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 Chen Tao (Director)
 Melody of Dragon, Inc.
 53-19 195th Street
 Fresh Meadows, NY
 Tel: 347-259-9252


By Wei Li 

>> 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.

The 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. 

These 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.

Another major traditional ensemble music genre is called chuida or "wind and percussion".  Unlike sizhu, most chuida music is played outdoors and is sometimes processional.  About 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.

Beginning 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. 

Today a 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. 

Despite 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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