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The casual visitor to China could be forgiven for thinking that the only traditional style to compete with bland pop is that of the kitsch folk troupes to be heard in hotels and concert halls. But an earth-,- tradition­ al music still abounds throughout the countryside; it can be heard at weddings, funerals, temple fairs, and New Year celebrations – and even down­ town in teahouses. A very different, edgier sound can be heard in certain smoky city bars – the new Chinese rock, energetic expressions of urban angst.

Traditional music

Hall music (like Irish music) is heterophonic – the musicians play differently decorated versions of a single melodic line – and its melodies are basically pentatonic. Percussion plays a major role, both in instrumental ensembles, and as accompaniment to opera, narrative-singing, ritual music and dance.

Chinese musical roots date back millennia – among archeological finds are a magnificent set of 65 bronze bells from the fifth century BC – and its forms can be directly traced to the Tang dynasty, a golden age of great poets such as Li Bai and Bai Juyi, who were also avid Musicians. Several gin (zithers) from this period are still played today-, and there’s a good market in fake ones, too. In fact, the industry in fake antiques extends to the music itself, as tourists may be regaled with Hollywood-style routines marketed as the Music and dance of the Tang court. In recent years, the rather soulless Confucian rituals of the bygone imperial courts have been revived in Qufu and some other toss us like Nanjing , largely for tourists. The reality, of course, is that there are no “living fossils” in music, and most traditional forms in the countryside are the product of grad­ual accretion over the centuries, and especially over the past hundred years.

After China’s humiliation at the hands of foreign imperial powers, and in the turbulent years after 1911, Western ideas gained ground, at least in the towns. Some intriguing urban forms sprang up from the meeting of East and West such as the wonderfully sleazy Cantonese music of the 1920s and ’30s. As the movie industry developed, people in Shanghai, colonial Canton (Guangzhou) and nearby Hong Kong threw themselves into the craze for Western-style jazz and dancehalls, fusing the local traditional music -with jazz, and adding saxo­ phone, violin and xylophone to Chinese instruments such as the ga ohn (high­ pitched fiddle) and the yangqin (dulcimer). Composers Lu Wencheng and Qiu Hechou (Yau Hokchau), the violinist Yin Zizhong (Yi Tzuchung and He Dasha (“Thicko He”), guitarist and singer of clown roles in Cantonese opera, made many wonderful commercial 78s during this period. While these musi­cians kept their roots in Cantonese music, the more Westernized (and even more popular) compositions of Li Jinhui and his star singer Zhou Xuan sub­sequently earned severe disapproval from Maoist critics as decadent and porno­ graphic Today, though, you can still hear these 1930s classics, played in mod­ ern arrangements, over street loudspeakers.

New “revolutionary” music, composed from the 1930s on, was generally march-like and optimistic and, after the Communist victory of 1949, the whole ethos of traditional music was challenged. Anything “feudal” or “super­stitious” – which included a lot of traditional folk customs and music – was severely restricted, while Chinese melodies were “cleaned up” with the addi­tion of rudimentary harmonies and bass lines. The communist anthem “The East is Red”, which began life as a folksong from the northern Shaanxi province (from where Mao’s revolution also sprang), is symptomatic. Its local color was ironed out as it was turned into a conventionally harmonized hymn-like tune. It was later adopted as the unofficial anthem of the Cultural Revolution, during which time musical life was driven underground, with only eight model operas and ballets permitted on stage.

The conservatoire style of guoyue (national music), which was about the only Chinese music recorded until recently, was an artificial attempt to create a pan-Chinese style for the concert hall, with composed arrangements in a style akin to Western light music. There arc still many conservatoire-style chamber groups – typically including ehui (fiddle), dizi (flute), pipa (lute) and zheng (zither) – playing evocatively titled pieces, some of which are newly composed. While the plaintive pieces for solo erhu by musicians such as Liu Tianhua and the blind beggar Abing (also a Daoist priest), or atmospheric meetings on the dizi, have been much recorded by Guoy u e virtuosos like Min Huifen or Lu Chunling respectively, there is much more to Chinese music than this. Folk music has a life of its own and tends to follow the Confucian ideals of moderation and harmony, in which showy virtuosity is out of place.

The qin and solo traditions

Instrumental music is not as popular as vocal music in China , and many of the short virtuosic pieces that you hear played on the erh u or dizi are in fact the product of modern composers writing in a pseudo-romantic Western style for the concert hall. The genuine solo traditions going back to the scholar literati of imperial times, and which live on in the conservatoires today, are for the pipa, zheng, and qin.

The qin (also known as guqin) is the most exalted of these instruments. A seven string plucked zither, it has been a favourite subject of poets and painters for over a thousand years, and is the most delicate and contemplative instru­ment in the Chinese palette. It is the most accessible, too, producing expressive slides and ethereal harmonics. Though primarily associated with the modera­tion of the Confucian scholar, the qui is also steeped in the mystical Daoism of ancient philosophy – the contemplative union with nature, where silence is as important as sound. The only instruments which may occasionally blend with the qin are the voice of the player, singing ancient poems in an utterly intro­ verted style, or the x i a o end-blown flute.

With its literate background, qin music has been written in a unique and complex notation since the Tang dynasty. The Shenqi mipu written by the Ming prince, Zhu Quan, in 1425, which included pieces handed down from earlier dynasties, is still commonly used, though most qin pieces today have been trans­ mitted from master to pupil since at least the eighteenth century. Since the 1950s there has been a drive to revive other early pieces, comparable to the early-music movement in the West.

The qin is best heard in meetings of aficionados rather than in concert. The Beijing Qin Association, led by Li Xiangting of the Central Conservatoire, meets on the first Sunday of each month and is open to visitors. In Shanghai , the professor of Xuqin at the Conservatoire, Lin Youren, will introduce you to any get-togethers of qin enthusiasts in the area. Many of the master musicians play instruments dating back to the fifteenth century.

Modern traditions of the pipa (lute) and zheng (zither) also derive from regional styles, transmitted from master to pupil, although “national” reper­toires developed during the twentieth century. For the Zheng, the northern styles of Henan and Shandong and the southern Chaozhou and Hakka schools are best known. The pipa, on the other hand, has thrived in the Shanghai region. It makes riveting listening, with its contrast between intimate “civil” pieces and the startlingly modern-sounding martial style of traditional pieces such as “Ambush front All Sides” (Shimian maifu), with its frenetic percussive evocation of the sounds of battle.

The poetic titles of many so-called classical solo pieces – like “Autumn Moon in the Han palace” or “Flowing Streams” – often relate to identification with nature or to a famous historical scene. Correspondingly, the music is often pictorial, underlining the link with the artistic background of the educated classes of imperial times. The similar titles of the pieces played by folk ensem­bles, however, are rarely illustrative, serving only as identification for the musi­cians.

The North: blowers and drummers

Today what we might call classical traditions – derived from the elite of impe­rial times – live on not just with these solo instruments but still more strongly in folk ensembles. Such traditions have survived best in life-cycle and calen­dar rituals for the gods. The most exciting examples of this music are to be heard at weddings and funerals, known as “red and white business” – red being the auspicious colour of the living, white the colour of mourning.

These occasions usually feature raucous shawm (a ubiquitous instrument in China , rather like a crude clarinet) and percussion groups called chuigushou -“blowers and drummers”. While wedding bands naturally tend to use more jolly music, funerals may also feature lively pieces to entertain the guests. The “blowers and drummers” play not only lengthy and solemn suites but also the latest pop hits and theme tunes from TV and films. They milk the audience by sustaining notes, using circular breathing, playing even while dismantling and reassembling their shawms, or by balancing plates on sticks on the end of their instruments while playing. Nobly laying down their lives for their art, sham players also love to perform while successively inserting cigarettes into both nostrils, both ears, and both corners of the mouth. Some of the more virtuoso shawm bands are found in southwestern Shandong around Heze county.

The sheng is one of the oldest Chinese instruments (mentioned as far back as the tenth century BC). It comprises a group of (usually 17) bamboo pipes of different lengths bound in a circle and set in a wooden or metal base into which the player blows. Frequently used for ceremonial music, it adds an inci­sive rhythmic bite to the music. Long and deafening strings of fire-crackers are another inescapable part of village ceremony. Some processions are led by a Western-style brass band with a shawm-and-percussion group behind, com­peting in volume, oblivious of key. In northern villages, apart from the blow­ers and drummers, ritual shengguan ensembles are also common, with their exquisite combination of mouth organs and as well as darting flutes and the shimmering halo of the yunluo gong-frame, accompanied by Percussion. Apart from this haunting melodic music, they perform some spectacular ritual percussion – the intricate arm movements of the cymbal players almost resem­ble martial arts.

Around Xi’an, groups performing similar wind and percussion music, mis­leadingly dubbed Xi’an Drum Music (Xi’an guyue), are active for temple festivals not only in the villages but also in the towns, especially in the sixth moon , around July .The Xi’an Conservatoire has commercialized these folk traditions, but the real thing is much better. If you remember the tough shwan bands and haunting folksong of Chen Kaige’s film Yellow Earth, or the harsh falsetto narrative in Zhang Yimou’s Time Story of Qiuju, go for the real thing among the barren hills of northern Shaanxi . This area is home to fantastic folk singers, local opera (such as the Qinqiang and Meihu styles), puppeteers, shawm bands, and folk ritual specialists. Even yangge dancing, which in the towns is often a geriatric form of conga dancing, has a wild power here, again accompanied by shawms and percussion.

The South: silk and bamboo

In Southeast China , the best-known instrumental music is that of sizhu (“silk and bamboo”) ensembles, using flutes (of bamboo) and plucked and bowed String (until recently of silk). More mellifluous than the outdoor wind bands of the north, these provide perhaps the most accessible Chinese folk music.

There are several regional styles, but the most famous is that of Shanghai . In the city’s teahouses, old-timers – and some youngsters too – get together in the afternoons, sit round a table and take it in turns to play a set with Chinese fid­dles, flutes and banjos. You can’t help thinking of an Irish session, with Chinese tea replacing Guinness. The most celebrated teahouse is the Chenghuang miao, a picturesque two storied structure on an island in the old quarter, where here there are Monday afternoon gatherings. The contrasting tex­tures of plucked, bowed and blown sounds are part of the attraction of this music with their individual decorations to the gradually unfolding melody. Many pieces consist of successive decorations of a theme, beginning with the most ornate and accelerating as the decorations are gradually stripped down to a fast and bare final statement of the theme itself. Above the chinking of tea bowls and subdued chatter of the teahouse, enjoy the gradual unraveling of a piece like “Sanliu”, or feel the exhilarating dash to the finish of “Xingjie”, with its breathless syncopations.

There are amateur sizhu clubs throughout the lower Yangzi area including the cities of Nanjing and Hangzhou . Although this music is secular and recreational in its urban form, the sizhu instrumentation originated in ritual ensembles and is still so used in the villages and temples of southern Jiangsu . In fact, amateur ritual associations are to be found all over southern China, as far field as Yunnan, punctuating their ceremonies with sedate music reminiscent of the Shanghai teahouses, although often featuring the yunluo gong-frame of north­ ern China.

Another fantastic area for folk music is the coastal region of southern Fujian , notably the delightful cities of Quanzhou and Xiamen. Here you can find not only opera, ritual music and puppetry, but the haunting nanguan ballads. Popular all along the coast of southern Fujian , as in Taiwan across the Strait, nnguani features a female singer accompanied by end-blown flute and plucked and bowed lutes. The ancient texts depict the sorrows of love, partic­ularly of wo men, while the music is mostly stately and the delivery restrained, yet anguished.

Still further south, the coastal regions of Chaozhou and Shantou , and the Hakka area (inland around Meixian and Dabu), also have celebrated string ensembles featuring a high-pitched erxian (bowed fiddle) and zheng (plucked zither), as well as large and imposing ceremonial percussion bands, sometimes accompanied by shrill flutes.