China provides some of the earliest traces of music making. These are mainly in the form of well-preserved musical instruments, the tangible evidence of music. Over several millennia, musical instruments from regional indigenous traditions as well as from India and Central and West Asia were assimilated into the mainstream of Chinese music. Some of the most ancient instruments have been retained, transformed, or revived throughout the ages, and many are in common use even today, testifying to a living legacy of a durable art. This legacy is frequently celebrated in the visual arts of China, documenting rituals and celebrations, or as status symbols of those whose lives were enhanced by the resonate sounds of instruments made from hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk, and bamboo.
Archaeological Evidence of Musical Instruments
Eight thousand years ago, people in central China delighted to the airy timber of tonally precise flutes. Made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, these remarkable Neolithic end-blown flutes, the world’s oldest playable instruments, are witnesses to a dynamic musical tradition that was astonishingly sophisticated both acoustically and musically. Unearthed in Jiahu, Henan Province, in 1986 and preserved in the Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou, the flutes, known as gudi, possess five to eight perfectly spaced and fastidiously drilled finger holes. These rare instruments clearly document the maker’s hand in applying acoustic accuracy in the service of music. It is believed that the flutes played a role in ritual as music was often connected to cosmology and the stability of the state.
In the period between 3,500 and 2,000 years ago, Chinese rulers constructed elaborate tombs containing weapons, vessels, and remains of servants and, in some cases, full ensembles of musical instruments such as stone chimes (known today as qing), ovoid clay ocarinas (xun, 2005.14), and drums. In addition to these instruments, Shang-dynasty finds (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.) include beautifully decorated dual-toned bronze bells with and without clappers (ling and nao, 49.136.10), barrel-shaped drums (gu), and bronze drums. Hints as to the use of these instruments were inscribed on small pieces of bone (oracle bones) dating from the fourteenth to the twelfth century B.C. These pictographs make reference to ritual dance and music, and those depicting instruments are easily equated with modern Chinese characters.
Zhou-dynasty (1046–256 B.C.) musical ensembles contained highly complex and varied instruments. Orchestras consisting of exceptionally decorated instruments, notably one discovered in 1978 in the tomb of the Marquis Yi of the former Zeng state (Hubei Province, 5th century B.C.), reveal an astonishing understanding of the interplay between physics, acoustics, metallurgy, and design. Some 125 instruments, including sets of tuned bells and stone slabs suspended from ornate tiered stands, transverse flutes (chi, 2006.156), bamboo panpipes, mouth organs producing several pitches at once (sheng), zithers (qin and se, 1994.605.85a–c), and drums comprise an ensemble that was the most sophisticated and complex of its time.
Classification and Context of Musical Instruments
Zhou scholars provided the first classification system for musical instruments. The bayin (eight-tone) system presented in the Zhouli (Rites of Zhou, ca. third century B.C.) organized musical instruments into eight resonating materials–hide, clay, metal, stone, gourd, wood, silk, and bamboo. This breakdown complemented cosmological assumptions and concepts such as the eight compass points and the eight trigrams (bagua). In later periods, as wind (bamboo) and string (silk) instruments became dominant, the term sizhou (“silk-bamboo”) became a synonym for music itself.
During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), in the first century B.C., the Yuefu (imperial music bureau) was established. Its purpose was to collect regional popular music and poetry, oversee ceremonies at court, hire musicians, and standardize pitch. (A version of this office continued to operate until 1911.) Many ancient traditions lost during the Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.), the dynasty preceding the Han, were recovered, and a Confucian musical ideology was disseminated.
Migration and Cultural Exchange
In addition to the royal and ritual instruments found in tombs, many types of instruments serving popular and folk traditions existed, and of these, only vague written references or visual iconography survives. Significantly, instruments such as the harps, lutes, and drums depicted in the caves at Dunhuang and other oasis towns in Central Asia were making their way into China from the south and west as trade began along the routes that would become the Silk Road.
Beginning in the Han dynasty, musical instruments were among the items introduced and exchanged along the Silk Road. Among those brought from the west were lutes similar to today’s Middle Eastern ‘ud, oboe-type instruments, and metal trumpets; among those brought from India were long-necked lutes and drums. In China, the ‘ud-like instrument, with its round back, was transformed into the flat-backed pipa. The same Middle Eastern instrument later migrated west and became the European lute, used from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period. Indeed, “lute” is a corruption of the Arabic al-‘ud—an etymological clue to the instrument’s origin.
Music in Tang-dynasty China (618–907) underwent a radical change in the sixth and seventh centuries as a result of the mass migration of peoples from Central Asia, many of whom came to the interior of China as musicians and dancers at the imperial court or in popular venues. Patronage of music at court peaked during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–56), when thousands studied at the Imperial Music Academy and hundreds of the best musicians resided at the palace.
From the earliest historical periods, particularly in ritual music from the Bronze Age onward, bells have been an essential component of instrumental ensembles in China. The earliest known bronze bells, from the Shang dynasty, are the type called nao (49.136.10), in which the mouth of the bell faces up, and seem to have been played singly or in sets of three or five. After the tenth century, during the Zhou dynasty, sets of bells of the zhong (13.220.86) type, suspended from a wood frame, were used.
Both the zhong and the nao are struck externally and, thanks to their unique construction, are capable of producing two accurately tuned tones of intervals sounding a major or minor third. Both types are expertly cast, with sides that flare from the crown to the mouth, which is elliptical in cross section and concave in profile. Such a shape, used for small animal bells since 1500 B.C., provides one tone when struck in the center and another when struck on the side. The earliest evidence of a chromatic scale is a set of ten nao from the tenth or eleventh century B.C., unearthed in 1993 in Ningxiang, Hunan Province. The handlelike stem projecting from the crown helps to secure the bell to a frame. Tuned bells ranged greatly in size; some were only about nine inches tall, while the largest found to date is about 40 inches tall and weighs 488 pounds.
Bells and stone chimes were the chief instruments in Chinese ritual music from the Bronze Age until 1911. There is now a revival of their use at the Confucius Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province. The Museum houses a bell and a jade chime made within a year of each other for ceremonial and ritual use at the court of the Qing-dynasty Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722). Each is a single piece from a large set of instruments made at the imperial workshops, which were operating at the highest standard of craftsmanship during the early decades of the eighteenth century.