Chinese Music, the body of vocal and instrumental music composed and played by the Chinese people. For
several thousand years Chinese culture was dominated by the teachings of the philosopher Confucius, who
conceived of music in the highest sense as a means of calming the passions and of dispelling unrest and
lust, rather than as a form of amusement.
The ancient Chinese belief that music is meant not to amuse but to purify one’s thoughts finds particular
expression in the cult of the qin (ch’in), a long zither possessing a repertory calling for great subtlety and
refinement in performance and still popular among a small circle of scholar-musicians. A famous qin
scholar once said, Though the qin player’s body be in a gallery or in a hall, his mind should dwell with the
forests and streams.
Also, traditionally the Chinese have believed that sound influences the harmony of the universe.
Significantly, one of the most important duties of the first emperor of each new dynasty was to search out
and establish that dynasty’s true standard of pitch. A result of this philosophical orientation was that until
quite recently the Chinese theoretically opposed music performed solely for entertainment; accordingly,
musical entertainers were relegated to an extremely low social status.
Melody and tone color are prominent expressive features of Chinese music, and great emphasis is given to
the proper articulation and inflection of each musical tone. Most Chinese music is based on the five-tone, or
pentatonic, scale, but the seven-tone, or heptatonic, scale, is also used, often as an expansion of a basically
pentatonic core. The pentatonic scale was much used in older music. The heptatonic scale is often
encountered in northern Chinese folk music.
Chinese musical instruments traditionally have been classified according to the materials used in their
construction, namely, metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, clay, skin, and wood. Of these, the stone and wood
instruments are obsolete. The older instruments include long zithers; flutes; panpipes; the sheng, or mouth
organ; and percussion instruments, such as clappers, drums, and gongs. Of later origin are various lutes and
fiddles, introduced to China from Central Asia.
Chinese music is as old as Chinese civilization. Instruments excavated from sites of the Shang dynasty
(circa 1766-c. 1027 bc) include stone chimes, bronze bells, panpipes, and the sheng.
In the Chou dynasty (circa 1027-256 bc) music was one of the four subjects that the sons of noblemen and
princes were required to study, and the office of music at one time comprised more than 1400 people.
Although much of the repertoire has been lost, some old Chinese ritual music (yayue) is preserved in
manuscripts. During the Ch’in dynasty (221-206 bc) music was denounced as a wasteful pastime; almost all
musical books, instruments, and manuscripts were ordered destroyed. Despite this severe setback Chinese
music experienced a renaissance during the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad 220), when a special bureau of music
was established to take charge of ceremonial music. During the reign (ad 58-75) of Ming-Ti the Han palace
had three orchestras comprising in all 829 performers. One orchestra was used for religious ceremonies,
another for royal archery contests, and the third for entertaining the royal banquets and harem.
During the T’ang dynasty (618-906) Chinese secular music (suyue) reached its peak. Emperor T’ai-Tsung
(597-649) had ten different orchestras, eight of which were made up of members of various foreign tribes;
all the royal performers and dancers appeared in their native costumes. The imperial court also had a huge
outdoor band of nearly 1400 performers. Portions of T’ang music are preserved in Japanese court music, or
Among the many genres of Chinese music is a form of music drama often called Chinese opera. Formerly
these operas were based on old tales of heroes and the supernatural. Today the stories often deal with
heroes of the Communist revolution or with great historical events of the recent past. The first fully
developed form of Chinese opera, called northern drama, or beiqu (pei ch’), emerged during the Yan
dynasty (1279-1368). During the Ming (1368-1644) and Ch’ing (1644-1912) dynasties, southern drama,
also called xiwen (hsi wen), flourished and underwent much stylistic development. The variety of Chinese
opera known as Peking opera, jingxi (ching hsi), is the most familiar in the West. It developed in the 19th
century as a synthesis of earlier provincial forms.
During the first half of the 20th century Chinese music was considerably influenced by the music of the
West. Three major schools of thought arose in response to this influence. The first school aimed at reviving
the old thousand-piece orchestras that once delighted ancient princes and sages and resisted the influence of
Western music. The second school concerned itself almost exclusively with Western music. The last school
of Chinese music took great pride in traditional Chinese musical culture but did not hesitate to apply it to
Western techniques of composition and performance.
During the 1950s Western influence penetrated Chinese music to an unprecedented extent. The Chinese
Communist regime, established in 1949, gave special prominence to Russian music. Whether China can
assimilate Western influence and still maintain a fundamentally Chinese musical culture remains an
unanswered question, but the evidence seems to indicate that a synthesis will eventually develop. In
contemporary China notable facilities exist for the training of musicians in both Chinese and Western
styles. Many symphonic orchestras and Chinese-style instrumental ensembles exist, and large choral groups
are commonly found in large cities, universities, and factories. Both Chinese and Western instruments are
manufactured in large quantities and are used in government-maintained schools and conservatories
throughout the country.