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Music from China

Folk & Traditional Music

When listening to music from China, keep your ears open for the traditional instruments that help give it its unique sound:

dizi (or di) - side-blown bamboo flute
erhu - bowed two-string lute
pipa (or pi pa) - four-stringed plucked lute
qin (or ch'in) - seven-stringed zither
sheng - mouth organ
xiao (or dongxiao) - vertical bamboo flute
yangqin - struck box zither (i.e., hammered dulcimer or "butterfly harp")
zheng - long plucked zither
gongs, drums, bells, chimes, woodblock, etc.

Compact Discs

Cheng, Stephen Chun-Tao
Flower Drum and Other Chinese Folk Songs
    Cheng and his group perform different types of folk songs from all over China featuring almost all the instruments listed above. Most are sung in Mandarin but a few are in Cantonese.
If Che 25272
China: Chuida Wind and Percussive Instrumental Ensembles
    Chuidayue is "blowing and striking music" that originated in the military music of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. - C.E. 9).
If Chi 4915
Dayan Ancient Music Association
Naxi Music from Lijiang
    China's ethnic majority is the Han, but this CD features the Naxi people from the southwestern province of Yunnan. Except for the last two tracks, though, this isn't Naxi indigenous music. Rather it is associated with ritual ceremonies (Dongjing) imported from Han culture.
If Day 11279
East Asia
    This 3rd volume of Le Monde des Musiques Traditionelles (The World of Traditional Music) series allows one to compare and contrast Chinese music with that of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.
If Mon 6099 v.3
Guo Brothers
    The repertoire of the talented Guo Brothers ranges from the ancient to the modern. And though the modern influence here includes occasional ethereal keyboards such as on "Evening Song," the music doesn't stray into new age territory.
If Guo 2986
Hu, Tianquan
Sheng: China Folk Instrumental Collection
    A folk music collection featuring the sheng, a mouth organ, accompanied by a large orchestra. Unfortunately, everything else in the liner notes except for the song titles is in Chinese so we can't tell you too much else.
If Hu 34749
Lui, Pui-Yen
China: Music of the Pipa
    From the Nonesuch Explorer series, this disc focuses specifically on the pipa, the four-stringed, pear-shaped lute originally used for entertainment at banquets.
If Lui 5442
Music from the People's Republic of China: Sung and Played on Traditional Instruments
    These recordings from 1976 showcase a theatrical school and opera troupe of young musicians and include examples of Maoist era music (e.g., "I Want to be a True Revolutionary" and "People Love Chairman Mao").
If Chi 4902
Spirit of Nature: Chinese Classical, Folk, Court, Minority, Silk and Bamboo Music
    On this disc, the instrumental music from various regions and groups demonstrates the different social roles of music in China.
If Spi 30284
Wu Man
Chinese Traditional and Contemporary Music
    Wu Man was the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa at the Beijing music conservatory. See the section below for her forays into Western classical music, but check out this disc here for her presentation of more traditional Chinese music.
If Wu 34560

Western Classical Music

Since the early twentieth century, Western classical music has had great (and still growing) appeal in China, and many attempts have been made to combine Chinese melodies (traditionally based on pentatonic scales) with Western harmonies and tonality. This exciting combination of traditions is ongoing.

Here are some prominent contemporary Chinese or Chinese-American classical musicians.

Fan, Jing Ma
Chinese tenor Jingma Fan usually performs in Western operas, but since he wanted to present the melodies of Chinese folk music to the West, he recorded an album called Chinese Lieder with pianist Reinild Mees.

Gan-ru, Ge (1954- )
The title of this experimental composer's disc, "Lost Style," refers to his and other artists attempts to regain what was lost during the Cultural Revolution.

Huang, Ruo (1976- )
Born in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Huang Ruo moved to the U.S. in 1995. His cycle of chamber concertos from 2000-2002 showcases both his exciting, synthesizing approach to composition but also the talents of the International Contemporary Ensemble he helped create.

Hwang, Jason Kao (1957- )
Hwang is a composer and violinist who composed an opera about Chinatown in NY, but is also involved in jazz such as fronting the Far East Side Band, and playing with former Pittsburgher Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana.

Lang, Lang (1982- )
A rising star, this young, flamboyant pianist already has recorded a number of the piano concertos in the Western canon (Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, etc.), but has also included works by Chinese composers in his recitals.

Ma, Yo-Yo (1955- )
The most famous cellist alive today in classical music and with good reason. One of Yo-Yo Ma's most notable, recent endeavors is the Silk Road Project which brings together dozens of musicians from all over the world including numerous Chinese and Chinese-American performers and compositions.

Man, Wu (1963- )
The contemporary master of the pipa, Wu Man appears often with the Kronos Quartet, and on the Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago disc, she performs Lou Harrison's Pipa Concerto written for her. She also has recorded Tan Dun's Pipa Concerto.

Shanghai Quartet
Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, this string quartet's recordings includes works by Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, and Ge Gan-ru.

Sheng, Bright (1955- )
Chinese-American Bright Sheng successfully combines Asian and Western cultures in such pieces as his Silent Temple string quartet written for the Shanghai Quartet and China Dreams.

Tan, Dun (1957- )
Most famous for his soundtracks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, Tan Dun also composes operas, orchestral, and chamber music.

Vanessa-Mae (1978- )
A British citizen born in Singapore to a Thai father and a Chinese mother, Vanessa-Mae has recorded a classical album, China Girl, featuring the "Butterfly Lovers" violin concerto plus a piece she composed to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

Yin, Chengzong (1941- )
In true Maoist fashion, the Yellow River Piano Concerto was composed collectively by pianist Yin Chengzong and members of the Central Philharmonic of Beijing.

Ying Quartet
Their new CD, Dim Sum, is a celebration of chamber music by Chinese and Chinese-American composers.

Zhou, Long (1953- )
Many of Zhou Long's works draw inspiration from the Tang Dynasty (618 - c. 906), regarded as China's golden age for poetry and music, yet are combined with Western instrumentation. For example, both Poems from Tang and Song of the Ch'in treat a string quartet as a ch'in, the ancient Chinese zither. And his piece Soul combines the pipa with string quartet.

Finally, the album eXchange: CHINA provides a glimpse of ten more lesser-known composers of Chinese heritage.


Streaming Audio

The following streaming music databases are available to CLP cardholders.

  • Smithsonian Global Sound has over 30 albums containing music from China.
  • Contemporary World Music has about 70 albums of Chinese music.
  • Naxos Music Library has a Chinese Music collection in its genre menu containing over 100 albums of traditional, pop, and classical music.