Chinese Classical Music 101: The Cultured Traveler

Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: July 29th, 2011 | Updated: May 14th, 2012 | Comments
China history, China dynasties Chinese classical music, guqin, qin The Cultured Traveler is that guy you love to run into at the Forbidden City or out hiking the Great Wall, full of nuggets of fascinating information and anecdotes collected magpie-like and retained in his encyclopedic brainhe's the one who told me about the Lady of Lugu Lake and the secret behind Chinese false gates. In an effort to channel some of that wisdom we'll be working our way, in no particular order, through a few of the captivating characters and entrancing tales of China's long and illustrious history so next time, you can be the one to say: "Did you know... ">>> I was chatting earlier with my friend Q about the post I am about to write on Chinese music. The history of classical Chinese music, actually, in an abbreviated form. Q is Indian and a sage. He studied music and much of what he once told me one afternoon while skinny dipping in a stream along the Napali Coast on the Hawaiian island of Ka'uai, has already oozed down through the holes of my memory. But I do remember us trying to match the melody of the flowing water... Indian musical lore is aware that all of nature has a "sound." Anyway, when I told him that I was writing about Chinese music, he said: "I've never really got into it. Sounded a bit high pitched and strange. Obviously my ignorance." I was guilty of ignorance too, so I helped Q with a quick-fix remedy: I sent him this link to's Chinese Music section as a primer and also this link from Danwei's recent series of essays on the same topic. I haven't heard from him since, so I assume he is listening to some MP3s of the qin (qín, 琴). Good for him... So, now that I've shot this post's raison d'être right through the heart, let's continue on, shall we?

The first musician...

... was the mythical Fuxi, the one who came across the Eight Trigrams upon the shell of a turtle that was walking out of the receding waters of the Great Flood. It was Fuxi, his consciousness filled with the truth, who helped civilize the survivors and whose intellect and sublime wisdom gave birth to the I Ching, one of humanity's great books of the soul. Fuxi, along with the other two mythical progenitors of the Chinese civilization, Shennong and Huangdi, taught man to hunt, fish, marry and eventually to play the qin.

The first instruments

Playing the guzheng The qin is China's greatest contribution to music: a 7-stringed lute played with both hands like a slide guitar. The range and depth of the instrument and the perfection and simplicity that can be made with it make it one of man's great intellectual achievements. Great enough to be included on the Voyager satellite we sent out into space to represent human music and impress other life forms, should they exist somewhere out there. The qin formed the core of most performances that made it into the poems, descriptions and odd painting that survive from the Spring and Autumn Period and on, when historical records of ancient China become more than just shells shards and legend. Zhuge Liang and the poet Li Bai. Although the qin or guqin (gǔqín, 古琴) is perhaps the "first Chinese instrument" according to legend, it is not the instrument most people think of when they think of classical Chinese music. More often than not, we think of the pipa (pípá, 琵琶), the guzheng (gǔzhēng, 古筝) or the erhu (èrhú, 二胡). The pipa is a pear-shaped banjo that has been played for millennia; the guzheng is similar to the qin but with bridges and more strings and the erhu is a vertical fiddle played with a bow.


Chinese classical music There are many different ways to classify a body of music spanning 5,000 years. Most methods fall laughably short because music is a living thing and unless played (and heard), it is nothing but notes on a page, indecipherable to anyone but a master. Chinese music is even more unique in this respect because many pieces are written not in tablature as we know it today, but in characters, with names and poetic phrases instead of notes. Thus thousands of pieces written down during the dawn of Chinese civilization have been lost forever. The qin may have once had a repertoire of thousands of pieces, but now only several hundred are known and only a few dozen played on a regular basis. How can we classify music we have never heard except by instrument? Another distinction that can be made between musical styles is the "standing" and "sitting" styles, used to denote either large outdoor performances or small indoor concerts respectively. The qin, for example, would fit squarely into the sitting category, as would the guzheng, whereas other instruments, like a pipa with some flutes, cymbals and gongs accompanied by some vocals and perhaps a guzheng, would be considered "outdoor/standing" music. This leads us into yet another possible classification: poetic vs. operatic. Many songs played on the ancient "sitting" instruments are actually poems, meant to be recited either by the instrument or by a single singer. The relationship between poems and songs in Chinese music is very strong, so a lot of the classic performances are recitals put to music—a single wavering voice with one, or at the most three, instruments in the background. The operatic style is what the guys "standing outside" played, in a manner of speaking. The wild banging of drums and gongs and cymbals with an erhu, attached to some singing and dancing was most likely what people clapped along to out in the countryside and this popular music eventually fused with the poetic sensibilities of the upper class and developed into the Chinese operas that are perhaps the most famous representations of China's classical music.

Chinese classical music today

Chinese classical music, pipa, chinese musical instruments Classical music is making a comeback as the great achievements of the past are dug up, dusted off and re-tuned for the modern world. The guzheng, the qin and the pipa have all seen playtime in modern music from Cui Jian's rock opus to Taiwanese ChthoniC's black metal erhu jam. One of the coolest scenes in Zhang Yimou's eye-candy extravaganza, Hero, is the one where an old sage is playing the qin in a courtyard while two gong fu masters are playing Go, sparring and fighting with swords as raindrops fall at varying speeds all around them. Spectacular—and meaningful: Go, the qin and gong fu all have a purity of soul, will and purpose at heart that define the very best possible Human. Chinese music, games and martial arts all recognized this long ago. Like with the Indian sitar and the Beatles, Chinese traditional instruments are starting to make it into mainstream music. As the genres bend and meld to each other, hopefully we can look forward to more global music featuring the best of East, West, North and South. Here are some MP3s and videos of classical Chinese music and some resources if you would like to delve a little deeper—enjoy!
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