Traditional Chinese Music

From the classical and folklorique traditions

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A brief introduction to Traditional Chinese Classical Music
- The differences and common ground between Classical (literati) and Folk traditions from a Historical Perspective

- Liu Fang

This is a famous painting "Listen to the Qin" by the Emperor Huizong (1082~1135)of the Song Dynasty, one of the greatest artists in Chinese history.

      Generally speaking, there are two kinds of music traditions – classical and folk. Music from the “classical tradition” refers to art music or “sophisticated” music composed by scholars and literati in China’s historical past. Chinese classical music often has thematic, poetic or philosophical associations and is typically played solo, on instruments such as the qin (commonly known as guqin), 7-string zither with over 3000 years of well-documented history, or the pipa, a lute with over 2000 years of history. Traditional music in the classical sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama, and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation. The instruments demand not only a mastery of technique but a high degree of sensitivity (and inner power) to evoke the subtle sonorities and deep emotional expression that rely very much on the left hand techniques (such as sliding, bending, pushing or crossing of the strings to produce typical singing effects and extreme dynamic ranges), where synchronized ensemble playing is virtually impossible without losing certain subtlety. This type of music has come down to us as an oral tradition from masters to students, although written scores that combine numbers and symbols representing pitch and finger techniques respectively have been in use for nearly two thousand years. For instance, the earliest scores for guqin we still have today were from the third century. However it is almost impossible to play directly from the score without first having learnt from a master.

    In traditional China, most well–educated people and monks could play classical music as a means of self-cultivation, meditation, mind purification and spiritual elevation, union with nature, identification with the values of past sages, and communication with divine beings or with friends and lovers. They would never perform in public, or for commercial purposes, as they would never allow themselves to be called “professional musicians”. This was in part to keep a distance from the entertainment industry where performing artists used to be among the lowest in social status . In fact, masters of classical music had their own profession as scholars and officers, and would consider it shameful if they had to make a living from music. They played music for themselves, or for their friends and students, and they discovered friends or even lovers through music appreciation (there are plenty of romantic stories about music in Chinese literature). Up to the beginning of the twentieth century, classical music had always belonged to elite society and it was not popular among ordinary people. Today it is really for everybody who enjoys it, and professional musicians playing Chinese classical music are as common as elsewhere in the world. However, it is still rare to hear classical music in concert halls due to the influence of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), when all classical music was deemed to be “bourgeois” and outlawed, and the spiritual side of traditional arts was "washed out" through the "revolutionary" ideology. As well, the influence of modern pop culture since the 1980s has had a negative impact on the popularity of classical music performances.

The above is a painting from the "Five Dynasty" (907-960 AD) depicting pipa playing

      While the classical tradition was more associated with elite society throughout Chinese history, the resources for folk traditions are many and varied. Apart from the Han Chinese, there are many ethnic minorities living in every corner of China, each with their own traditional folk music. Unlike classical music, folk traditions are often vocal (such as love songs and story telling etc), or for instrumental ensembles (such as the “silk and bamboo” ensembles, and music for folk dances, and regional operas). The various folk melodies have become a major source of inspiration for the growing repertoire of contemporary music. In fact, in many contemporary compositions, existing folk melodies were simply modified, enriched (creatively through advanced playing techniques and the use of harmonies), and extended. Some were transcribed so successfully that they may be regarded as an important part of the growing classical repertoire; for instance the famous "Dance of Yi People" composed by Wang Hui-Ran for solo pipa. The repertoire is further extended by pieces composed or arranged for multi-instrument ensembles. Needless to say, most contemporary works are quite Westernized, particularly those for ensembles and orchestras (modelled on orchestras in the West), which are easily accessible to the general public, yet veer further away from the classical traditions . Quite often some of the traditional classical masterpieces are presented in commercially-packaged shows to look and sound “modern”, which often gives a wrong impression to listeners who never really knew the original flavor of the music, particularly the spiritual side of the classical tradition.

      With all that said, there are still a growing number of performers and listeners who have begun to seriously rethink the spiritual side of the classical tradition, such that there seems to be a revival of traditional culture as part of a growing interest in Chinese classical philosophy, literature, traditional medicine, calligraphy, painting, Taiji and Qigong.

      On the one hand, it goes without saying that some of today’s excellent creations will become tomorrow’s traditions (and faked arts will soon be forgotten); on the other hand, it requires a true master to deliver the vast spiritual and the profound meaning (inner-feeling) of the masterpieces from the traditional classical repertoire in such a way as to touch the souls of the listeners, and indeed, great masters from various musical traditions all over the world have never failed to support the famous statement: “Authentic traditional music remains forever contemporary”.

[Note from Liu Fang]: The above text was prepared for the lecture & demonstration at the Julliard School on November 19, 2008 in New York and for several interviews (newspapers and radio). Special thanks Dr. Annette Sanger (ethnomusicologist and professor at the University of Toronto) for proof reading and improving English.

 Notes to the above text

Ancient court music is also referred to as "classical music", however there is a distinct difference from the classical literati music discussed here. The court music was made by "professional musicians" whose lives and careers very much depended on the personal interest of their patrons, the emperors. Those musicians (many of whom were great masters in history and made great contributions to the music culture of China) were appointed as music officers of the court, and had a certain degree of privilege in society but never enjoyed the same freedom as the scholars who played music but were not relying on it for a living. The court music was often performed in ensembles or even big orchestras, often in association with dance and ceremonial performances (whereas the classical literati music discussed here was mainly played solo, and associated with private occasions). The concept of the concert hall in the present sense did not exist before the end of the last dynasty (beginning of the last century). Public places for music making were often associated with tea houses, restaurants etc. Classical types of music were often performed in private settings such as palaces or private houses. The most miserable were the "professional musicians" in the entertainment industry, where musicians were either courtesans or slaves (who could be sold by the owner, or presented as gift), and therefore among the lowest social status. It is inconceivable how it came that people enjoyed their arts, but not show respect to the performing artists (the situation was somewhat similar in Europe before the renaissance); indeed it was a shame in human history! In fact, even business people were considered among the lowest in social status (which was one of the important factors that prevented China from developing fast economically in the past; so was also the fate with music development!). An example of this can be found in the famous Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi's "pipa song" (772-846 AD) describing a courtesan he met during his exile:

".... For every song she received endless bolts of silk.
She sang, she beat time, all through the day,
She danced till her head gear fell to the floor.
Wine spilled, skirts stained,
Delicacies rivaled gaieties.
Day after day, and joy upon joy,
Her best years slipped away.
Then her brother joined the army, and her aunt died.
Times changed, and her beauty faded.
Her patrons wandered off, went elsewhere,
And the carriages at her door got fewer and fewer,
Till finally she had to lower herself to marry a tea dealer ..."

With the establishment of People's Republic of China in 1949, the 1950s may be considered the best period for traditional classical music in China. This type of music could then reach the general public through radios, records, and live performances of master musicians who were sponsored by the government. The attitude of the society toward performing artists has dramatically changed ever since. Masters of classical music no longer consider it a shame to perform in public and make a living from live performance. They were proud to be "people's artists" and to perform for the people. Indeed, there seemed to be a revival of traditional music before the disastrous movement of the "Cultural Revolution". The destruction of the traditional values and the spiritual side of the traditional music through the overwhelming propaganda of the "revolutionary" ideology during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has led to several consequences as far as music playing is concerned, particularly for those who grew up during that pathetic period. For instance, one of the most obvious consequences is that the pursuit for spiritual elevation has quite often been replaced by the pursuit for technical perfection (often narrowly understood as the ability for fast and precise playing). Needless to say, masterpieces from the traditional repertoire require more than just technique to deliver in a way to touch the soul of listeners; even the techniques for some traditional pieces might be superficially regarded as being too "simple" to be of interest by some players, particularly for those who consider music making as "show-business". Therefore, "If the audience is not moved by the music, particularly if it is a masterpiece from the guqin core repertoire, it is usually the player's fault and not the listener's", so said Prof. Li Xiangting, internationally-renowned Chinese guqin master. This is very true for the masterpieces for all kinds of traditional instruments.

©2008 Philmultic (All rights reserved).

Examples of traditional Chinese classical music masterpieces

Sample 1: music on the 7-stringed zither guqin
Sample 2: music on guzheng and pipa

The above piece, entitled "Flowing Wather", is famous traditional classical guqin solo performed by the renowned master Guan Pinghu.
Click here for another piece performed by the same master.

Chinese music from the classical (literati tradition) tradition and Chinese calligraphy and painting


Interview with Liu Fang

The following text is a revised version of the original interview by Paula E. Kirman in relation to her question: " What are some defining characteristics of Chinese classical music that you convey in your music?" The revision was made on 5 May 2007 and marked in green.


Interviewed by Alexander Mclean, journalist (All about Jazz Magazine),
October 2, 2009, Vienna, Austria.


Paula: What are some defining characteristics of Chinese classical music that you convey in your music?

Liu Fang: First, Chinese music is somehow related to the Chinese language. Unlike the western languages, Chinese language has tonality: the same pronunciation with different tones represents different meaning, depending on whether it is a flat tone, or sliding from a lower to higher pitch or from the higher to the lower, or a combination. The same thing for music, except that there are more possibilities in tonality which is more sensitive and subtle. Thus, it is very important to master the technique for both left and right hands: the right hand produces the sound by plucking the strings while the left hand gets the right tonality by acting on the string, such as pressing, sliding, pushing or several other actions that are difficult to translate into English. Without having properly mastered these skills, it is impossible to interpret classical Chinese music. Just as Prof. Tran Van Khe put it: "The right hand gives the sound, but the left hand gives the soul to the music". Therefore, one phrase in Chinese classical music is not simply a string of notes, but each note has its own life and meaning, depending on how you play it in the context.

Secondly, Classical Chinese music refers to the art music closely related with Chinese poetry. Therefore, it is not surprising that most of the classical pieces have very poetic and sometimes philosophical titles. Traditional classical music in this sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation. Therefore, it is very important to understand the meaning and set the mind and the heart in the right mood that is "in tune" with the music, particularly when playing the repertoire of the "literary style" or civil style, which are mostly slow and meditating. It can be very dull when just giving the sound without a meaning.

Thirdly, Classical Chinese music and traditional Chinese painting are twin sisters. Take, for instance, the traditional painting for landscapes: there is no obvious focus in the picture, but each part seems to have its own focus in such a manner that the variety of local character is in harmony with the whole picture, including the empty parts. In traditional Chinese painting, the empty parts are very important too in order to give the whole painting life. If everywhere were painted, there would be less freedom of imagination for the viewers in appreciating the painting. In another words, the appreciating of painting is an interactive and dynamic process between the viewers and the painting. The same is true with classical Chinese music. Each phrase is one sentence followed by a certain silence in such a way that the variety of pipa sounds and the silences (and sometimes noises) are combined harmoniously in forming the sound poetry, creating a kind of dynamic link between the performer and the audience. A good performer can create such a link so that the listeners can experience the power and the beauty of the music in a way like enjoying a beautiful poem and painting. To achieve this, only the perfection of playing technique is not enough. One has to undertand the spirit of the music, and pass that spirit to the listeners. The best result can be achieved with the purest heart one can keep. That is, one must free the mind, and be humble such that the performer becomes the instrument. In this sense, the live performance is a dynamical and heart-to-heart process.

Regarding live performance of Chinese classical music, I would say that the closest relative is Chinese calligraphy. I have always been interested in calligraphy, and indeed, appreciation of great calligraphy gives me immense inspiration to my music playing. I don't practice calligraphy myself, but I love this traditional art. And I understand the basic idea of calligraphy and its esthetic principles. Chinese calligraphy has been regarded as the highest art among all arts in China. Through the study of master calligraphies, I understand that the spirit in writing calligraphy is very much comparable to playing music. The energy, the feeling, and the breath that gives life to the calligraphy are in a sense the same as playing classical Chinese music, although they belong to totally different arts. The dynamics and movement of strokes of the brush (for instance the "yin" and the "yang", the solid and the dash or excess and deficiency), the line and the points, and the parts and the whole structure, they are all comparable to playing the music. This is one of the major sources of inspiration for my music playing.

.(Original interview in 2001, revised on May 6, 2007. Click here for the whole article.)

Chinese pipa and guzheng music

An introduction to Chinese string instruments | The historical development of pipa, Chinese lute


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