SOUND OF SILK AND BAMBOO
Chinese Music is a broad concept, which encompasses a wide spectrum
of genres and traditions derived from a number of different ethnic
groups. Musical traditions that are most familiar to Westerners,
such as Peking opera or Cantonese music, are just two examples of
China’s 56 ethnic cultural traditions. Since the Han is by far the
largest ethnic group in China constituting nearly 96% of the total
population, it is the musical heritage of the Han that is known to
the world as Chinese music. This musical heritage includes many
different traditions, one of which is instrumental music, which in
turn comprises a variety of regional solo and ensemble music.
ancient Chinese divided musical instruments into eight categories
according to the materials used in their construction known as bayin
or "eight tones." They are metal (jin), stone (shi), silk (si), bamboo (zhu),
gourd (pao), clay (tu), membrane (ge), and wood (mu). While big ensembles consisting of all the "eight tones" exist
only in ritual contexts (such as Confucian ritual music), ensembles
combining three to six different types of musical instruments are
more common in modern music practice.
Instruments such as the bianqing
(stone-chime, "stone"), bianzhong (bell-chime, "metal"),
and zhu (wooden box, "wood") are rarely heard today since they were used with
imperial court music and ritual.
However, instruments associated with folk music such as the
erhu (a two-stringed fiddle), dizi (a transverse bamboo flute), pipa
(a pear-shaped plucked lute) and zheng (a 16-or 21-string plucked
zither), have gained increasing popularity in modern times.
instruments fall into either the "silk" or "bamboo" category (e.g.,
the dizi is a bamboo aerophone, whereas the pipa, erhu, and zheng
are silk-stringed chordophones).
Combining these two has yielded one of the most popular
Chinese music genres – sizhu or silk and bamboo music.
Sizhu is comparable to Western chamber music and is commonly
heard in teahouses, guild houses, or cultural centers where casual
and informal atmospheres are the norm.
Comprising mainly but not exclusively stringed instruments
and bamboo flutes, the sizhu uses various two-string fiddles of the
huqin family, a variety of plucked lutes, bamboo flutes, sheng (a
mouth organ), yangqin (a hammered dulcimer), and a number of
percussion instruments. Four
distinct sizhu traditions can be identified by their origins:
1) Shanghai centered Jiangnan sizhu ("silk and bamboo of
southern river"); 2) Cantonese music; 3) Nanqu or Nanyin which
prevailed in Fujian Province; and 4) Chaozhou sixian ("Chaozhou silk
and string") from the Chaozhou and Shantou regions of Guangdong
Province. While each
sizhu tradition is characterized by its instrumentation and timbral
coloring peculiar to its local origin, they are all heterophonic in
their simultaneous use of elaborately modified versions of the same
melody by two or more performers.
Improvisation and ability to alter linear rendition are
highly valued among traditional sizhu performers as it is these
subtle changes that provide much of the vitality of the music.
major traditional ensemble music genre is called chuida or "wind and
sizhu, most chuida music is played outdoors and is sometimes
five major geographically divided chuida musical traditions can be
found in Mainland China: three
in the south (Zhedong luogu, Sunan chuida, and Chaozhou daluo) and
two in the north (Hebei chuige and Jinbei guyue).
They tend to use loud instruments including various gongs,
cymbals, drums, suona and guanzi (multiple reed oboes), and bamboo
flutes. In some areas string instruments are also added; these
include the huqin, erxian (both 2-strubged fiddles), pipa and
sanxian (plucked lutes). Rooted
in rural areas, chuida is closely tied to people’s day-to-day
life, and performed on important occasions, such as marriage,
funeral, religious rites, and folk festivals.
in this century, the solo aspect of Chinese instrumental music has
rapidly developed in Han musical culture due largely to Western
music influence, instrument refinement and the rise of professional
orchestras and ensembles. Once
considered the domain of folk music, instruments like the pipa, erhu,
zheng, and dizi are now systematically taught in conservatories and
have become favorite solo instruments for new compositions.
Inventing new playing techniques and pursuing virtuosity
became a trend among professional musicians who encouraged composers
to write grander, more difficult pieces for solo instruments.
Western influence has also played a big role in shaping
modern Chinese solo musical styles.
Idioms, such as the symphony and concerto, and concepts, such
as harmony and chromaticism, have not only been adapted into music
composition and concert performance but also influenced instrument
making. A large scale "instrument reform" campaign undertaken from
the 1950s to ‘70s has yielded a large crop of reformed or newly
designed instruments that have increased the dynamic and octave
range by adding extra frets or strings to traditional instruments.
Steps were taken in chromatic or equal temperament tuning
with some conventionally pentatonically tuned instruments such as
the yangqin (hammered dulcimer), zheng (board zither), and sheng
(mouth organ). These
modified instruments are more suitable for the 20th-century
concert hall music (guoyue) characterized by large ensembles
incorporating Western harmony and orchestration but grounded in
traditional Chinese pentatonic structure.
handful of Chinese musical instruments remain almost intact and one
such example is the qin, a seven-string plucked zither.
The qin is one of the oldest Chinese music instruments and
has long been associated with literati and Confucianists.
The ancient ideology of qin, highlighting the educational and
meditative functions of music, closely parallels those of ancient
Greek music and the Indian Brahmanic tradition.
Music performance is ideally not to be considered a
profession, but rather an avocation; one practices music for its
qualities of illumination or self-cultivation, not for remuneration.
Since musical knowledge is considered a scholarly activity in
qin music context, the qin player usually spends considerable time
studying music theory and exchanging his thoughts with others in a
qin ‘club’. This
will eventually benefit the performer’s ability to dapu (literally
"striking notation"), unique process of revealing ancient qin music
through the performer’s creative interpretation based on ancient
qin tablature. Nowadays
the qin is not as popular as the erhu, dizi, or zheng, it
nonetheless remains a musical symbol of Chinese literati culture.
the fact that the "traditional" element is overshadowed by its "modern"
aspect in contemporary Chinese solo music making, efforts in
preservation and revitalization of traditional solo music have been
undertaken in recent years among Chinese music communities in China,
Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas. Beginning in the late ‘70s, government-supported
organizations in Mainland China launched a "national cultural
heritage rescue" campaign in which systematic documentation of major
music genres and their representative performers, especially the
older generations became the top priority.
In China, much of the solo music prior to the ‘60s is
stylistically divided based on region. Each established school is distinguished by its own
repertoire and instrumental techniques.
Hence, while the Shandong Zheng School of northern China
specializes in thumb plucking, the Chaozhou school of Guandong
Province is acknowledged for the use of metal picks.
Traditional pipa music can be identified not only by whether
it belongs to wenqu ("civil") or wuqu ("military"), but also by its
rendition as determined by stylistic affiliation.
A performance by an accomplished musician who has a strong
lineage reveals much of the peculiar characteristics unique to the
particular school to which he/she is associated.
Although the modern conservatory system has more readily
available resources to learn traditional music performance,
apprenticeship with masters of established stylistic schools is
still highly valued among the musical community.
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