Traditional Chinese music can seem quite confounding to the outsider.
Between the large array of unusual instruments, ear-piercing sounds, elaborate costumes worn during performances – and without the thousands of years’ context afforded to local Chinese people – classical Chinese music, it can be very difficult to make sense of it all. To the uninitiated who want to gain an appreciation of what’s behind the music, it’s essential to explore beyond the superficial to the rich, deep background of this style of music that continues to influence modern musicians all over the world.
Understanding the history of traditional Chinese music
Traditional Chinese music is symbolic of many aspects of culture in China. Steeped in history and reflecting an evolution over millennia, the origins of music in China have been traced back 8,000 years. Incredibly, a flute made of bone was uncovered in Henan, a central landlocked province in China. Archeologists and historians purport this special discovery indicated people of that time were musically minded. This is not a surprise given that Henan is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. A more ‘recent’ musical discovery emerged just 6,000 ago when clay instruments were discovered in Xi’an.
From these rudimentary beginnings, history reveals an evolution of high notes, often reached at times when the creative arts were esteemed through philosophical and imperial influences.
Imperial influences in classical Chinese music
A discussion on the history of traditional Chinese music would be incomplete with reference to the role it played in rites and rituals, both in imperial courts and within the various regions and people throughout China.
During the Zhou Dynasty, which ruled China from the 10th to 7th century BC, a form of music called Yayue (雅乐) emerged. Yayue – which translates as ‘elegant music’ – was the ceremonial and court music that was formalized over this time.
As with so much of Chinese culture, Yayue was layered with symbolism and meaning. The sounds of nature were interpreted by music created through instruments. Yin and yang reflected balance within the universe. Connection between the five elements (water, fire, earth, air, and space) was fundamental to Yayue music, as was the concept of harmonizing nature and the circle of fifths theory, used to convey the relationship among the 12 tones.
Philosophy’s role in traditional Chinese music
The influence of philosophy in traditional Chinese music must start with reference to Confucianism. Unlike the Yayue school of thought, Confucianism was founded on a belief in the divinity of rites and music, and a connection between music and emotions, lifestyle and community.
In Chinese music, there are few words more famous than these: “Music is that which moves man from the internal; rites are that which affects man on the external. Music brings about harmony. Rites ensure obedience.” They are said to come from the Record of Music of the Book of Rites based on the lost work of Confucius, Classic of Music (
Music and rituals were considered inseparable from the nature of heaven and earth. Moving away from them was to veer from the true nature of the universe. In short, music provided the means by which harmony of the self could be realized.
Confucian teachings on the role of music were expressed in several significant books, namely The Book of Rites and The Musical Records. These, among others, are considered essential reading for anyone keen to study traditional Chinese music.
Not everyone throughout Chinese history felt the same way about music that Confucius did. Moz