Quick history of China

first dynasty -- Shang, 1523-1027 BCE

Kong Fuzi (Confucius) -- six century BCE

consolidation -- the short, brutal but effective Ch'in Dynasty, 256-206 BCE  Great Wall built.

High point of the arts -- T'ang Dynasty, 618-906 A.D. In the eighth century, court performers (musicians, dancers, actors) numbered 11,307 at one time.  1st “world music” programs!

Republic of China -- 1911

People's Republic of China -- 1949


Some Confucian Attitudes

-- rulers and their administrators earn their right to rule through the mandate of heaven and by displaying four virtues:  balanced, upright, benevolent, harmonious [some sources give 5 virtues:  kindness, uprightness, decorum, wisdom, faithfulness]

-- positive music (shi yin, proper sound), with attributes of harmoniousness, peacefulness, and appropriateness, is an important educational tool capable of inspiring virtue and appropriate attitudes

-- negative music (chi yue, extravagant music), with attributes of inappropriate loudness (like thunder and lightning) and wanton noisiness, stimulates excessive and licentious behavior.

-- social stratification was a fact of life to be sustained by morality, not force

-- proper inner attitudes could be inculcated through the practice of rituals which, to be effective, must have proper ritual music; rules of etiquette and decorum also important

Functional categories date from the sixth century BCE.  Music is properly for chanting of poetry, worshipping ancestors, worshipping heaven and earth, royal banquets, rural feasts, archery contests, battle.  Musical art was a necessary part of the education of a gentleman, for he had to participate properly in all of the above functions.


... we must discriminate sounds in order to know the airs; the airs in order to know the music; and the music in order to know [the character of] the government.  Having attained to this, we are fully provided with the methods of good order.  (Book of Rites,  Sixth century BCE)


Compare these attitudes with the Greek philosopher Plato in The Republic:

-- [A ruler] must beware of changing to a new kind of music, for the change always involves far-reaching danger.  Any alteration in the modes of music is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the state.

-- Plato also felt that particular modes should be banned.  “What are the wailful modes?  Tell me.  You are musical.”  “Mixolydian and hyperlydian, and some other similar ones.”  “Then these we must dismiss, must we not?  For even in the training of virtuous women they are useless, much more so in the training of men.”  “Certainly.”  Certain instruments (and their makers) were also to be banned.


These Chinese attitudes continue into the 20th-century, with modifications


[WARNING:  THIS STATEMENT CONTAIN SIGNIFICANT INACCURACIES!!]  So, in one word, Chinese musical lacks a standard in every respect.  It has no standard scale, no standard pitch, no standard instruments, no standard music composition.  And the problem cannot be solved by borrowing all these things from foreign sources. 

[A Chinese Nationalist would-be-reformer of Chinese music, 1919]


And after the Communist revolution --

[WARNING:  THIS STATEMENT CONTAIN SIGNIFICANT INACCURACIES!!]  The majority [of our instruments] have no fixed pitch and their compass is narrow.  We possess no bass instruments like the cello and the double bass.  In these respects we're behind the West.  If we refuse to learn from it, we shall be the losers.  1956


The high-pitched notes in the Szechuan songs in some passages are really too high.  When you hear it you feel that the singer is making superhuman efforts and the sound is very much forced.  The public may like it, but this is not scientific.  [Party Congress]  1961


[The arts] fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part; they operate as powerful weapons for unity and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy.  Mao, 1942