Chinese Music — History, Classifications, Artists, Eminent Songs, and Fun Facts

Chinese Music has been an important art form throughout history, from ancient worship songs that imitate natural sounds, to significant aspects of rituals and rites that represent civilization and respect, for people to celebrate, relax, cultivate, appreciate, and sing along. 

Chinese Music
Traditional Chinese Music Performance in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong.

Classical Music Performance in the Painting "Night Revels of Han Xizai", by Gu Hongzhong (910 — 980). This is the copied version of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), preserved in the Palace Museum.

 

Facts and Characteristics of Traditional Chinese Music

 

  • Traditional Chinese music, throughout history, has a close connection to ancient Chinese Poetry

 

The oldest existing poem collection Shi Jing, compiled by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), also named Classic of Poetry or Classic of Songs, is about ancient poems with melodic tunes from the 11th to 6th Centuries BC. 

 

Moreover, all ancient Chinese poems in history have tunes that could be sung. 

  • Music Scores have been recorded using Chinese Characters, to explain methods regarding fingering action and string orders, and to describe pitch and tempo.

The Earliest Existing Chinese Music Notation "Jieshi Diao Youlan" from the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

The Earliest Existing Musical Notation "Jieshi Diao Youlan" from the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), is Believed Written by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC). 

  • Among all Traditional Chinese Instruments, Guqin or Qin has been considered the most elegant and supreme. 

 

Excellent Guqin playing skill, together with Weiqi (Strategy Game of Go), Shufa (Chinese Calligraphy), and Huihua (Chinese Painting), consists of the Four Arts that aristocrats and talented scholars gentlemen in ancient China should master.

Ancient Qin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Cai Feng Ming Qi Front and Back

Ancient Guqin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Cai Feng Ming Qi Front and Back

  • Traditional Chinese songs use the pentatonic scale based on the Five Elements Theory and Shi Er Lv or the Twelve Pitch Pipes as the tuning system.

  • The 12 Tone Equal Temperament of modern music was first discovered and described accurately by Prince Zhu Zaiyu in the year 1584. 

 

  • Chinese music goes back to at least 8000 years ago, based on the crane wing bones made flute unearthed from the Jiahu Site (7000 BC — 5700 BC) of Peiligang Culture.

Red-crowned Crane Bone Made Flute, Peiligang Culture (About 7000 — 8000 Years Ago)

Red-crowned Crane Bone Made Flute, Peiligang Culture (About 7000 — 8000 Years Ago) — Henan Antique Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Origin of Ancient Chinese Music

 

In regard to the origin of ancient Chinese music, there are some different versions, including worshiping nature and praying for blessings, expressing feelings, entertaining, relaxing, etc. 

 

However, they are quite clear in historical writings and folklores.

 

King Fuxi, the primogenitor of Chinese culture, one of the Great Three Sovereigns in ancient China, is believed to have invented the musical instruments Qin, Se, and Xun, and brought music to people's daily works and lives. 

Pottery Figurine of Playing Se of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Pottery Figurine of Playing Se of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Later, during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (about 2717 BC — 2599 BC), Ling Lun invented the Shi Er Lv or the Twelve Pitch Pipes using bamboo-made flutes, by listening and imitating the sound of the mythical Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang.

 

Music during the ancient era is the sacred melody that connects heaven and earth, humans and nature. 

A Pair of Chinese Phoenixes Fenghuang

A Pair of Chinese Phoenixes Fenghuang, Picture by FY Ruyi.

 

Development, History, and Main Genres

 

Till Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), rites and uses of music, dance, and singing lyrics had been regulated systematically, with clear written records. 

 

Meanwhile, four main styles have been formed and developed since then.  

Folk Music

 

Folk Music or Minjian Yinyue includes folk songs that came from and were sung by ordinary people, mostly about their daily lives and feelings. 

 

Court Music

 

Court Music or Gongting Yinyue refers to classical songs for royals and nobles to worship heaven and earth, memorize ancestors, praise accomplishments, hold grand rites, and entertain.

Ritual Bronze Chime Bells Bianzhong of Zenghouyi or Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 475 BC — 433 BC)

Ritual Bronze Chime Bells Bianzhong of Zenghouyi or Marquis Yi of Zeng (about 475 BC — 433 BC) — Hubei Museum

Religious Music 

 

Religious Music or Zongjiao Yinyue refers to ceremonial music of religions, mainly including Taoism Religion and Buddhism.

Literati Music

 

Literati Music or Wenren Yinyue, developed in the Three Kingdoms, Wei, Northern and Southern Dynasties (220 — 589), includes classical music created by scholar-officials, to express their elegance, virtue, self-cultivation, and personal philosophy.  

 

Therefore, in general, Guqin tunes and poetic lyrics are two essential aspects of Literati Music. 

Appreciating Musical Instrument Qin (Ting Qin Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song

Scholars Appreciating Qin Performance (Ting Qin Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song (1082 — 1135) — The Palace Museum

 

Artists of Music of China in History

 

Musicians in ancient history consisted of three groups, court musicians, civilians, and scholars. 

 

Court Musicians and Imperial Music Bureau

 

Court Musicians were professionals working in the Imperial Music Bureau, who wrote and composed music under the commands of royals. 

 

Originated no later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), and thrived during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (156 BC — 87 BC), the Imperial Music Bureau had been established, whose musicians were assigned to collect poems and folk songs, compose music, and perform them for royals, like in worship ceremonies and banquets. 

Traditional Chinese Music Performance of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) on Murals of the Mogao Grottoes

Traditional Music and Dance Performance of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) on Murals of the Mogao Grottoes.

Therefore, the contents of court music are quite rich, from the wondrous mythical world to stories of people from all social backgrounds, about their life, love, ambition, dream, happiness, struggle, and pain. 

 

The story of the famous heroine Mulan is a long poem recorded in court songs of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 — 534). 

 

Court musicians, though very talented, were considered humble in royal palaces, and unlike their works, mostly couldn't leave their names in historical records. 

Pottery Figurine of Court Musicians of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Pottery Figurine of Court Musicians of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — National Museum of China

Civilians As Collective Musicians

 

Ordinary people have been an important part in regard to creating and spreading music, from work songs, and marching songs, to folk songs, opera, and various music styles of different regions and ethnic groups.  

Pottery Figurine A Farmer Playing Flute (Xiao) in Sheepfold of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220)

Pottery Figurine A Farmer Playing Traditional Wind Instrument Flute (Xiao) in Sheepfold of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220) — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Literati Musicians

 

Musicians from nobles and scholars, the ruling class of ancient China, have been the most respected and famous musicians in history, for their social status and privileges, as well as their exceptional talents.

 

Because of the high status of Guqin, most literati musicians were accomplished in their Guqin music, such as Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), Bo Ya (about 387 BC — 299 BC),  Ji Kang (224 — 263), Su Shi (1037 — 1101), and so on. 

 

Some others were masters of other musical instruments because of their personal interests, such as Emperor Li Longji (685 — 762) and Lady Yang (719 — 756) were masters of many instruments, especially the Pipa.

Chinese Musical Instrument Pipa or Chinese Lute of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Traditional Stringed Instrument Pipa of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

 

Ten of the Most Eminent Classical Chinese Songs

 

Among tens of thousands of beautiful melodies throughout history, it is widely accepted that there are ten of the most classic and famous songs. 

High Mountains and Running Water — Gao Shan Liu Shui

 

It is a Guqin melody and a symbol of sincere friendship. 

 

Noble-born musician Bo Ya (about 387 BC — 299 BC) one day was playing Guqin during his trip, under the moonlight and amid picturesque mountains and crystal clear rivers. 

 

A woodcutter named Ziqi was attracted by his magnificent music.  

 

Bo Ya kept playing and surprisingly found out that Ziqi, as no one else ever could,  understood his melody, conception, ambition, and everything else through his music. 

 

After Ziqi passed away, Bo Ya destroyed his Guqin in front of Ziqi's tomb and never played again, since no one could ever understand his music as his great friend Ziqi did.  

Story of Gaoshan Liushui, Painted by Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552)

Story of Gaoshan Liushui, Painted by Qiu Ying (1497 — 1552) — Palace Museum

Guangling Melody — Guangling San

 

It is a Guqin melody, about chivalry, vengeance, bravery, and responsibility. 

 

Originally a folksong telling story of a hero who assassinated a king and revenged for his father, later Guangling San became the best repertoire of great scholar musician Ji Kang (224 — 263).

Wild Geese Landing On Calm Sandbank — Pingsha Luoyan

 

It is a Guqin melody about ambition. 

 

Through poetic tunes describing wild geese, the symbol of ambition and nobility in ancient Chinese culture, soaring in the sky and landing on the sandbank, the music portrays a series of picturesque scenes and cultural conceptions. 

Three Stanzas of Plum Blossoms — Meihua Sannong

 

It is a Guqin melody about the beauty and virtue of Plum Blossoms, the symbol of strength, nobility, courage, and modesty in Chinese culture. 

 

Click to Read More Flowers and Their Meanings in Chinese Culture

Painting and Poem Praising Plum Blossoms, By Court Artist Ma Lin  of the Southern Song Dynasty

Painting and Poem Praising Plum Blossoms, By Court Artist Ma Lin  of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279) — Palace Museum

The Leisure of Fisherman and Woodcutter — Yuqiao Wenda

 

This is a Guqin melody that describes questions and answers between a fisherman and a woodcutter, about putting aside power and materialism and pursuing the beauty and essence of lives in tranquil nature.

 

Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute — Hujia Shiba Pai

 

It is an ancient Guqin melody with poems, written by Cai Wenji telling her life experiences and struggles. 

 

Cai Wenji was a brilliant woman born into a scholar's family, very good at literature, calligraphy, and music. 

 

During the chaotic wars and political conspiracies in the late Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Cai Wenjin lost her first husband and her father, got captured, and was forced to marry a king of nomadic Xiongnu. 

 

Lord Cao Cao (155 — 220), a good friend of Cai's late father, spent a fortune and welcomed her back after he obtained power, and found her another good husband. 

 

This song, including 18 chapters, was written after Cai Wenjin was welcomed back to Han Empire, telling people about her stories, struggles, sorrows, and longings. 

Painting About Cai Wenji Returning the Han Empire, by Chen Juzhong of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279)

Painting About Cai Wenji Returning the Han Empire, by Chen Juzhong of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279) — Taipei Palace Museum

Autumn Moon Over the Han Palace — Hangong Qiuyue

 

This is an ancient melody that could be played by traditional Chinese instruments including Pipa, Guqin, Zheng, and Erhu. 

 

The music describes royal maidens of the palace of the Han Empire (202 BC — 220 AD), about their longing for love and family.

 

Snow on a Sunny Spring Day — Yangchun Baixue

 

It is an ancient melody that could be played in Guqin and Pipa, about beautiful snow on a sunny spring, symbolizing elegance, purity, brightness, nobility, and harmony. 

Snow Scene in Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei (701 — 761)

Snow Scene in Landscape Painting "Jianggan Xueji Tu" by Wang Wei (701 — 761).

Flute and Drum at Sunset — Xiyang Xiaogu

 

It is a Pipa melody that portrays a scroll of stunningly beautiful landscape, including the flowing river, magnificent mountains, poetic sunset and moonlight, where people linger amid blooming flowers or sail on flowing boats. 

 

Ambush from Ten Sides — Shimian Maifu

 

It is a Pipa melody about war and triumph, based on the intensive final battle between Liu Bang and Xiang Yu in the year 202 BC.

 

Consists of three main chapters, this song described how Liu Bang led his army, ambushed and enclosed his strong rival King Xiang Yu, won the intense battle, and later established the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD).  

Pottery Figurine Infantry, Unearthed from Liu Bang's Satellite Mausoleum

Pottery Figurine Infantry, Unearthed from Liu Bang's Satellite Mausoleum — Xianyang Museum

 

Traditional Chinese Musical Instruments

 

Since the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), musical instruments have been classified into eight categories based on material, including metal, stone, clay, animal skins, silk, wood, gourd, and bamboo.

 

Later, based on performance methods, they are divided into four groups: Woodwind, Percussion, Bowed Strings, Plucked and Struck Strings.

 

Click to Read More About Traditional Chinese Instruments

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