Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

8.5: China

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The People’s Republic of China occupies a vast land area and is the world’s most populous nation. It is also one of the earliest centers of civilization, as evidenced by religious and philosophical texts, novels and poetry, scientific literature, and musical instruments that survive from the early dynastic era (beginning in 1122 BC). In the sixth century BC Confucius wrote about the value of music to man in achieving the goals of living in harmony with nature and maintaining a well regulated society. Although Chinese systems of notation can be dated back to the fourth century BC, most Chinese music has been passed on orally.

    Over the course of China’s long history, different districts evolved distinctive linguistic dialects and cultural practices, including those associated with music. One tradition that is common throughout China is that all theater is musical and all regions maintain companies of singers and instrumentalists for theatrical performances. Peking Opera is the form of Chinese musical drama best known in the West and has enjoyed great popularity both at court and among common people in China. The stories, of which there are over 1,000, deal mainly with social and romantic relationships and military exploits. Staging is without sets and props and, until the 1920s, all roles were sung by men and boys.

    Notable features of Peking Opera are its repertory of subtle and highly stylized physical movements and gestures and a tight, nasal vocal timbre. The singers are accompanied by an orchestra consisting of strings, winds, and percussion which, in the Chinese system, are classified according to the materials from which they are made – metal, stone, earth/clay, skin, silk, wood, gourd, and bamboo. Among China’s important instruments are the erhu and ching-hu, both bowed strings; the cheng and ch’in, plucked strings; the lute-like pipa; the ti-tzu, a transverse flute made of bamboo; the double-reed so-na; and a wide array of gongs, chimes, bells, drums, cymbals, and clappers. The “conductor” of a Peking Opera orchestra is one of the percussionists, who sets the beat for the ensemble.

    The music of Peking Opera exemplifies three characteristic features:

    1. Pentatonic scale, in which the octave is divided into five steps, producing a scale whose intervallic distances approximate the whole step and step-and-a-half of the Western system
    2. Monophonic texture, one melody performed by both singer and instrumentalists, although in different octaves
    3. Heterophony, a performance practice whereby the players spontaneously and simultaneously introduce variants of the melody, sometimes producing brief moments of improvised polyphony.

    That these features are also found in the music of Japan and Korea is indicative of China’s contact with other cultures of Asia, sometimes through military conquest. China also maintained naval and overland caravan routes for trading with Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the countries along the Adriatic and Mediterranean. A 19th century German geographer dubbed this network the Silk Road. European influence on Chinese music was especially strong during the Republic of China period, 1912 - 1949, when Chinese musicians went to Europe to study, Western-style orchestras were established, Western notation was adopted, and Western harmonies were added to traditional Chinese folk music.

    Following the establishment in 1949 of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong, the role of music was to promote the ideology of China’s communist party. The spheres of musical activity were particularly restricted during the Cultural Revolution, 1966 - 1976, when China entered an isolationist period. The evils of capitalism and the bourgeois and decadent values of Western culture were denounced, and intellectuals and members of professional classes were sent to the country to be “re-educated.” Since the 1980s, the revival of traditional Chinese musical practices and repertories, and renewed contact between the musicians of China and the rest of the world are important manifestations of the modern phenomenon of globalization and cross-cultural exchange.

    This page titled 8.5: China is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Cohen (Brooklyn College Library and Academic IT) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

    • Was this article helpful?