Modern Chinese history

Lutes and Loudspeakers

Modern Chinese history

This is an article taken from our China in Focus magazine (1997) written by Francesea Tarocco.

The astonishing range of music which is played, listened to, recorded and broadcast across China today reflects the country's past and present, and its great regional and geographical differences. Chinese towns have embraced modernity, and, like their counterparts in the West, have soundscapes dominated by a stream of Muzak, light classical music (the ubiquitous Richard Clayderman) and pop songs. In small towns and villages the loudspeakers pour onto the main roads a relentless potpourri of political songs and the latest pop hits. But beside pop music, Muzak and Pavarotti, the Chinese soundscape, both urban and rural, still resounds with the notes of traditional music.

Western music...

Western music has made a dramatic conquest of China over the last decade as the anti-foreign climate of the Cultural Revolution has given way to a new liberalism and openness. Millions of students in Chinese universities still wake up every morning to the notes of military marches blaring out from loudspeakers across their campuses, but I remember that at Shanghai's Tongji polytechnic in the early 1990s, the loudspeakers were beginning to announce dinner time with the notes of the chorus 'Va Pensiero' from Giuseppe Verdi's 'Nabucco'.

The vast majority of students at China's conservatoires now take performance and composition classes modelled on Western classical music curricula, with only a small number of young people opting for the traditional Chinese music courses.

Urban music shops offer an selection of Western classical music recordings, mostly the works of the Romantic composers and Italian operas.

In the big cities there is also a booming underground market in cut-price pirated CDs and tapes of pop and rock hits from Europe and the United States.

A series of much-publicised crackdowns on piracy by the Chinese authorities have done little to eradicate this trade.

At the beginning of the 1990s in Beijing I witnessed the birth of some Chinese rock bands which have since become professional and gained notoriety, like the all-women band 'Cobra'. At that time understanding of Western popular music was still quite random, and musicians were trying in a mere couple of years to digest some thirty years of popular musical history, from the Beaties to Public Enemy. The most famous and controversial representative of this generation of artists is Cui Jian, the pioneer of Chinese rock. There is little to distinguish his rock and roll style from others of the same genre, but his lyrics have often been viewed as antagonistic to the Chinese state and used as subversive political slogans. Cui Jian himself was trained as a trumpeter and held a post at the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, from which he was dismissed at the end of the 1980s.

.. and traditional music

Many folk genres, which were closely related to imperial traditions of courtly and temple music, survived the fall of the last Imperial dynasty in 1911, and some traditions, often strong folk musical traditions ritual, have been revived in the villages since the Cultural Revolution.

The following is a brief panorama of Chinese traditional music, introducing a selection of genres determined both by musical and aesthetic values and by availability. All of them can be heard in public spaces in contemporary China and are available on CD or cassette in the UK.

Traditional musicians
Traditional musicians, Xing Yanchun and Yang Yanshi famous for storytelling and performing ballads

Ritual music

Before 1949, Buddhist and Daoist temples were centres for the performance and transmission of musical practice. Many religious rituals required the presence of specialised monks and nuns to play instruments and to perform. Today, wondering around China's more important temples, the visitor can often enjoy the morning and evening liturgical services, whose mainly vocal music is performed to an accompaniment of ritual percussion. Instrumental music is played in the temples of the sacred Buddhist mountain Wutai Shan, which has been a major Buddhist site since the Tang Dynasty, and in the Zhihua temple in Beijing, with its ancient musical tradition. Many temples and monasteries have been reconstructed across China since the beginning of the 1980s, and the strong folk musical traditions associated with Buddhism and Daoism are considerably alive in provinces such as Shanxi and Hebei.

Chamber music

If you have time to spare in the lively cities of Fujian Province for example Quanzhou and Xiamen, you cannot miss the chance to hear the wonderful and refined Nan guan chamber music, where a solo singer is accompanied by a small ensemble of string and wind instruments such as the Nan guan lute pipa, the end-blown flute xiao, the three-stringed lute sanxian, and the bowed, two-stringed lute erxian. The Nan guan repertoire consists mainly of instrumental suites and love ballads. Claims are made for the great antiquity of this genre, which can be investigated back as far as the Ming dynasty. There are many Nan guan amateur groups in the cities and villages of Fujian, but the repertoire is also performed in the Hokkien communities of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Silk and Bamboo

The Silk and Bamboo music from the southern Yangtze region is one of the most accessible musical traditions in China, and is also renowned at the national level. Its name derives from the materials used to fashion traditional string and wind instruments. At the beginning of this century many literati musicia sympathetic to the ideas of the revolutionary May Fourth movement and concerned with the preservation of China's heritage, founded clubs where Silk and Bamboo music was played for pleasure and recreation, and it was sometimes also played at popular festivals. Today, it is possible to listen to the inheritors of this tradition, the amateur ensembles of string and wind instruments who play every afternoon in Shanghai in teahouses and venues such as the famous Huxing Ting or 'Pavilion at the heart of the lake' in the Mandarin Gardens Bazaar.


For a taste of Chinese and Hong Kong pop music, just peer into one of the many music shops in London's Chinatown or your local Chinese supermarket and buy a cassette or CD! Among those in my private collection I can recommend Bai tian bu dong ye de hei (“The bright day does not understand the darkness of the night”) by Na Ving, Decca MKC-1033, 1995.

A Chinese rock classic is Cul Jian's first LP 'Rock on the new Long March' which has been reissued many times and can still be found with a bit of luck in the record shops of Hong Kong.

There are some very good recordings of Chinese ritual and temple music. One example of a ritual instrumental ensemble is Buddhist music of the Ming dynasty. Zhihua temple, JVC, VICG-5259, 1992. For liturgical, mainly vocal, Buddhist music, sample Chine. Fanbai. Legon du soir au Temple de Ouanzhou, Ocora C 559080, 1989.

The Nan Guan repertoire has been been lavishly recorded by some western enthusiasts, so there is a very good set of six CDs in the Ocora label (C560036-41, 1991) under the name of Nan. kouan. Ballades chant6es par Tsao Hsiao-Yueh

A notable figure in amateur-professional music is Chen Zhong, who plays in a recording (C560090, 1996) with an ensemble of Southern Yangtze Silk and Bamboo music.

Finally, China: folk instrumental traditions (2 CDs, VDE-Gallo, CD-822823, 1995) is a wonderful anthology of northern and southern regional genres, a real treat!

Enjoy your listening!

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 1997, reprinted from SACU's China in Focus magazine Issue 3, 1997

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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