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Musical instruments in China can be dated back millenniums. Pottery ocarinas (hsun) and sets of stone chimes (pien-ching) have been discovered that date back to around 1500 B.C., while a tuned set of bronze bells date back to the Chou dynasty (1027-250 B.C.) By the middle of the third century B.C. instruments had already been classified according to the materials from which they were made, such as silk, bamboo, stone and pottery, suggesting that music was being widely performed. By the 6th century B.C., the time of Confucius, music had been divided into functional categories as well, with music for chanting, worship, banquets and battles. Confucius himself believed that music should be used to influence people, it's function being to worship, to praise a ruler or, simply, to produce an atmosphere of calm, but not to entertain.
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During the Han dynasty from 206 B.C. to A.D. 220 a ministry for music was established. This agency recruited and trained over a thousand musicians and dancers for various state functions. Three divisions of music were recognized; ritual music (ya-yueh) secular music (su-yueh) and regional folk music. By this time, music was the most prevalent form of entertainment in the country, with singing minstrels and as an accompaniment to acrobatic performances. Music from central Asia had begun to enter China during the Han dynasty. By the 6th century, this foreign influence had become much more apparent and was to change Chinese music irrevocably. The pear shaped lute, the pipa, the harp, (kunghou) plus various oboes and percussion instruments were all introduced into China and later assimilated into instrumental ensembles. The Chinese appetite for things foreign, not just music, but clothes, art and dance was stimulated by cultural exchanges and trade. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (seventh to tenth centuries), the Chinese court maintained several music ensembles from India, Turkestan and other regions and countries. Music became almost entirely secular, eclipsing ritual music. In 714, emperor T'ang Ming-huang set up a music academy to train musicians and dancers. The members numbered close to 12,000 at one time, with orchestras divided into sitting and standing ensembles. Evidence of such ensembles playing music and entertaining guests can be seen on numerous paintings preserved from this time.
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During what is sometimes called the late historical period, three major developments occurred; a revival of Confucian musicology, the emergence of musical dramas and the rise in popularity of regional dramas. The qin (a seven stringed zither) became the instrument of choice for scholars during the Sung dynasty (960-1279), while the same scholars attempted to expunge all foreign elements in Chinese music. In a painting, emperor Hui-tsung was depicted playing a qin under a tree, while poems praised the virtues of the instrument. Qin music however, probably appealed only to a relatively small group of people, the educated urban elite. The pipa, on the other hand, with its greater dynamic range and power was more widely popular.

It was also during the Sung Dynasty that musical dramas or his-sen emerged, reaching their height of popularity during the following Yuan and Ming dynasties (1260-1644). These dramas included songs, spoken dialogue and dance with instrumental accompaniment. In the northern style, called peichu, the pipa was the major accompanying instrument, with one central character singing. In the southern style, (nanchu) a transverse flute, ti, was the main instrument and all the characters sang.

Kunchu, (Kun opera) evolved from Yuan drama in Kiangsu province, central China during the Ming dynasty (1500s). A mixture of the northern and southern styles, both the ti and the pipa were used to accompany the singing. Much European music entered China during the Ming dynasty, including a clavichord brought as a gift for emperor Shen-tsung in 1600 by the Italian priest Matteo Ricci.

Ancient court music was briefly revived during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when only pre-Han instruments were allowed. Regional theatres were introduced to the court. A refined version of northern central opera had by the 19th century developed into Peking opera (ching-his) and became popular throughout China. At the beginning of the 20th century, Peking opera reached its peak of popularity and became the national drama (kuo-chu).
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The Republican Revolution in 1911 brought down the Qing dynasty and with it a long history of court music. China now modeled its educational system on that of the west, and only western music or westernized Chinese music was taught in schools. Peking University established a music department in 1923, and the first conservatory to study Western music was founded in 1927. Any student at this time wanted to study Western music while Chinese music was relegated to a lowly place, considered old fashioned and primitive. The teachers were largely Russian and from other 'Western' countries. However, this was also a time of great nationalism and an effort was made to mix Chinese and Western music. Compositional techniques from the West were introduced into Chinese traditional music, a trend that has continued until today.

Mao Tse-tung regarded music as a force for unity and attacking the enemy. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, music became increasingly political in content. Additionally, there was a return to the folk traditions, an emphasis put on training and the continued amalgamation of Chinese and Western music. Between 1949 and 59 thousands of new songs were composed. Almost exclusively each had a message about either the revolution, workers, peasants, soldiers or the virtues of Chairman Mao and the communist system.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-69) everything about the arts, old new, Chinese, Western was banned for its 'feudal' and bourgeois' ideas. Only eight revolutionary works were allowed, including a Peking Opera, 'The Red Lantern'. The revolutionary Peking opera, differed in that the costumes and themes became contemporary and the heightened speech was replaced by everyday Mandarin. Red Army songs were included, the orchestra featured Western instruments alongside Chinese, and in the Red Lantern, piano became the main accompanying instrument. As Mao had said 'Make the past serve the present and foreign elements serve China.'

After 1969 and the end of the Cultural Revolution, state control over music and other arts became more relaxed. Banned local operas were reintroduced, Ancient instrumental pieces also resurfaced, such as 'The Ambush' played on the pipa. However, music and the arts continued to be viewed from a class-conscious standpoint with Chinese traditional music denounced for its feudal and bourgeois content.
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Modern arrangements of traditional tunes often incorporate western instruments. Newly composed songs of classical repertoire usually employ western techniques. Therefore little of the true ancient music is performed today. Probably the closest is not performed in mainland China at all, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The boundaries between what is folk and classical music has become less distinct. A concert of classical Chinese music might include performances on instruments such as the qin, sheng, xiao and guzheng, as well as instruments previously associated more with folk and theatre music, such as the pipa or erhu. Repertoire is also a mixture of folk and classical compositions.

The modern classical orchestra evolved from the traditional southern Chinese instrumental ensemble known as 'Southern Silk and Bamboo". Traditionally they played in unison, but today Western influence can be heard with the use of chords and sequential melodies. Low register instruments are also used, sometimes cello instead of Chinese instruments.

There are different styles of folk ensembles such as the northern Shantung style which is quite loud and uses the sona (oboe) and heavy percussion. The Cantonese style is softer and uses more string instruments and the yang-qin, the hammered dulcimer. Modern folk songs are usually modernized and westernized. The high-pitched vocal is often replaced by a operatic style of singing and western instruments accompany the Chinese instruments.

In the past, many regional types of Chinese opera existed, although these days Peking Opera is by far the most widely known. The acting and gestures are highly stylized with some twenty-six ways of laughing and twenty types of beard. There are four major classifications; sheng (male) tan (female) ching (face painted male) and chou (clown). Until the first half of the twentieth century men performed both the male and female roles. A performance of Peking Opera combines singing, mime, heightened speech, dancing and acrobatics. The music is taken from a traditional repertoire but is quite often given a modern arrangement. An orchestra has two sections, percussion consisting of gongs and drums and a melodic section of strings and wind instruments.
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The PIPA, a four-stringed lute, has long occupied a central place in Chinese music. It is an instrument of great flexibility and dynamic range and sounds somewhat like a mandolin. It is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments appearing in Chinese written texts of the second century BC. Xi Liu of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) described in his book, The definition of Terms on Musical Instruments, that the name of the instrument pipa originally refers to two finger techniques. The two Chinese characters pi and pa stand for the two finger techniques, i.e. plucking the strings forwards and backwards. In the Qin Dynasty (222-207 BC), there had been a kind of plucked-instrument, xiantao, with a straight neck and a round sound body played horizontally. In the preface to his verse Ode to Pipa, Xuan Fu of the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) wrote: "...the pipa appeared in the late Qin period. When the people suffered from being forced to build the Great Wall, they played the instrument to express their resentment".

By the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the instrument developed into a form of four strings and twelve frets, plucked with fingernails and known as the pipa or qin-pipa. In the Western Jin Dynasty (256-316 AD), the qin-pipa was named after the famous scholar, Ruan Xian, who was a virtuoso in such an instrument. This instrument is still called the ruan today.

During the Northern and Southern Dynasty (420-589 AD), a similar instrument, the oud with a crooked neck and four or five strings was introduced through the Silk Road from Persia. Known as the hu pipa, (hu meaning "foreign") the instrument was played horizontally with a wooden plectrum. By combining the original Chinese lute and the hu pipa the present day pipa gradually developed. Meanwhile the playing method developed and repertoire increased. One of the greatest developments was that the left hand became totally free by holding the instrument vertically, i.e. the pipa rests on the thigh of the instrumentalists in an upright position, and was played vertically with five fingers of the right hand instead of horizontally with a plectrum. By the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), the pipa was one of the most popular instruments, and has maintained its appeal as a solo instrument as well as in ensemble ever since.

The Tang pipa was larger than the modern instrument. It usually had four or five strings and fewer frets (compared to the present day pipa). Probably influenced by the hu pipa, the Tang pipa was often played with a wooden plectrum, a technique still used by its Japanese descendent, the biwa. Since the mid Tang Dynasty, and particularly since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the instrument gradually developed into the present form of a lute played with fingernails while the techniques with the plectrum were totally abandoned. The strings of the instrument were made of silk and musicians used their real nails of the right hand to pluck the strings.

The modern instrument is half-pear-shaped, with a short, bent neck, and has 30 frets which extend down the neck and onto the soundboard, giving a wide range and a complete chromatic scale. The usual tuning is A - E - D - A (La - Mi - Re - La). Since early last century, steel strings began to be used by some musicians while most still kept using silk string. Since the 1950s, the making of the pipa was standardized in measure and the strings were made of steel wrapped in nylon. The real nail became almost impossible to use, instead, a little plectrum (or a fake nail) is attached to each finger of the right hand. The plectrum is usually made of turtle shell or plastic.

Notation for pipa combines symbols for pitch (Kung-ch'e system) with abbreviated characters for special finger techniques. Today, a simplified version of music score is commonly used in which numbers represent pitch and symbols represent finger techniques. The standard western music score is increasingly used because it is more practical for ensemble pieces and in particular for pipa concertos.

A huge repertoire of pipa music has existed through many centuries, but most of the compositions were lost. Some pieces were handed down from one generation to the next by artists and scholars. Other pieces were preserved in Japan while musical scores were discovered along the Silk Road in Gansu Province, China, around 1900. These scores, known as the Dunhuang scores, triggered great interest in China and overseas. However, their content remained a mystery until the early 1980s, when the scholar, Prof. Ye Dong from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music successfully "decoded" 25 pieces. The beauty and elegance of these pieces were first revealed to the public after a thousand years.

Today the pipa is one of most popular instruments in China. Many of the compositions that make up the traditional repertoire, date back hundreds of years, while others are part of a growing body of modern compositions. In recent decades, composers have explored the possibilities for pipa and other Chinese and western instruments including a full orchestra.

The playing techniques consist of the right hand fingers plucking the strings and the left hand fingers touching the strings in a variety of ways to create melodies, ornaments and special effects. The fingers that pluck the strings move outwards, opposite to the guitar. The frets are set quite deeply, which allows a string to be pushed, twisted, and pressed. There are over 60 different techniques that have been developed through the centuries.

The technique for playing the pipa is characterized by spectacular finger dexterity and effects. Rolls, slaps, pizzicato, harmonics and noises are often combined into extensive tone-poems vividly describing famous battles or other exciting scenes, such as the Ambush which describes the decisive battlefield fought in the second century BC between Chu (Xiang Yu) and Han (Liu Bang).

The instrument is also capable of more lyrical effects and has long been considered as having the most beautiful of sounds. In his poem, the Pipa Song, Bai Juyi, one of the leading poets of the Tang Dynasty, vividly described this beauty. "... The thicker strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain, the thinner ones hummed like a hushed whisper. Together they shaped strands of melody, like larger and smaller pearls falling on a jade plate."

Another of the most popular folk instruments is the ERHU, now used in both classical and folk music. Erh means 'two' while Hu means barbarian, so a rough translation is the two-stringed barbarian fiddle. It is made in a number of sizes and is used in solo, ensemble and theatre orchestras. There are very few ancient pictorial sources depicting the erhu, indicating it could be a relatively recent instrument or more likely had a low status. Some scholars date the erhu date back some 3,000 years to ancient Persia. While the forerunner of the erhu traveled west to become the violin in Europe, it traveled east along the silk road to China. The erhu was originally an instrument of the minority peoples in northwestern China, who developed a similar instrument. The two strings were originally made from sheep intestines, although nowadays they are made from steel. The bow is made from horse hair.

There are as many as forty types of erhu today. The most representative of these include Gaohu, Jinghu and Zhonghu, all with a resonance box covered with snake skin, and Banhu and Yehu, with a wooden resonance box made from the native Chinese Tong tree. The instrument has a long, round hardwood neck with two tuning pegs at the upper end which is often intricately carved with a dragon head. The lower end of the neck is inserted into a the resonating box, often hexagonal or octagonal in shape. The two steel strings run from the pegs through a sliding upper nut over a bridge on the snakeskin to the underside of the resonator. The erhu is about 80cm long. The instrument is held vertically, supported on the left thigh. The left hand fingers press the strings lightly, never touching the neck, and the right hand operates the bow. The erhu is considered to be one of the most difficult instruments to play, as the bow fits between the two strings, and can play different notes on the up and down strokes. Exceptional bow control is therefore needed, made all the more difficult by the distance the bow is held from the instrument. Its capacity ranges from lyricism to dazzling virtuosic displays.

Various types of transverse flutes are used as the solo or lead instrument in folk ensembles and theatre orchestras. The DIZI is closed with a cork at the blowing end and open at the lower end. It has six finger holes and usually a membrane over an extra hole that gives the instrument its characteristic nasal sound. The player uses tonguing and fingering techniques and the most skilled, circular breathing. The xiao is a long (about 75cm) end blown bamboo flute with five finger holes, one thumb hole and two or more dorsal holes at the lower end. It has a range of two octaves.

Another folk instrument, the SHENG is a mouth organ played especially in central and northern China. It has a bowl shaped wind chamber with a short blow-pipe. Seventeen bamboo pipes are arranged on the base. At the bottom of each reed, enclosed by the wind chamber is a free-feating copper reed. The sheng is played by closing finger holes on the outside of the pipes and by inhaling and exhaling rhythmically. It is one of the few wind instruments that can play more than one melodic line simultaneously.

The zheng, commonly known as GUZHENG, (pronounced "goo-zheng") is a plucked string instrument, part of the zither family and one of the most important traditional classical instruments. It is one of the most ancient Chinese musical instruments according to documents written in the Qin dynasty (before 206 BC). Zheng is the forerunner of Japanese koto, Korean kayagum, Mongolian yatag, and Vietnamese dan tranh. Since the mid-19th century, guzheng solo repertoire has been growing and evolving towards an increasing technical complexity.

The Chinese character for "zheng" is composed of two parts: the upper part meaning "bamboo" and the lower part "argue". According to a legend, there was a master of se, a 25-stringed zither, who had two talented daughters who love playing the instrument. There came a time when the master became too old, and he wanted to pass his instrument over to one of them. However, both daughters wanted to succeed him. The master felt miserable and finally, out of desperation, decided to split the instrument into two - one got 12 strings, and the other 13. To his amazement, the new instrument sounded more mellow and even more beautiful than the original. The happy master gave the new instrument a new name "zheng" by making up the character with the symbolisms representing "bamboo" and "argue". The origin of the Chinese character representing this instrument seems to indicate that the early version of the instrument was made of bamboo, which is different from today.

The guzheng is built with a special wooden sound body with strings arched across movable bridges along the length of the instrument for the purpose of tuning. In ancient times the zheng had five string; later on developed it into twelve to thirteen strings in the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907AD) and sixteen strings in the Song and Ming dynasty (from the 10th to 15th century). The present day zheng usually has 21-25 strings.

The pitch of a given string is determined by the position of the bridge, therefore, the guzheng can in principle be tuned to any desired scale. Traditionally, a pentatonic scale is used. The instrumentalist plucks the strings with the right hand and touches the strings with the left hand to produce the desired pitch and create subtle tones and ornaments. A full scale can also be obtained by skillfully applying pressure on certain strings from the other side of the bridge with the left hand.

The guzheng player attaches a little plectrum to each finger using tape. For traditional repertoires, the instrumentalist mostly uses three fingers of the right hand for plucking whereas the left hand presses the string from the other side of the bridge to create tonalities and ornaments. For some contemporary repertoire, both hands are needed to produce complicated harmonies using four fingers of each, which means that even the fingers of the left hand need to have plectrums worn.

Music for the QIN (or guqin meaning ancient), an unfretted zither with seven strings survived among a small group of scholar musicians. Its harmonics, glissandi, vibrati and resonance created an expressive and contemplative sound that was much loved by literati, including Confucius and Emperors, who played it for self cultivation. The qin has several thousand ancient manuscripts associated to it. The notation is perhaps the world's oldest written solo instrumental music, yet despite over 3,000 pieces surviving, few are played today. In 2004, guqin music was designated as a 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity' by UNESCO.
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Following the death of Mao, under Deng Xiaoping China embarked upon a policy of reform and opening up to the outside world. This policy would have a direct effect on the music scene in China. Beijing, the capital of China, became the birthplace of rock and underground music in China. More foreign influence found its way into Beijing, and foreign students too, who intermingled with Chinese students. The foreign students brought tapes of their favourite rock artists with them, and gradually copies of copies of these tapes spread through the student population, who until this point had never heard rock music before. It's not surprising therefore that the first ever rock band in China was formed at the Beijing Foreign Language University in 1980 called Wan Li Ma Wang. Cover bands from the Philippines also played their part, playing to a mixed crowd of foreigners and Chinese at the foreign hotels.

It wasn't until 1986 that rock really arrived in China though, when the singer Cui Jian burst upon the music scene at a nationally televised pop music competition staged at Beijing Worker's Stadium. The other acts were mostly bland Cantonese pop, or crass imitators of American MOR rock, which made the contrast of seeing the then 25 year old Cui Jian, swaggering on stage dressed in army greens and gyrating to his pulsating electric guitar, all the more illuminating. The rock revolution had arrived. Bootlegs of Cui Jian's televised debut circulated around the country like wildfire. His song 'Nothing to My Name' became an anthem for students during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. In post-Mao China, Cui Jian was John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain rolled into one, a one-man rock and roll revolution, blending in Chinese folk music and traditional Chinese instruments, such as the oboe-like Souna,

The rock music played by Cui Jian and a few others became known as 'Northwest Wind'. These tunes combined elements of the folk music of Shaanxi Province in the northwest of China with powerful rock drumming, driving bass lines and most of all, rasping passionate vocals, all of which were deemed to be lacking in bland Cantopop. This was perhaps the time that musical creativity was reborn in China. Other groups followed such as Hei Bao (Black Panther), Cobra and Tang Dynasty. After Tiananmen in 1989, which had a profound effect on the young and student population, some of these artists stopped singing such overtly political songs, but instead started singing about their own lives. State run record companies stopped producing rock albums, so it was left to companies in Taiwan and Japan and elsewhere to sign and record the existing and new groups.

These pioneers of Chinese rock paved the way for others with their idealism, individualism and bravery in creating a new Chinese music with a strong, sometimes veiled message, of criticizing the political system they lived under. However, it became time to hand over to a new generation.
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In 1993, the Beijing Midi School of Music opened without fanfare near the People's University. This rather insignificant event however would have repercussions that arguably last until today. The school offered a three month course in the basics of rock and blues, taught by famous musicians such as Tang Dynasty. Many aspiring musicians from throughout China came to the capital to attend its courses. Poor students lived together and rehearsed together at any place they could find. Punk groups were formed for the first time, closely followed by New Metal. The Midi school stimulated the growth of musicians until in 1997 a fully-fledged underground rock scene emerged. Unlike the previous generation this new generation dubbed the 'Beijing New Sound Movement' concentrated more on their playing technique and experimenting with creating new sounds. The school moved to a site in a commercial area of Beijing in 1997 and added jazz to the courses they taught. They also established ties with foreign music schools to which they sent students and teachers. Post punk, extreme metal and other styles entered the underground, as the explosion of the Internet opened Chinese ears to all kinds of music. The SARS pandemic in 2003 paralyzed the scene for a while with bars closing down, concerts and festivals (including the Midi Festival) cancelled that year.

Today, the underground scene is arguably in its most healthy state ever. There are scores of artists creating groundbreaking work, be it experimental, rock, singer/songwriter, electronic, world music and just about any other genre. On the downside, manufactured Chinese pop dominates the mainstream, controlled by the state media. Sales of anything else is relatively small, coupled with the problem of piracy, meaning all but a very few can earn a living from music. The Ministry of Culture still demands to see every lyric before granting a license to record, while the political ideology and spirit of the 1980s and 90s has given way to a politically apathetic youth. Nevertheless, there is something still stirring in the underground. Universal Music in China signed a young singer from Mongolia called Sa Ding Ding, who has not only sold a couple of million records at home but has been touted around the world, quite successfully- she won a BBC Award for World Music in 2008. Sa Ding Ding comes more naturally from the underground than the mainstream, and there are many more deserving artists out there. More and more exciting artists are coming on the scene, an independent sector is growing and finding ways to become financially viable and the world is beginning to take note.
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