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Home » Introduction to Traditional Chinese Music

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Wu Man discusses the other side of China.

Wu Man interview footage © 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation. Footage of Li Family Daoists and Zhang Family Band excerpted from Discovering a Musical Heartland—Wu Man’s Return to China; Andrea Cavazzuti, Cinematographer, and Director; Wu Man, Host and Artistic Director; special thanks to Sarina Tang; © 2009 Wu Man and Andrea Cavazzuti.

Introduction to Traditional Chinese Music

Neither museum piece nor theme park, folk music lives on throughout China’s countryside in the lifecycle and calendar-based rituals of local communities, remote from the cosmopolitan tastes of the concert-going urban elite. As with world music, concerts are only the tip of a vast iceberg of social music making, including temple fairs, funerals, processions to pray for rain, teahouses, and courtship rituals. Ironically, the more exotic cultures of the ethnic minorities—such as the beleaguered Tibetans and Uyghurs—attract more attention than those of the Han Chinese who make up over 90% of the population.

Despite the massive urban migration of recent years, two-thirds of the population still live in deprived rural areas. Cosmetic improvements to these areas since the dismantling of the Maoist commune system in the 1980s conceal ongoing shortages of water, electricity, healthcare, and transport. Many fine musicians are amateur, but many more are folk professionals who supplement their meager income from the land. Despite all of the upheavals throughout the 20th century, many of the folk traditions still maintain the heritage of the late imperial period. Indeed, one can hardly distinguish folk and elite traditions: It is in folk music that the classical heritage is found today. But the ubiquitous spread of Chinese pop music, rather than politics, now poses the greatest challenge to its maintenance.

Vignettes are presented of the major genres: folk song, narrative singing, opera—these three offering a continuum from solo singing to large-scale staged drama—and instrumental music. While most instrumental music is for ensembles, a noble exception is the solo music of the qin zither, the refined antiquity of whose solo pieces (along with those of the pipa plucked lute and zheng zither) contrasts with other more modern conservatoire-style solos like those for erhu fiddle or dizi flute. Intimate, zany, guttural, dramatic, meditative—you name it, Chinese music has it all.

© 2001–2009 Carnegie Hall Corporation

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