Chinese Music

About Chinese Music

Chinese MusicThe music of China dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization with documents and artifacts providing evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC). Today, the music continues a rich traditional heritage in one aspect, while emerging into a more contemporary form at the same time.

Dynastic Era

According to Mencius, a powerful ruler once asked him whether it was moral if he preferred popular music to the classics. The answer was that it only mattered that the ruler love his subjects. The Imperial Music Bureau, first established in the Qin Dynasty (221–07 BC), was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140–87 BC) and charged with supervising court music and military music and determining what folk music would be officially recognized.

In subsequent dynasties, the development of Chinese music was strongly influenced by foreign music, especially Central Asia. The oldest known written music is Youlan or the Solitary Orchid, attributed to Confucius (see guqin article for a sample of tablature). The first major well-documented flowering of Chinese music was for the qin during the Tang Dynasty, though the qin is known to have been played since before the Han Dynasty.

In ancient China the position of musicians was much lower than that of painters, though music was seen as central to the harmony and longevity of the state. Almost every emperor took folk songs seriously, sending officers to collect songs to inspect the popular will. One of the Confucianist Classics, Shi Jing (The Classic of Poetry), contained many folk songs dating from 800 BC to about 400 BC. The first European to reach China with a musical instrument was Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci who presented a Harpsichord to the Ming imperial court in 1601, and trained four eunuchs to play it.

Dragon Dance

The famous dragon dance with music is also a remembered tradition. It is seen on Chinese New Year across the world by millions. It is not known when the tradition started, but it is believed to be thousands of years ago, as entertainment of former emperors, royals and nobles. 

Chinese Modern Music

China has a high piracy rate along with issues of intellectual properties. As a result, most albums are released in Taiwan or Hong Kong first. It is often one of the business decisions made by record companies. Normally there is some delay before the products are released into the mainland, with occasional exceptions, such as the work of Cui Jian who was released in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland simultaneously. Consequently, a delay in release time is also the biggest driver of piracy, since individuals would rather pirate from the outside. The modern market is not only hindered by rights issues, as there are many other factors such as profit margin, income and other economical questions.

Annual events such as the Midi Modern Music Festival in Beijing attracts tens of thousands of visitors. There was also the "Snow Mountain Music Festival" in Yunnan province 2002. The term "Chinese Woodstock" has been thrown around by Western media for these two events. Both draw sizable crowds outdoor, but the term is not quite official. The Chinese rock movement differed from its Western counterpart in that it never fully made it into mainstream culture due to restrictions by the state. Today, rock music is centered on almost exclusively in Beijing and Shanghai, and has very limited influence over Chinese society. Wuhan and Sichuan are sometimes considered pockets of rock music culture as well.

It points to a significant cultural, political and social difference that exist between China, the West, or even different parts within China. While rock has existed in China for decades, the milestone that put the genre on the international map is when Cui Jian played with The Rolling Stones in 2003, at the age of 42.