With a five thousand year history, the Chinese civilization developed a musical tradition that covered all aspects of culture, from ritual to folk. The ancient philosophers wrote about music’s importance in society and the poets remarked about its effect on the soul. Archeological evidence depicts its function in the imperial court, including ritual songs used in state ceremonies and the burial of instruments with favored officials. Music in ancient China was an integral part of society and the lives of its people, from common to elite.
We find some of the earliest literary mention of music from the Shi Jing or Book of Poetry collected around 1000 BCE. A collection of folk songs, love songs and ritual songs of the Zhou dynasty (c1050-256 BCE), the importance of collecting and cataloguing music began and continued throughout the centuries. Early philosophers also stressed the importance of music in society. Xun Zi (312-230 BCE), a great scholar of the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) wrote a discourse on music:
“Music is joy. Being an essential part of man’s emotional nature, the expression of joy is,
by necessity, inescapable. This is why men
cannot do without music.”
Music is an integral part of human nature, an expression of mans’ emotions. For man to function in society he must have music, to express his feelings and bring about joy and happiness.
Music has no boundaries so its development in Chinese culture took it into all levels of the Chinese social structure. The Imperial Court had bureaus designated to collecting and composing court music. Though we have few sources for the music of the earlier dynasties we do have archaeological evidence, in the form of musical instruments that provide us with a glimpse into the diversity of music and sound produced during this time. Bronze bells, jade chimes, skin drums, bone flutes, and clay xun or ocarinas are some of the earlier ritual instruments for court music. The growth of the literati class created a new style of music best suited for the expression of the erudite. The guqin and its connection to the scholars provide us with written tablature and numerous texts dating back to the Han dynasty that expound on the scholar’s musical voice. The music of the people takes its form in folk music, a large category that includes everything from music for weddings, funerals, festivals, celebrations, and entertainment. Folk operas and other forms of musical storytelling are commonplace in the countryside as well as the towns. All these various forms of Chinese music have survived in some form to the present. It is now our responsibility to preserve and pass on these traditions to the next generation to enjoy.