Sunday, June 23, 2013


Chinese music is some of the oldest music in the world. It can be traced back nearly 7000 years. Traditional music is written on the pentatonic scale (like using only the black keys on a piano) and was either played solo or in small ensembles.  The instruments are generally divided into three types: woodwind and percussion (paixiao [panpipes], gongs, bells, dizi [type of transverse flute], paigu [sets of 3-7 tunable drums]), bowed strings (erhu [2-string bowed “violin”], banhu [a 2-stringed instrument, looks similar to a banjo]), and plucked strings (guqin [7-string zither], yangqin [a Chinese version of the hammered dulcimer], konghou [Chinese harp], pipa [Chinese 4-stringed lute]).  Vocal music tends to rely more heavily on melody rather than harmony.  The style of singing is something that is normally disapproved of in Western music: vocalists tend to use a thin singing voice, which results in a non-resonating tone, or utilizing falsetto (usually heard when men try to sing higher than normal, sounding as if they were singing the female lines).

Chinese opera still remains quite popular as a cultural art. I first heard Chinese opera when I was in college studying world music as a music major at Indiana State University. It was really hard to get used to since the vocal quality and instrumentation (ok, mostly the vocal quality) was very different from Western music, which is what we’re mostly used to listening to. I think the thing about the Chinese opera that makes it hard to listen to is that the vocals are often guttural followed by high-pitched tones. It’s exactly why I don’t like some contemporary art music for the same reasons: there’s no cohesion.  But it's not all terrible; there are often a lot of acrobatics and choreographed fight scene that are pretty cool. Like a Chinese West Side Story. 

As Chinese students started studying abroad in the early part of the 20th century, they started bringing back Western classical music, and soon several conservatories popped up to teach music in this style. Symphony orchestras and jazz were soon making its way into the culture of China. However, it would all be put on hold when the Communist Party took control in 1949. Pop music and Western music were considered the bane of Chinese traditional music. Pro-communist music was pretty much the only thing that was allowed to go without criticism. After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, pop and rock music made a huge push, especially in the revolutionary sub-cultures of China. Even now, it has limited airplay and is still looked down upon by the higher-ups.

The father of Chinese rock is often attributed to Cui Jian, who was the first one to use electric guitars in his music. A 2003 performance with The Rolling Stones solidified this feat. A band called Tang Dynasty is one of the few metal bands that came on the scene in the early 1990s. Even a couple of punk rock bands became fairly popular: Brain Failure (which I really like; they were discovered in the US by one of my other favorite bands, Drop Kick Murphys) and Hang on the Box (which reminds me a little of the Cambodian-American band Dengue Fever). Hip-hop artists have also made their mark, especially in the larger cities and in Taiwan. One of the most notable ones I found is DJ Hot Dog. Some songs totally reminds me of 90s hip-hop.

Dance is also very important and has important functions and meanings in Chinese culture. Probably the most well-known dance would be the dragon dance that is seen at the Chinese New Year. The dragon itself is made from paper and/or other materials constructed on lightweight hoops, originally wood but now aluminum and other lightweight materials. A special team is required to bring the dragon to life and make it move. They can range in length from 25m to 70m (about 82-230 ft). The smaller ones of course are used for more acrobatic movements while the larger ones are used more for ceremonial purposes and large parades. Different patterns in which the dragon moves have different names and meanings.

Another dance that is often performed similar to the dragon dance is the lion dance. Many times, they’re confused for one another, but the lion dance requires two people, and the dragon dance needs the help of many. The costume is construction is a little different in that the people are actually inside of the costume (like how we see the two-person horse costume in the US), as opposed to the dragon dance where they are lifting it up with poles attached to the frame. In China, there are basically two forms of this lion dance: a northern lion and a southern one. (There are also varieties of this dance found in Japan and Indonesia as well.)  The colors and designs used vary from region to region and they will often have more than one lion performing together.

Up next: the food!

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