traditional music


traditional music
The term ‘Chinese music’ (Zhongguo yinyue) is used primarily to designate instrumental music, though sometimes it is used more broadly to include folk-song and other minor vocal genres. Opera music (Xiqu) and narrative song (quyi), however, are usually considered to belong to different domains, since both are based upon literary sources. This entry will attempt to define some basic socio-functional distinctions in Chinese music, notably between the dichotomies of traditional and modern, sacred and secular, amateur and professional, male and female, and urban and rural.
The term ‘traditional music’ (chuantong yinyue) is commonly employed to designate a very broad range of surviving music, including genres (and actual repertoire) cited in pre tenth-century Tang dynasty literature (e.g. qin zither music), other genres which may be nearly as old (e.g. Chaozhou-Hakka sixian or string ensemble music), and even some early twentieth-century works by known composers (e.g. Guangdong yinyue or Cantonese instrumental music; see Cantonese music). While some sources refer to these latter types as ‘folk music’ (minzu yinyue), the term is not so appropriate in the Chinese context, since some traditions (e.g. Jiangnan sizhu, Minnan nanyin) display the sophistication of ‘classical’ art music. Musical developments before the Tang period are generally referred to as ‘ancient’ (gudai), while developments dating from the mid-twentieth century onward (mostly syncretic and Western-influenced compositions) are said to be ‘modern’ (xiandai).
Among the principal dichotomies in traditional music, the widespread concepts of sacred and secular are basic. String ensemble traditions of central-eastern and southern China (e.g. Jiangnan sizhu, Chaozhou sixian) are primarily thought to be entertainment genres, since they are usually performed in music clubs and teahouses for appreciative audiences. Wind and percussion ensemble traditions of northern China (e.g. Beijing yinyue, Xi’an guyue) are primarily ritual genres, since they are performed in Buddhist monasteries and temples, at funerals and other auspicious occasions, in tribute to gods and ancestors (see Buddhist music; Daoist music; temple fairs). It must be noted, however, that these two domains are not mutually exclusive, for in south China string ensemble music is also performed at ritual events (as is Minnan nanyin music at local temples on auspicious days). Conversely, wind ensemble music of north China is also performed for entertainment purposes (as at the end of funeral ceremonies when attendees request their favourite pieces). Related to the above duality, and in some ways underpinning it, are the ancient concepts of yin and yang (‘dark’ vs ‘bright’ in the instance of music).
The amateur—professional dichotomy is another problematic one. The traditional (largely Confucian) ideology disapproved of professional activity in the fine arts, notably the acceptance of payment for performance and the gratuitous display of virtuosity. The arts of poetry, painting and music were thought to be suitable (even necessary) for self-cultivation and reinforcement of the old values, but decidedly not for the type of specialization that might lead to cultural blindness. This so-called ‘amateur ideal’ has been maintained unevenly among the many regional music genres—strongly embraced by qin-playing literati of northern China and among the culturally conservative Minnan people of Fujian province (Minnan nanyin), but relatively weak in the eclectic tradition of the Cantonese. In some wind band traditions of rural areas surrounding Beijing, the highest quality of performance is believed to be maintained by ensembles claiming amateur status (e.g. the guanziled ‘music associations’, or yinyue hui). Indeed, professional wind bands are also active in this area (notably the suona-led drumming and blowing musicians (chuigushou), but their music is thought to be of lower quality. Thus, in the Chinese context, it is commonly said that amateur performers have superior ‘style’ (fengge), while professional performers have better ‘technique’ (jichao).
Traditional instrumental ensemble music tends to be dominated by male performers. In the music clubs of most regional genres (e.g. Jiangnan sizhu, Beijing yinyue), performance of instruments is restricted (by custom) to male performers. Among younger conservatory-trained musicians, however, this gender orientation is slowly changing, especially in performance of the solo zheng (zither) and pipa (lute) repertoires, where women are now as active as men. In vocal music (e.g. local opera traditions, narrative song genres), both males and females sing, though here women often play the dominant role—notably in Yueju (Cantonese opera; see Yueju (Guangdong, Guanxi opera)) song where women routinely sing male parts.
The last dichotomy to be considered is that of urban vs rural. In China, as in much of the world, music has tended to become highly standardized in cities. In Shanghai, for example, where there is a major conservatory of music and a state-supported Chinese ensemble of international fame, established arrangements of the local Silk and Bamboo music (Jiangnan sizhu) have become performance ideals, especially among aspiring young urban musicians who rely heavily upon notated versions. Among the many amateur music clubs in Shanghai and the nearby countryside, however, the influence of the Shanghai professional ensembles has been weaker and greater diversity in the repertoire is found. The most standardized instrumental tradition in China is Cantonese music (Guangdong yinyue), centred in the southern port cities of Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Owing to the urbanizing forces of unification, but more significantly to the activity of numerous composer/performers who, beginning in the 1920s, composed new music and standardized arrangements of older pieces, Cantonese music today is performed in very nearly the same way in all Cantonese communities, urban or rural. Minnan nanyin music of nearby southern Fujian province, which is not centred in large urban areas, stands in contrast to the Cantonese tradition. Here there are noticeable structural differences in the repertoire between one village and another, differences great enough that musicians from different areas must resolve these local variants before performing together.
See also: folksongs (Han Chinese); traditional music composers; traditional music performers
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Thrasher, Alan R. (1993). ‘East Asia: China’. In Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: Historical and Regional Studies. London: Macmillan.
——(2000). Chinese Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Witzleben, J.Lawrence (1995). Silk and Bamboo Music in Shanghai. Kent, O: Kent State University Press.
——(ed.) (2002). ‘China’. In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 7: East Asia: China, Japan and Korea. New York: Routledge.
ALAN R.THRASHER

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.