By Han, Kuo-Huang, Ph. D.
Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus, School of Music, Northern Illinois University
Visiting Fellow, Asia Center & Visiting Professor, School of Music, University of Kentucky
As in all ancient cultures, the origin of Chinese music and the invention of musical instruments were credited to legendary figures and their functions were ritualistic. By the time of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th to 771 BCE.), musical instruments were classified as the Ba Yin (Eight Tones) which was based on the materials from which they were made. The eight categories were metal (bronze bell), stone (stone-chime), skin (drum), gourd (mouth organ), bamboo (flute, panpipe), wood (wooden trough), silk (zither; silk as string material), and earth (ocarina). Each category was also associated with a cardinal direction, season, etc. The significance of this classification was more symbolic than acoustical or musical. When all eight categories were played together in a ritual setting, it signified harmony between heaven and earth as stated in Shu Jing (Classic of History): “The musical instruments [made of the eight materials] are tuned in such a way that there arise no conflicts [in sound] and no interference [among them]. The spirits and people thereby will become adjusted harmoniously [to each other]” (Kauffmann 1979, 23).
Of all the instruments, the bronze bell stood out as a symbol of wealth and authority. They came in singles as well as sets. Rulers in the Spring and Autumn periods (770-221 BCE) competed in showing off their wealth by casting bell chimes. The discovery of the 64-bell set in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng (dated 433 BCE) stunned the world. The zither-type instruments (qin, zheng) and mouth organ (sheng) have remained favorites throughout history. The qin (seven-stringed zither) eventually became the companion of a traditional Chinese scholar, representing refinement and reflecting the Zen Buddhist and Daoist ideology.
As China began to interact with her neighbors and beyond, foreign ideas and instruments were introduced from India and Central Asia by way of the Silk Road, among them, the pipa (lute). The horse-hair bowed fiddle huqin (predecessor of the erhu) was introduced from a northern tribe and much later, the yangqin (hammered dulcimer) via the sea route.
After defeat by the British in the Opium War (1840-1842), China was repeatedly challenged by the modernized powers of the West and Japan. Internal problems also brought the government to the point of disintegration, which gave rise to a movement for self-strengthening among Chinese intellectuals. As part of the movement during the last years of the Qing dynasty (late 19th and early 20th cent.), Western culture was introduced and students were sent abroad to acquire the most advanced knowledge in science and other fields. This began a trend that had a lasting impact on Chinese culture and music.
Western music was introduced into China by three avenues: (1) Christian missions, (2) western-style military institutions, and (3) the modern school system. All three reached a larger population (especially in urban areas) and created generations with new musical tastes. In addition to learning piano, violin, etc., they favored the use of triadic harmony, the tempered tuning system, the creation of western musical forms (sonata, symphony, etc.), the “improvement” of traditional instruments, and the formation of the modern Chinese orchestra (Han, 2002). Today, more young people study western music and instruments than traditional ones, and academically trained composers follow the world trend in thoughts and technique.
The first full-scale higher-education institute along a western conservatory system was established in 1929 in Shanghai; the National Conservatory of Music which eventually became the renowned Shanghai Conservatory. In its earliest days, the only Chinese music in the curriculum was the traditional pipa. The majority of students were enrolled in piano, violin, voice, and other western music courses. (Both western and Chinese music and instruments were taught in later times until now.) Among many foreign music visitors who influenced the school was Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977), the Russian-American pianist and composer who toured China and Japan between 1934 and 1937 and encouraged young composition students to write music in a nationalist style. He not only established an award for them but also published their music. The long-time dean of the conservatory, He Luting (1903-1999), then a young composition student, received the first prize for his short piano piece, “The Buffalo Boy’s Flute”.
Tcherepnin’s future wife Li Xianming (1915-1991) was one of the first graduates in piano of this conservatory. It is a privilege that all six musicians (performers and composers) in this concert come from this historically prestigious institute.
This concert represents both tradition and modernization in Chinese music. The two traditional instruments are the zheng (zither with movable bridges) and sheng (mouth organ). Their history can be traced to antiquity, but their shapes, sizes, material of construction and even playing technique are all modernized according to modern tastes. They can play solo as well as with western instruments. Most of the pieces are written by younger composers well versed in contemporary techniques.
Notes on the two Chinese instruments: sheng and zheng
The sheng (mouth organ) is a free-reed aerophone. It consists of two parts: a set of bamboo pipes and a gourd, wood or metal chamber with a mouthpiece. The legendary goddess Nü Wa is credited to be the inventor of the sheng. In Chinese fairy tales this instrument is always connected with the phoenix. The arrangement of the pipes symbolized the closed wings of phoenix. Because it can produce several pitches simultaneously, it was also called the “he” (harmony); it was regarded as being able to neutralize the dissonance from other instruments. The harmonious intervals of the fourth, fifth, and octave are commonly produced in traditional playing. New and enlarged models can produce triads and other chords.
The sheng is the earliest free-reed instrument. Inside the air chamber, each pipe contains a brass reed, and a finger hole is drilled on the exposed portion of the pipe. When the hole is covered by the finger, inhaling and exhaling air vibrates the reed to create a pitch. When more than two pipes are activated, harmony is created. Traditional sheng contain different numbers of pipes with 17 pipes being most popular (some of the pipes do not actually sound). But contemporary models contain 24 or more (a 37-pipe model is used for this concert). Due to modernization, the bamboo and wood are replaced by metal in modern sheng. There are many models in different sizes, some featuring keys or levers and some even operated by a keyboard. Large and low pitched models are placed on a stand rather than held in the hands.
The zheng (half-tube zither with movable bridges) is a plucked chordophone. It consists of a wooden soundbox (convex top and flat bottom, heaven and earth respectively in symbolism) over which parallel strings are stretched. Each string is supported by a movable bridge made of ivory or wood. Because the history of the zheng dates back 2,500 years, it is often called “guzheng” (ancient zheng). It was a favorite instrument of the nobility as well as of the common people, and was (and still is) regarded as an instrument suitable for ladies, somewhat like the piano in the western society. The zheng served as a model for the Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatga, and Vietnamese dan tranh.
In its earliest form, the zheng was made of bamboo and had five strings. The number of strings increased to 12, 13, 15, and 16 or more as the material changed from silk to steel and now, metal wound with nylon (one steel-string model is used for this concert). The standard model now uses 21 strings. The bridges, called geese poles due to the lining shape, divide the strings into two groups. The strings on the right side of the player are arranged in a pentatonic scale for melody-playing by the right hand fingers. The strings on the left side of the bridges, however, are not actually sounded, but are used for vibrato, portamento, and subtle pitch modification by the left hand fingers. In contemporary style, the left hand fingers can play on the right side strings. Picks used to be worn on three or four right-hand fingers. Nowadays they are worn on left-hand fingers as well. Many new techniques have been developed and newly invented models include hand levers or foot-pedals for modulation. One model even combined two instruments into one, the so-called Butterfly Zheng.
________________________________________________________________________________________________Han, Kuo-Huang. 2002. “The Introduction of Western Music in Modern Times.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 7: East Asia: 373-378.
Kauffman, Walter. 1976. Musical Reference in the Chinese Classics. Detroit: Information Coordinators.