Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Music of China

Chinese music appears to date back to the dawn of Chinese civilization, and documents and artifacts provide evidence of a well-developed musical culture as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC).

According to Mencius, a ruler had asked Mencius whether it was moral if he prefered pop songss to the classics. The answer was that the only thing matters being whether or not he loved his subjects.

The Imperial Music Bureau, first established in the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC) and charged with supervising court music and military music and determining what folk music would be officially recognized. In subsequent dynasties, the development of Chinese music was strongly influenced by foreign music, especially that of Central Asia.

Instrumental music is played on solo instruments or in small ensembles of plucked and bowed stringed instruments, flutes, and various cymbals, gongs, and drums. The scale has five notes. Bamboo pipes and qin are among the oldest known musical instruments from China; instruments are traditionally divided into categories based on their material of composition: skin, gourd, bamboo, wood, silk, earth/clay, metal and stone. Chinese orchestras traditionally consist of bowed strings, woodwinds, plucked strings and percussion. The oldest written music is Orchid in Seclusion, attributed to Confucius. The first major well-documented flowering of Chinese music was for the qin during the Tang Dynasty, though the qin is known to have been played since before the Han Dynasty.

Traditional orchestral instruments:

Chinese vocal music has traditionally been sung in a thin, nonresonant voice or in falsetto and is usually solo rather than choral. All traditional Chinese music is melodic rather than harmonic.

The New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 1920s evoked a great deal of lasting interest in Western music as a number of Chinese musicians who had studied abroad returned to perform Western classical music and to compose works of their own based on the Western musical notation system. Symphony orchestras were formed in most major cities and performed to a wide audience in the concert halls and on radio. Many of these performers added jazz influences to traditional music, adding xylophones, saxophones and violins, among other instruments. Lu Wencheng, Li Jinhui, Zhou Xuan, Qui Hechou, Yin Zizhong and He Dasha were among the most popular performers and composers during this period; many, especially Zhou Xuan, were criticized as pornographic and degenerate by Maoists. Popular music--greatly influenced by Western music, especially that of the United States--also gained a wide audience in the 1940s. After the 1942 Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art, a large-scale campaign was launched in the Communist controlled areas to adapt folk music to create revolutionary songs to educate the largely illiterate rural population on party goals. Musical forms considered superstitious or anti-revolutionary were repressed, and harmonies and bass lines were added to traditional songs. One example is "The East Is Red", a folksong from Shaanxi which was adapted into a nationalist hymn.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, revolutionary songs continued to be performed, and much of the remainder of popular music consisted of popular songs from the Soviet Union with the lyrics translated into Chinese. Symphony orchestras flourished throughout the country, performing Western classical music and compositions by Chinese composers. Conservatories and other institutions of musical instruction were developed and expanded in the major cities. A number of orchestras from Eastern Europe performed in China, and Chinese musicians and musical groups participated in a wide variety of international festivals.

During the height of the Cultural Revolution, musical composition and performance were greatly restricted. A form of soft, harmonic, generic, pan-Chinese music called guoyue was artificially created to be performed at conservatories. After the Cultural Revolution, musical institutions were reinstated and musical composition and performance revived.

The 1970s saw the rise of Cantopop in Hong Kong. It arose as a reaction against more traditional shidaiqu, and featured American soft rock and traditional Cantonese vocal styles. Joseph Koo, Lisa Wang, Adam Cheng, Lotus, Wynners and James Wong were especially popular. In the 1980s, singer began using Cantonese instead of English. This new generation of stars included Sam Hui, Danny Chan, Kenny Bee, Anita Mui, Aaron Kwok, Leon Lai, Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung. The last four were the biggest stars, and were referred to as say dai ting wong (the four gods). Newer teen idols include Sammi Cheng, Karen Mok and Eason Chan.

Parallel with the rise of Cantopop was Chinese rock, which drew on earlier, underground pioneers like Taiwanese star Teresa Teng. The widely-acknowledged forefather of Chinese rock is Cui Jian. Modern rock artists include Tang Chao, Dadawa, Cobra, Dou Wei, He Yong, Zhinanzhen, Lingdian and Heibao. Musically, these range from New Wave (Lingdian) to heavy metal (Heibao), alongside punk rock bands like Catcher in the Rye and Dixiayinger.

In 1980 the Chinese Musicians' Association was formally elected to the International Musicological Society. Chinese musical groups toured foreign countries, and foreign musical organizations performed in China. In the mid-1980s popular ballads and Western folk and classical music still drew the greatest audiences, but other kinds of music, including previously banned Western jazz and rock and roll, were being performed and were receiving increasing acceptance, especially among young people.

Han music

The Han Chinese, who make up some 92% of the population of China, play heterophonic music in which the musicians plays versions of a single melodic line. Percussion accompanies most music, dance and opera.

Instrumental music

Instrumental pieces played on an erhu or dizi are popular, and are often available outside of China, but qin, pipa and zheng music, which is more traditional, are more popular in China itself. The qin is perhaps the national instrument of China, and its virtuosos are stars. These include Zha Fuxi, Wu Wen'guang, Lin Youren, Wu Jinglue, Wu Zhaoji, Guan Pinghu, Zhang Zijian, Li Xiangting and Gong Yi. The zheng, a form of zither, is most popular in Henan, Chaozhou, Hakka and Shandong. The pipa, a kind of lute, is most popular in Shanghai and surrounding areas.

Folk music

Han folk music thrives at weddings and funerals and usually included a form of oboe called a shawm and percussive ensembles called chuigushou. The music is diverse, sometimes jolly, sometimes sad and often based on Western pop music and TV theme songs. Ensembles consisting of mouth organs, shawms, flutes and percussion instruments (especially yunluo gongs) are popular in northern villages; their music is descended from imperial temple music from Beijing, Xi'an, Wutai shan and Tianjin. Xi'an drum music consisting of wind and percussive instruments is popular around Xi'an, and has received some popularity outside China in a highly-commercialized form. Another important instrument is the sheng, bamboo pipes, which is an ancient instrument that is an ancestor of all Western free reed instruments, such as the accordion. Parades led by Western-type brass bands are common, often competing in volume with a shawm/chuigushou band.

In southern Fujian (and Taiwan), Nanguan ballads are popular. They are sung by a woman accompanied by a flute and a lute, and the music is generally sorrowful and mourning, and typically deals with love-stricken women. Further south, in Shantou, Hakka and Chaozhou, erxian and zheng ensembles are popular.

Sizhu ensembles use flutes and bowed or plucked string instruments to make harmonious and whimsical music that has become popular in the West among some listeners. These are popular in Nanjing and Hangzhuo, as well as elsewhere along the southern Yangtze area. Sizhu has been secularized in cities but remains spiritual in rural areas.

Shanghai's fiddle, flute and banjo music from teahouses are famous outside of China, and are wildly popular in the city.


19th century Chinese opera

Chinese opera has been hugely popular for centuries, especially Beijing Opera. The music is often guttural with high-pitched vocals, usually accompanied by shawm, jinghu and other kinds of string instruments. Other types of opera include clapper opera, pingju, Cantonese opera, puppet opera, kunqu, Sichuan opera, Qinqiang, ritual masked opera and huangmei xi.


China has many ethnic groups besides the Han, concentrated in the southeast and northwest. These include Tibetans, Russians, Uighurs, Manchus, Zhuang, Dai, Naxi, Miao, Wa, Yi, Lisu and Mongolians.


Tibet is a culturally and ethnically distinct area in southwestern China. Its political status is highly controversial, with many both within China and Tibet, as well as internationally, supporting independence. One of the major reasons for this sovereignty movement is that the Chinese Cultural Revolution decimated Tibetan culture, closing most of the areas monasteries, which were the centers for cultural and religious innovation. There are significant minorities of Tibetans in Kham, Bhutan, Nepal and India, as well as in immigrant communities throughout the world.

Music forms an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. While chanting remains perhaps the best known form of Tibetan Buddhist music, complex and lively forms are also widespread. Monks use music to recite various sacred texts and to celebrate a variety of festivals during the year. The most specialized form of chanting is called yang, which is without metrical timing and is dominated by resonant drums and sustained, low syllables. Other forms of chanting are unique to Tantra as well as the four main monastic schools: Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa and Sakyapa. Of these schools, Gelugpa is considered a more a restrained, classical form, while Nyingmapa is widely described as romantic and dramatic. Gelugpa is perhaps the most popular

Secular Tibetan music survived the Cultural Revolution more intact than spiritual music, especially due to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which was founded by the Dalai Lama shortly after his self-imposed exile. TIPA originally specialized in the operatic lhamo form, which has since been modernized with the addition of Western and other influences. Other secular genres include nangma and toshe, which are often linked and are accompanied by a variety of instruments designed for highly-rythmic dance music. Nangma karaoke is popular in modern Lhasa. A classical form called gar is very popular, and is distinguished by ornate, elegant and ceremonial music honoring dignitaries or other respected persons.

Tibetan folk music includes a cappella lu songs, which are distinctively high in pitch with glottal vibrations, as well as now rare epic bards who sing the tales of Gesar, Tibet's most popular hero.

Tibetan music has influenced the pioneering compositions of Philip Glass and, most influentially, Henry Eichheim, most influentially. Later artists made New Age fusions by pioneers Henry Wolff and Nancy Hennings. These two collaborated on Tibetan Bells, perhaps the first fusion of New Age and Tibetan influences, in 1971. Glass' Kundun soundtrack proved influential in the 1990s, while the popularity of Western-adapted Buddhism (exemplified by Richard Gere, Yungchen Lhamo, Steve Tibbetts, Choying Drolma, Lama Karta and Kitaro and Nawang Khechong) helped further popularize Tibetan music.

With the arrival of Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas, Western music, often in unique Tibetan forms, started to become popular among Tibetans everywhere. Rangzen Shonu quickly became the most popular ethnically Tibetan performers of Western rock and pop. Other forms of imported pop music include Indian ghazal and filmi, popular across the Himalayas and in Tibetan communities worldwide. Tibetan-Western fusions have been long suppressed in China itself, but have been widespread and innovative outside of the country. In the mid- to late 1980s, a relaxation of governmental rules allowed a form of Tibetan pop music to emerge in Tibet proper. Direct references to native religion is still forbidden, but commonly-understood metaphors are widespread. Pure Tibetan pop is heavily influenced by light Chinese rock, and includes best-sellers like Jampa Tsering and Yatong. Politically and socially aware songs are rare in this form of pop, but commonplace in a second type of Tibetan pop. Nangma karaoke bars appeared in 1998 and are common in Lhasa, in spite of threats from the Chinese government.


Yunnan is an ethnically diverse area in southeast China. Perhaps best-known from the province is the lusheng, a type of mouth organ, used by the Miao of Guizhou for pentatonic antiphonal courting songs.

The Hani of Honghe are known for a unique kind of choral, micro-tonal rice-transplanting songs.

The Naxi of Lijiang play a type of song and dance suite called baisha xiyue, which was supposedly brought by Kublai Khan in 1253. Naxi donjiang is a type of music related to southern Chinese forms, and is popular today.


Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic people related to others from Central Asia. Uighurs' best-known musical form is the on ikki muqam, a complex suite of twelve sections related to Uzbek and Tajik forms. These complex symphonies vary wildly between suites in the same muqam, and are built on a seven-note scale. Instruments typically include dap (a drum), dulcimers, fiddles and lutes; performers have some space for personal embellishments, especially in the percussion.

The most important performer is Turdu Ahun, who recorded most of the muqams in 1956.


Hua'er is a type of song prevalent throughout northwest China. The informal music is often competitive in nature, with singers interacting and improvising topical and love lyrics, usually unaccompanied.

Related articles