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Chinese Musical Tradition

Chinese Musical Tradition

The Chinese musical tradition was well-developed as early as the Zhou Dynasty, which began in 1122 BC. As the longest lasting dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty saw a flourishing in the performance arts, as well as written art. The oldest written music is Youlan (the Solitary Orchid), credited to Confucius, one of the most famous Chinese philosophers and intellectuals. The strong tradition for this art form is steeped in myth and legend, with Ling Lun credited as the legendary creator of music. Ancient stories claim that he created bamboo flutes that could imitate the sound of any bird, including the mythical Pheonix. Hang-di, the Yellow Emperor and legendary co-founder of the Chinese civilization, is said to have created bells that were tuned to Ling Lun's flute. It is from this romanticized beginning that an established, esteemed tradition has developed.

From its legendary founding, music has always been connected to the ruling powers of China. During the Qin Dynasty, which began in 221 BC, the Imperial Music Bureau was established and charged with supervising court and military music. It was also charged with gathering folk music; the rulers of China recognized the power and influence of music, and believed that folk music expressed the will of the people. It is in this way that the rulers of China heard the voice of the common people.

One ancient form of music is the orchestra. As far back as the Shang Dynasty, which began in 1550 BC, orchestral music was central to ceremonial events. At its inception, Chinese Orchestra mostly consisted of percussion instruments with a few wind instruments. It was not until the Han Dynasty (beginning in 202 BC) that stringed instruments were imported from Central Asia. Instruments that came from this influence evolved into the Chinese Pipa (or Ruan), the Asian Yueqin, the Chinese Guzheng, and the Asian violin (or Ehru). The influence of Central Asia grew stronger through the Tang Dynasty (established in 618 AD), but the Song Dynasty (beginning in 960 AD) saw the greatest developments in orchestral performance. Contemporary orchestra has a great deal of Western influence, substituting Chinese instruments for traditional Western ones and utilizing the Western seating arrangement. However, very few Western instruments are actually used in Chinese Orchestra, with preference given to the traditional Chinese string instruments. The music performed may be adaptations of Western music, or modernized traditional music.

The Three Kingdoms Period, beginning in 184 AD, saw a burgeoning of a new form of music, the opera. Canjun Opera is the classification for the form developed during this period, while the Tang Dynasty (beginning in 618 AD) experienced a more organized style of opera. The first opera troupe, the Pear Garden, was established, and even today, opera troupes are known as Disciples of the Pear Garden. The artifice defined during the Yuan Dynasty remains key to traditional opera, with strict roles established for characters; character types are male, female, painted face, and clown. It was during this time that the required use of Classical Chinese on stage was modified and the use of the vernacular accepted. Traditional Chinese string and percussion instruments accompany the vocals and acting of opera, while the spoken dialogue is integral to character roles. Much like in Shakespeare's works, elevated language (recitative) is reserved for more dramatic characters , while less formal language (Beijing colloquial speech) is assigned to the less serious characters (such as clowns). Other artifice includes elaborate makeup and standard gestures representing actions like riding a horse or opening a door. From the early 1900's, Chinese Opera has developed a more global influence and has borrowed from Western traditions. Of significance is the fact that opera is one of the first art forms to reflect or even predict cultural and political shifts in China.

In the United States, Chinese instruments have appeared in an unexpected art form: jazz. Traditionally an African-American music form, jazz has offered a niche to Chinese-American musicians. Nearly since its inception, jazz has been played by Chinese-Americans, but it wasn't until the 1970's that Asian-American jazz really developed. Jazz of this influence usually features a combination of standard jazz instruments and traditional Asian instruments, with typical jazz instruments being played in a manner similar to their Asian counterparts. Traditional Chinese instruments that feature in this form are the snake skin violin (or Erhu), the Asian gekkin (or Pipa), the Chinese moon guitar (or Yue qin), and the Asian zheng instrument (or Guzheng).

In American popular culture, Chinese instruments have appeared in the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil show O, as well as in the soundtrack for the TV series, Earth: Final Conflict; the series is based on writings by Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek. Clearly, these instruments have found their way into modern American culture.

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