouraging the learning of modern ideas and discouraging the old such as "Ge Zhi" (格致), “Di Qiu" (地球).
  6. Imbibing in young people, the habit of hard work and the love of life and nature such as "Mian Xue" (勉學) and "Zhu You Zhi Sheng" (祝幼稚生).
  7. Encouraging ideas of upholding the old traditions of Confucianism and loyalty. These ideas however, were not very popular and songs encouraging such ideas were few and also not very popular.

The artistic structure of songs sung in schools
Most such songs were written with their melody either in standard notation or in simplified notation but without the piano accompaniment score. Most were only single melody songs and only after the Xinhai revolution were there few inclusions of choral singing.

The songs were mainly lyrics written over existing melodies and very few were newly composed melodies. Most were derived from Japanese songs which returning students from Japan brought back with them in their studies there. Later on, there were also melodies borrowed from European and American songs. Very few were based on melodies from China. Some of the reasons for this was because such songs were deeply influenced by similar Japanese songs. Also, those who wrote and encouraged these songs were mostly students who have studied abroad and were more familiar with the cultures and music abroad than with their own homeland. Many teachers for the young were at one point, Japanese who have been invited over to teach. These people were definitely, even more unaware of folk songs and melodies from China.

Because these songs were basically new lyrics written over existing melodies, there existed, plenty of different songs based on the same melody. These songs were not widely published, but only used within the educational context in schools. Their publication was also not standardised, with some being notation in standard notation, some in simplified, some even with only the lyrics but not the melody.

The establishment of these modern songs sung in school marked a milestone in China's modern music history. The development of these songs could be divided into 3 broad phases, its formation before the Xinhai revolution, around a decade after the revolution, and from the 1919 revolution to the Sino-China war.

Shen Xin Gong (沈心工), Li Shu Tong (李叔同) and Zeng Zi Min (曾志忞) were three prominent musicians who contributed vastly to the growth and development of the songs sung in schools during this period.


  1. wow this is inspiring. i really should learn more about the history of the Chinese music.