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A Musical Odyssey through China

Ever wondered about how Chinese music is like, beyond the Canto and Mando-pop tunes that you may have somehow stumbled upon? Music in China goes back as far as 3000 BC. With its richness in history, folklore, and the grandeur of its imperial dynasties, one can only expect the music of China to be diverse, sophisticated, and well evolved throughout the ages.

Interested in a musical odyssey through China? Get acquainted with these musical styles from ancient to modern times. 

Classical Chinese Music

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Classical Chinese Music is poetry in music and is often closely associated with philosophy. An interesting difference between Chinese and Western classical music is that with Chinese classical music, songs are often played solo or with a small ensemble. Music was seen as a way of cultivating the mind and spirit, and educated classes practiced it privately while public performances belonged to the realm of professional street entertainers.

Music emphasized the expression of inner feelings and was even used as a healing tool, where musical tones corresponded with the various natural elements as well as the main internal organs of the body. Listening to Chinese classical music can often be described as a meditative experience.

Out of the many unique musical instruments in classical Chinese music, the most recognizable and distinct are the Dizi (flute), Gu Zheng (zither), Erhu (two-strings fiddle) and Pipa (four-string instrument) Today, Chinese orchestras have incorporated a Western style of performance as well as instruments such as the Cello and Double Bass. 

Here’s a beautiful Guzheng solo performance:

Chinese Folk Music

Chinese folk music is often heard during celebrations, festivities, and rituals from weddings to funerals. Folk music differs between the various regions and ethnic minorities in China. While classical music often sounds refined and restraint, folk music can sound a little jarring to Western ears. 

A crucial piece of instrument in folk music that’s also often played in modern Chinese orchestras is the Suona, a double-reed horn that is commonly heard in outdoor settings.  

Chinese folk song lyrics, quite like folk songs around the world, reflect the hopes, aspirations, and universal themes like love and loss. 

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Chinese Opera 

Chinese opera is an ancient and exquisite art form unto itself. Movement is often stylistic, with symbolic gestures that are often not seen in everyday life. Chinese opera combines music, acting, martial arts, the use of masks and costumes, as well as distinct styles of singing, and has regional variations.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

It was during the Tang Dynasty that Chinese Opera and theater became more organized and complex. Emperor Xuangzong (712-755 AD) founded the Pear Garden (Li Yuan), an academy of music dedicated to the training of musicians, dancers, and actors. Even till recent times, opera artists are referred to as disciples of the Pear Garden.

Of the many forms of Chinese Opera, Beijing or Peking Opera is the most well known. The music accompaniment for Beijing opera typically consists of a small ensemble of melodic and percussion instruments. This includes the jinghu, a fiddle that often accompanies the singing, as well as the yueqin and percussion instruments. 

Interestingly, in both Chinese opera and classical Italian opera, women were prohibited to perform publicly, and this gave rise to the role of the male Dan in the former and the Castrato singer in the latter.  Of all the male Dan opera singers, Mei Lan Fang is no doubt the most recognized for his ability to transcend reality.  Here is a clip of him performing a female role in the 1930s. 

Modern Chinese Music

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

Modern Chinese pop is not as well-recognized as K-pop, but the same formula pretty much applies- tunes that are saccharine sweet or have completely heart-breaking and melancholic lyrics. Chinese pop music is often very karaoke-friendly, and popular tunes are learned by heart and sung for years to come. Go for a karaoke session with some Chinese friends and you’d find them belting out tunes from the ‘90s without a need to look at the lyrics. The Mando-pop scene has also evolved along with Western pop music, with acoustic and indie songs gaining popularity.

Another wave that’s bound to catch on more strongly is jazz. China is no stranger to jazz, and had its own brand of Shanghai jazz in the 1930s, right before Communism took over and jazz was banned along with many other cultural traditions.  Fast forward to today, and we can surely expect a revival of the popularity and perhaps an even greater fusion of jazz with Chinese sentiments.    

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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