What are China's historical influences


Dr. Lena Henningsen

To person

Lena Henningsen is a research assistant at the Institute for Sinology at Heidelberg University. In addition to Chinese music, her research interests include the country's current literature and popular culture. Current publications: Copyright Matters: Imitation, Creativity, and Authenticity in Contemporary Chinese Literature, Berlin 2010; Ed .: Life elsewhere - Stories from everyday Chinese life, Bochum 2009.

Music in China is often very closely tied to its historical, social, and political context. Propaganda pieces from the heyday of communism are still played today. In addition to these local, sometimes also national forms, a global pop scene has long since established itself.

The Peking Opera stands for traditional Chinese music. (& copy AP)

"Music" and "joy" - the Chinese language uses the same character for these two terms. Music in China (like our "Western" music) is not just a sonic phenomenon, but is closely tied to its historical, social and political context. But what does "Chinese music" mean? Music by Chinese composers, even if they don't even live in China and have an education in Western European music? Or music that was written in China? Then what about the music of the Muslim minority or the music of immigrants? Music that is played and heard in China - including Beethoven's symphonies and Madonna's songs? Music on Chinese instruments, even if it's a Viennese waltz on the Chinese knee violin? Or music in Chinese tonal language? Is it even possible to speak of the one Chinese tonal language?

Since music in China is more than just the sum of different tonal languages, the following article is dedicated to musical life in China. We should keep two basic assumptions in mind: 1) Music is mostly political and therefore only to be understood in terms of its specific social function - both in China and elsewhere. 2) Music is always fleeting, in flux and in exchange with (supposedly) foreign musical traditions. In the case of music from China, this means an exchange between courtly and "high" forms with folk and musical forms that are perceived as low, but also between musical traditions that are perceived as Chinese and non-Chinese.

Music in traditional China

It is said that music has played an important role since its origins in China, but little is known about the sound of the early music. Even then, a close connection between art and politics was seen: there was the conviction that the "right" (i.e. good) art can be an efficient instrument of rule. The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (approx. 298 to 238 BC) describes music as the "most sensible instrument of government" with which the legendary kings created harmony in society: "Music moves people deep inside and changes them quickly . The legendary kings carefully gave it their own, appropriate form. As long as the music avoids the extreme, the people live contentedly and without straying from the right path. As long as the music is set, the people are balanced and not rebellious. As long as the people are peaceful and is balanced, the troops are strong, the city walls are strong, and the enemy [will] not dare to attack. " Music is part of ritual activities here, both of which serve the education and government of the people. At the same time, the music is closely linked to cosmic ideas. This Confucian conception of music would shape the next centuries.

In terms of sound, there was great variety in premodern China - at the same time there were great differences to European musical traditions: the tonality, the instruments used and the musical forms are decisive for this.

Tonality: The twelve semitones of the octave were already known in China before the turn of the century, but Chinese music is largely pentatonic. A different sound image compared to European music arises from the different functions of individual intervals: While in Europe - to put it simply - major or minor thirds shape the sound image, in China it is the fourths and fifths. This results in the five modes "gong", "shang", "jiao", "zhi" and "yu". Some of these pentatonic scales have been expanded to include the tones "missing" in our ears to form a seven-step scale, so that at first glance they resemble the church keys. Equating these tone systems would be misleading, however, since the functions of the intervals differ - and thus also the melody design.

Instruments: Chinese music is played on a variety of percussion, wind and string instruments, of which only a section of the string instruments can be reproduced here. These instruments show how strongly the premodern musical life lived from exchanges with neighboring peoples. The four-string pipa lute (a solo and ensemble instrument), which is still popular today, came to China from Central Asia or India. The two-stringed Erhu knee violin (the best-known instrument from the stringed instrument family) probably has Persian origins and came to China 1,000 years ago. Close relatives are the Gaohu and the Jinghu used in Peking Opera. Both the pipa and the erhu (as well as numerous other instruments) have continued to evolve over the centuries - the last major reforms took place in the early 20th century when reformers like Liu Tianhua (1895-1932) tried to adjust the tuning of the instruments to be changed in such a way that they became compatible with western instruments and since then can be played with a symphony orchestra. Liu also reformed the playing techniques of the erhu based on those of the violin. Probably the "Chinese" instrument par excellence is the guqin ("old instrument") or just the qin. This seven-string vaulted board zither has been around for more than 2,000 years. It was initially very popular at the courts, and a repertoire of art music was created. Over time, with its sophisticated technique and symbolic sound language, it developed into the instrument of the Chinese scholars - this is why they are often depicted with the instrument in Chinese paintings. Today there are only a small number of musicians who play the instrument and who, above all, are able to "read" the complicated notation of the Qin repertoire. A relative of the Qin is the Zheng (or Guzheng), which used to consist of 13 to 16 strings, today it is usually 21 to 25 strings. Due to its comparatively large sound volume, this instrument is popular both in ensemble music and as a solo instrument. The guzheng came to Japan as an instrument of court music in the eighth century and is known there under the name of the koto. As can be seen from these exemplary instruments, there were exchanges both to and from China.

Forms of music: The forms of music can be differentiated according to instrumentation, but also according to occasion. Traditional Chinese music includes pieces for solo and ensemble. In addition to folk songs, there was ritual and religious music (in addition to the "state-supporting" Confucian music from Daoist or Buddhist monasteries, which was and is played, for example, at funerals and weddings), street music usually by blind erhu players, but also entirely functional music like the signature songs of scissors grinders and other traveling traders who were able to draw attention to their services beyond the walls of the property.

In addition, there existed (and still exists) a large number of regionally different forms of music theater - often known to us under the terms "Chinese Opera" or "Peking Opera". The Chinese theater was shaped by music from an early age. Here music, literature, dance, performance and, in some forms, acrobatics have developed equally and combined into one stage event. The Peking Opera (Jingju) originated in the course of the 18th century and flourished in the 19th century, when various opera troupes from Anhui and Hubei performed at the Imperial Court in Beijing and developed a common form from their different operatic traditions in joint performances. The Peking Opera is characterized by four character types, which can be recognized by their elaborate costumes and partly their made-up faces: the male Sheng roles, the female Dan, the made-up male Jing and the Chou clown roles. Performances of the Peking Opera (as well as other local operas) can stretch over several days. Since women were banned from performing in the 18th and 19th centuries, female roles were traditionally played by men - Mei Lanfang achieved great fame, who shaped his own style at the beginning of the 20th century and even played that on a trip to America US actor Charlie Chaplin impressed.