According to legend, the founder of Chinese music was Ling Lun, who made bamboo pipes that sounded like the songs of birds. Very much like the songs of birds, Chinese music seems to have always existed. The oldest known written music is a song called “Youlan,” “The Solitary Orchid,” attributed to the great song-smith known as Confucius, who was born in 551 B.C.E. (Confucius also wrote “My Humps.”)

No he didn’t, but from his day for the next two millennia, almost every Chinese emperor valued music as a high art form and prioritized making it part of his court. Over the ages Chinese classical and folk music developed in almost every part of the land, with each of the empire’s many ethnic groups has developing its own musical forms. The most prevalent ethnic group, with almost ubiquitous music, is the Han, who make up more than 90% of China’s population. Han music is “heterophonic,” meaning musicians will play songs that are a version of one melodic line, and, like the Mandarin language, it’s tonal, implying that the music’s shifts from one tone to the next change the music’s meaning. Han folk music is still popular today at life cycle events like traditional Han-style weddings, and often includes a soloist on an oboe called a suona (which you really have to see to believe).

A different kind of music is integral to the life of another Chinese ethnic group: the Tibetans. (Well, “Chinese” depending on who you ask.) Chanting is an essential part of Tibetan Buddhist music, both in private meditation and public festivity. There are secular Tibetan genres as well, such as nangma, which is highly-rhythmic and meant to accompany dance, and an ornate classical form of singing called gar, which is used in ceremonies to honor respected people.

The expansion of musical freedom in China today, coupled with unprecedented advances in communication, has enabled local Chinese musicians to not only revive their ethnic music, but to share their explorations widely with others, for example, through YouTube. Want to hear some ethnic Chinese music? Check out songs from: Miao | Mongolians | Yi and Wa | Zhuang | Hakka | Hmong | Uyghurs

In the early part of the 20th century Chinese musicians who went abroad as part of the “New Culture Movement” returned with enthusiasm for Western music. The Chinese Communist government preferred to formally support Chinese folk, and launched a substantial campaign to adapt local folk music into revolutionary songs, such as its conversion of a Shaanxi song into the anthem, “The East is Red.” The Chinese Communists borrowed heavily in this era from Soviet Communists, who had pioneered the art (?) of music as State propaganda, and even created a non-threatening pan-Chinese form of music called guoyue to try to replace more original, and less revolutionary, forms.

Despite this State support of non-Western music, a hybrid of Chinese folk and Western jazz called shidaiqu became popular throughout the ’20s and ’30s, especially in Shanghai. At the same time Mandopop, which we’ll discuss more next week, was forming, resulting in the musical domination of seven popular singing stars known as “the seven great singing stars.” (More about them next week too.) Much of this public musical exploration ended in 1949 when the Communist Party declared Chinese popular music to be pornographic. Instead, during the Cultural Revolution the Maoists promoted “revolutionary songs” as the only acceptable form of music. This anti-pop orientation continued for decades, lasting well into the 1980s, though State censorship didn’t always succeed in squelching musical expression. In fact, after the Chinese cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989, new forms of Westernized-Chinese music such as a politically defiant form called “Northwest Wind” began as a way to counter the government. “Northwest Wind” soon became known as Chinese rock. (We’ll learn a bit about Northwest Wind/Chinese rock pioneer Cui Jian below.) Rather than overtly crush Chinese rock in the 1990s the Chinese government realized that it could control the form by not allow it access to state-owned media and concert halls, limiting its ability to develop mainstream appeal.

Even though Chinese musicians are now more free than ever to create any kind music they want, decades of State-determined music has led to a lack of the infrastructure necessary to support a robust music industry. Taiwan generates most Mandopop, and while Hong Kong is at the center of Cantopop (more about that next week too), that industry is still removed from the Chinese economic mainstream. This will no doubt change, and Chinese businesses will find a way to profit from Chinese popular music. The real question about the future of Chinese popular music lies with Chinese musicians. After decades of Communist State censorship and the self-censorship that invariably goes with it, will Chinese musicians exhibit the open-minded innovation that creating innovative music demands?

In class we’re going to listen to:

— “Nothing to My Name” by Cui Jian
Cui Jian (pronounced “sway jen”) is generally acknowledged to be the father of Chinese rock. Born in 1961 of Korean-Chinese parents, Cui Jian was a classically trained trumpet player who joined the Beijing Philharmonic at the age of 20. By the end of the ’80s he’d strayed from the classical tradition and started to play guitar-based Western pop songs. In 1986 he debuted “Nothing to My Name,” which electrified the burgeoning Chinese underground music scene by fusing Chinese and Western music and lyrical themes. On its face “Nothing to My Name” is a love song but many, such as the student protesters in Tienanmen Square in 1989 who adopted it as their anthem, view it as a thinly veiled political statement of discontent with the Communist regime. Throughout the ’90s Cui Jian became an icon of the Chinese underground, both for his innovative music and his overt defiance of Communist leader; his appearance in 2003 on stage with The Rolling Stones was a milestone moment for Chinese rock. Though Cui Jian could rest on his laurels as a Chinese cultural legend he continues to tour, to make music that blends East with West, and to sing about topics that irk the authorities.

More information:
Meet Cui Jian over mutton hotpot | Wikipedia on Cui Jian | Delve deep into “Nothing To My Name” | See Cui Jian burst through the fog while performing “Nothing to My Name” on YouTube | There are many photos of Cui Jian in action at his official website

— “Flowers” by Hanggai
Hanggai is a groundbreaking band that crosses cultural boundaries within China by forging rural Inner Mongolian sounds with modern, Beijing-based punk-rock in a style known as “Chinagrass.” Band leader Ilchi, who cites his influences as “Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Secret Machines, Electralane and Neil Diamond,” explores his Mongolian heritage through Hanngai by embracing rural instruments and learning the ancient art of throat-singing.

More information:
Hanggai on Wikipedia | “Hangin’ With Hanggai” — a Spinner Magazine interview with Ilchi | See Hanggai rock out on “Flowers” live

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