Chinese Folk Music

Chinese folk music is an inordinately huge topic encompassing all types of music from simple songs that are sung by the people, to intricate instrumental music with complex structure, to story-telling narrations, to dances, to operas that incorporate not only music but acting, dancing, martial arts, literary arts, visual arts and so on. What binds these different types of folk music together then?

Traditionally, folk music is passed down by oral means. There was no single composer to the music, but rather, with each repetition, each performance, new things are added and changes are made until it becomes a product of the community, of history. As could be seen thus, folk music has a huge element of improvisation, though not in the sense of improvisation in modern-day music terms, but rather, the element of change, of the musical ideas not being fixed in stone. It is closely related to the people meaning societal, political, geographical, historical factors, etc, are closely linked to the music. Not traditionally being notated down, there was also a restriction or perhaps a greater difficulty in disseminating the music far away. Music could be spread most effectively through direct listening and performing together and hence there was a regional factor to the music. As a result, linguistic characteristics of a region, differences in geographical, societal, political, historical, etc factors all contribute to create regional differences in folk music. Finally, folk music is largely utilitarian in nature, meaning it serves a purpose, whether to aid in labour, or as a means of education, passing down of information, or as an entertainment, folk music is never far separated from its utility.

Chinese music encompasses such a huge variety of forms but for ease of discussion, scholars have grouped them into

  • folk songs
  • music of folk dances
  • shuo chang or "spoken-drama" music
  • opera music
  • folk instrumental music
To read more about folk songs, click here.

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