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Chinese Music History

Music occupies an importance place in the history of Chinese civilisation. In Chinese mythology, Ling Lun is regarded as the founder of music. According to the Chinese, there were four societal functions.

Morals, Las, Politics and Music were those. This shows how vital was music for the Chinese. But music performed solely for entertainment was condemned by the Chinese. So music entertainers did not occupy a very high status.

Zhou and Shang dynasties

A bone flute made in the Neolithic age was discovered from China which can be traced back to thousands of years. While we trace the history of music in China, we start with the Zhou and Shang dynasties which laid the foundations of Chinese music.


The system of music education, ritual and ceremonial music, musical styles and instrumentation - all originated during this period. However, only the royal families and the officials could enjoy music. Instruments excavated from sites of Shang dynasty include tone chimes, bronze bells, panpipes, and the Sheng.

Tang Dynasty

In the Tang dynasty, dancing and singing spread to the common people from the nobility. The Song dynasty witnessed development of opera like Zaju and Nanxi. Literature based on music was accompanied by growth of traditional music instruments.


Ming and Qin dynasties

Ming and Qin dynasties gave an impetus to the expansion of traditional opera. There periods represented a highly literate society. Subsequently, during the Qin and Han dynasties, musical instruments like the zithers, panpipes, flutes, bells etc developed. Zheng as a distinct instrument developed under the Qin kingdom.

Han dynasty

Under the Han dynasty, development of solo singing and expansion of music took place. The imperial music bureau was established which expanded under emperor Han Wu Di who lived from 140 to 87 BC. This bureau supervised court music and military music. Emperor Liu Zhang had three orchestras and Tai Jhong had ten.


Yanyue was the banquet music tradition for aristocracy. Under the Sui and Tang dynasties, it became the major court musical genre. The 'Ci', a new type of poetry developed during the Song dynasty. It was created by fitting words to an existing tune, which was of folk or popular origin.

Confucius wrote the Youlan or the Solitary orchid, the first known written music of China. Shi Jing was another work of Confucius. It is a collection of folk songs. Chinese musical instruments belong to four categories such as stringed, percussion, plucked and wind instruments.

The Horse-headed fiddle is the most important stringed instrument. Popular in Mongolian music, it occupied an important place in orchestra. The lute or the Pipa originated during the Qin dynasty and it became a well-liked instrument thereafter.

The instrument of Erhu, though was introduced in the Tang dynasty, its varied and improved styles appeared during the Tang dynasty. This instrument is placed on the lap of the player and the bow is moved vertically. Flute was mostly made of bamboo. It was used and enjoyed by all classes of people.

Chinese music was later influenced by the West and took different turns as time passed.

Article about: Music history of China

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