The history of Chinese music, the Chinese Orchestra and its variety of instruments
The Raffles Alumni Chinese Orchestra
Every culture brings with it a wealth of traditions and cultural norms. And of course, each civilization brings with its development unique and beautiful musical practices. One of the oldest civilizations in the world, the Chinese have played music since its birth. Through the formation, progress and eventual falling of each of the many dynasties that ruled China, music resiliently remained as a mesmerizing art form. It still does so today. So how has the music of China developed through many, many centuries? This writer will take you through its history, why it was a vital part of China’s culture and introduce you to the eye-opening instruments of the Chinese Orchestra.
The Zhou Dynasty (1046-221 B.C)
The longest lasting of the many dynasties which ruled China, the Zhou period was one when the civilization truly flourished. It was when iron was introduced to China and there was a growth of bronze ware making. This was when the Chinese written script began to evolve.
Music in China, during this time, was a crystallization for many dynasties to follow. The foundations for ceremonial music, education in music, music for court rituals and instrumental music were laid during this time.
The Qin Dynasty (221 - 206 B.C.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - AD 220)
Though a relatively short dynastic period, the birth and growth of the QIn dynasty was marked by important events that would mould China’s history. Its tyrannical ruler, QIn Shih Huang, ordered the burying of many scholars and the burning of their books to erase all traces of older rulers and dynasties like the Zhou. Though he was tyrannical, he introduced measures important to China, such as the standardization of weights, measures, currency, and most importantly, language, which has developed in to the Mandarin being spoken today by the Chinese who verbally embrace many dialects as well.
Music in China at this time was marked by many cross cultural influences. The zheng zither was introduced during this period, and so were a variety of transverse (side blown) flutes, vessel flutes, panpipes and other instruments derived from regional and foreign sources. The zither, the four holed di flute, the jiao oboe and the pipa lute grew in popularity.
The Three Kingdom (Warring States) era (220-280 B.C.) , he Jin ( 265 - 420 A.D. and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 A.D.)
China was no longer unified during this period and ruled by contending kingdoms and states. Even the dates of rule overlap because of the mergers and subsequent divisions in rule. This era in China’s history was famous, of course, for warlords and generals who fought bravely in battle, such as Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, Cao Cao and famous advisors like Zhuge Liang, known for his tactical brilliance. The brave men fought for the restoration of the former Han Dynasty.
Musically, the period was known for the assimilation of music across regions, the expansion of Han music into the Southern China and the development of new tonal systems.
The Sui (581 - 618 A.D.) Tang (618-907 A.D.) and the Five Dynasties (907 - 960 A.D.)
China was reunified in the Sui Dynasty, and experienced political, cultural and economic growth during the Tang period. This era was marked by trade, political marriages and visits. The literary arts, namely poetry, became popular during this time.
Music took on cosmopolitan sophistication, with the arrival of foreign musicians in court to provide musical instruction. Thousands of musicians were employed for performing daily duties. The banquet tradition known as yanyue was practiced. It was known for being elegant and refined. It was cosmopolitan and included the music of neighboring nations like Sarmarkand, Bukhara, India and Korea.
The Northern Song (960-1127 A.D.) Southern Song and Yuan (1271-1381 A.D.)
This was the period for industrialization and the growth of a newly rich elite. Literacy was brought to a higher level with the printing of books. With the growth of literacy came the expansion of the arts. New literary and poetic forms emerged.
Musically, forms such as narrative music and musical drama (also known as Chinese Opera) came about during this dynasty. These included the drum song ( songs famous for the accompaniment of the stick drum), the narrative song (romantic tales told through narration and song) and the zaju musical drama (told in 4 acts and sung).
The Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 A.D.) and Qing dynasty (1644-1912)
This period marked the growth of a highly literate society The arts of chess playing and calligraphy were arts many aspired to learn
Musically, the qin aither was introduced. It was also considered an accomplishment to be able to play this instrument. Several musical anthologies were published, including musical notations such as the Shengqi Mipu (Mysterious and marvelous tabiature) published by Zhu Quan, the 16th son of the Ming Emperor. There was also a growth of outdoor performances and an influx of folk songs. This was also the time when the Peking Opera developed. '
Notably, a small group of scholar gentry were also interested in how music related to mathematics. Most famous among them was Prince Zhu Zaiyu,musicologist, mathematician and astronomer. He was known for the development of the scale of 12 pitches.
The Republic of China era (1912 -1949)
This era was marked by a rising interest in Western music. A number of western trained Chinese musicians returned to perform classical music and composed music based on the western notational system.
The period was marked by the rise of the symphony orchestra. Music was performed to a wide audience in concert halls and on radio.
The rise of the revolutionary song occurred during this time. Revolutionary songs developed in rural areas to educate the rural population on Communist Party goals. One example is the East is Red, a folk song from Northern Shaanxi.
The ancient Chinese orchestra
The ancient Chinese orchestra
The ancient Chinese Orchestra was made up of percussion instruments and a few zither type instruments like the zheng zither. It reached its peak during the Zhou dynasty. The Tang dynasty, as discussed earlier, saw an influx of music from different regions, particularly from Central and South Asia. Musical instruments were categorized in to groups of instruments made of earthenware, gourd, hide, wood, stone, bronze, silk and bamboo.
The modern Chinese Orchestra
The modern Chinese orchestra developed in the vein of its western counterpart, the symphony orchestra, but used Chinese instruments instead of western ones. It typically includes some western instruments like the Cello.
The sections of the Chinese Orchestra
The plucked string section
These include the yanqin, luqin, pipa, daruan, sanxian, guzheng and konghou, which are plucked chordophone instruments. These instruments distinguish the Chinese from Western Orchestras because the tunes they create are in a markedly different style. More about these instruments.
The Yangqin is a dulcimer played by mallets rubberized on one end. To create sharper notes, the mallets can be turned over. Some songs would require the player to pluck the instrument.
This is a lute with notes in the soprano or high range. Smaller than the pipa (which I will introduce next), it has two round holes on each side of the body. One can vary the pitch of the instrument by pressing above the liuqin.
This is the alto range member of the plucked string section, and was associated with teahouses, songstresses and imperial concubines. It has no sound holes, but can produce music as well as other string instruments.
Much as the cello would in a symphony orchestra, the zhongruan serves as the tenor in the string section of the Chinese orchestra. Like other string instruments, it can be played with a plectrum or acrylic fingernails though plectrums (plucks) produce a cleaner or louder tone.
This is the bass lute. Tuned lower than the zhongruan, it is played the same way.
The only plucked musical instrument without frets, it has 3 strings and has many variants used among different tribes in China. WIth a strong folk flavor, it is not used as an accompaniment instrument but plays the melody.
The bowed string section
As the name suggests, this section comprises the Huqin series of instruments, namely the erhu, zhonghu and the gaohu, which are played by a bow.
With a smaller soundbox than the erhu, it is used to give a higher pitched sound in chinese orchestras, though not specifically a soprano instrument. The soundbox is held between the knees when played. It is used very often in Cantonese music.
This is a two stringed bowed musical instrument which can be described as a spiked fiddle. Known as the “Chinese violin” it can be used to play both traditional and modern musical accompaniments.
The zhonghu is the viola of the Chinese orchestra, playing the alto section of the bows. It is bigger than the erhu and lower pitched.
The Wind section
Here, we have instruments similar to the ones in the symphonic orchestra that we know like the piccolo, flute, oboe and clarinet. The wind section of the Chinese orchestra will include the dizi, sheng and the suona.
This is a Chinese transverse (side-blown) flute. There are varieties of dizi or di, but the most commonly used in orchestras are the bangdi. It produces a clear and bright tone.
This is a free-reed bamboo mouth organ. The modern sheng has 21- 37 pipes. Its tone is lucid and bright.
This is the Chinese orchestra’s answer to the trumpet. Used for playing tunes outdoors, the suona is heard frequently in Chinese musical ensembles. It is commonly used in the folk music of Northern China.
The percussion section
This section can boast of being the oldest section of the Chinese orchestra with the longest history. It is the most important section in Chinese opera because it introduces characters or accentuates movements. their rich timbre allows them to be used in western style compositions.
This is made of thick wedges of hardwood glued together in a circle and wrapped with a metal brand. Bell-shaped, it opens at the bottom. The top is covered by pig or cowhide and has a convex opening known as the guxin or drum heart. It is played with a pair of bamboo sticks.
Now we have the cymbals of the Chinese orchestra. Bo were frequently used in the Sui and Tang dynasties and are played in the same way cymbals are - by striking them together. They come in a variety of styles.
This is a Chinese gong made of tin bronze and hammered into the shape of a sifter. Its resonating area can be flat or convex. A musical instrument arising from the Han Dynasty, it has many varieties that range in tonal quality.
This is similar in shape to a barrel. It is made of wood, and painted with decorative patterns. Four iron rings allow the drum to be vertically suspended.
There are two types of tanggu. The bigger one produces a lower, sonorous tone and the smaller, sharper and more forceful. It joins the luo and bo in folk festivals.
An instrument in the shape of a fish, it was used to accompany buddhist monks. They vary in types and tonal qualities.
This is a set of bronze bells, played melodically. Some of these bells are between 2000 and 3800 years old, hailing from the Ming Dynasty. They are hung on a wooden frame and struck with a mallet. The number of bells increased throughout the years.
The lion drum
This is the percussion instrument many would be familiar with because it is used in lion dances. They come in two forms, the northern and southern lion drums. Its large size helps it to create a loud, booming resonance. Its head is made of goat skin.
These are very small gongs in a set, in 10-12 different pitches, are suspended in a wooden frame. They are all of the same diameter, but vary in thickness. Literally translated, it is also the ‘cloud’ (yun) ‘gong” (luo).
WIth its wide range of instruments traditionally Chinese, these generate a sound unique in traditional Chinese music. The sound of Chinese musical instruments still wins over the hearts of many.