Chinese Music in the 20th and 21st Centuries
All Music Guide - Fall 2001
(Used by permission - © 2001 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes

Major historical changes took place in China in the XXth century: The advent of communism, which started early in the century, brought the collapse of the more than two thousand year old Imperial regime; the revolution of 1911; and in 1949, the communists finally gaining power, with Mao Tse-Tung as head of the new government. These major events in Chinese history imposed new ideological views about arts, and music in particular. We know of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s led by Mao's wife, which brought an enormous amount of irreparable destruction (for example, 80% of Tibet Buddhist temples and relics were destroyed). The idea was to "modernize" all aspects of culture to suit the communist credo. This ideology was in fact not new. It was already part of the communist and socialist agenda right from the beginning, and in particular, in regard to music.

This article presents how the new communists viewed and continue to view music and how, after the revolution, they decided to "modernize" Chinese music across the whole country in order to bring everyone's music (i.e. all ethnic minorities) alongside the view of the majority (i.e. the Han, the Han being the original name of Chinese people). The content of this article is extracted from Sabine Trébinjac's book "Le pouvoir en chantant" (Power through singing) (Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie, 2000).

Before The Revolution

When the communist movement appeared at the beginning of the XXth century, its leader saw early on, the power of music, and in particular songs, for spreading communist propaganda and for education of the masses. This was emphasized by Chairman Mao on a few important occasions before the revolution. He held the view that music was a powerful political symbol, and more particularly that songs were a powerful ideological symbol, that could be used to "educate" the masses towards the Chinese communist ideology.

In the beginning of the XXth century, school children had to learn music, or more particularly schools songs, most of which were Western songs to which the texts were revised, with a clear political and socialist content. Traditional or folk songs were also rewritten. Later on, these songs became revolutionary songs. Their aim was to propagate the politics of the time to the masses, and especially for children and young people, to educate them regarding the new communist ideology and propaganda (or as Mao suggested it, songs that expressed the "masses' emotions"). For example, love songs were considered "porno" songs and had to be changed. Old and new songs alike were thus "modernized" to suit the new situation in China. This movement was kept up until 1949.

A speech by Mao in May 1942 expressed pertinently the aims of such control over the writing of music. For him, songs were a way to express everyday reality. He believed that it was through politics that the masses would become aware of their needs, and that music was the most appropriate and effective medium to teach that. "… we require a unity of politic and art, a unity of content and form, a unity of a political revolutionary content and an artistic form as perfect as possible" (Author's translation. P. 90 of Mao's speech, Trébinjac's book, p. 39). The considerations at that time were not aesthetic or musical, but basically political.

It must be noted that, in fact, this melding of political revolutionism and the arts is not a new concept in the Chinese social landscape. In the time of Confucius, similar view were shared. And for a long time in the first millennium, there was even a Minister of Music because it was believed that good music brought about a good society.

After The Revolution

There are in China 108 recognized ethnic groups, with approximately 55 official "national minorities" which are all "roofed" under a single Chinese culture. Thus, for the communist government, there exists a single national music with a large number of styles and genres particular to each minority. Under Han, the culture of the Chinese government, national music has come to be recognized as all music within China that must be modernized in one way or another to have "universal" traits that makes it Chinese. And, as we will see, although the government openly condemns "American Imperialism", these traits are clearly Chinese while at the same time patently Western in character.

After 1949, a Music Department was created by the new Communist government. Still in existence today, it is under the control of the State Bureau and the Ministry of the Armies. The objective of this department is to collect, order and compile all the music of China, and this from all minorities. The head office is in Beijing, with provincial and local offices. At least 10,000 civil servants work for that department. Following an order from Beijing transmitted to the provincial heads, the provincial directors contact the local representatives who then go in a selected region to collect songs and musical pieces. They are then sent to the provincial office where the pieces / songs are organized and "put in order". The ones considered the best (or most representative of that region / minority) are selected to be sent to the Beijing head office. There, they are then transformed again and "modernized" to better suit the communist idea of a national Chinese music, before becoming part of the final accepted compilation. Afterward, they are published and redistributed to local communist authorities to be imposed and to serve as official and exclusive music. After the process of rewriting and transformation by the communist government, the songs will be of service to the whole nation, not only specialists or musicians.

Of all the songs collected, not more than 20% are published and redistributed to local authorities and composers to write the "modernized" music. The remainder are archived, and almost impossible to gain access to by musicians or scholars. The collection of the music is not carried out by ethnologists or ethnomusicologists, or even musicians or scholars, but rather by simple civil servants, most of whom - if not all - do not have any musical training or pertinent training in collecting music; they are civil servants and revolutionaries at the service of the government.

At the end, after the ordering, transformation, writing and more specifically, rewriting of these pieces, the final products most often do not resemble the original songs. When a composer uses a song for a piece, he is even allowed to rewrite the melody as he sees fit! Sometimes the resemblance is hard to find, and yet, for the composer, it is still the same melody.

Moreover, the adaptation of music to Han standards does not stop with the simple rewriting of melodies. It includes rewriting them to a large extent according to the Han musical modes, the main ones being the pentatonic scale. The music of most ethnic minorities is not based on the pentatonic scale, and if it is, their instruments are not tuned according to the Han pentatonic tuning system.

It even goes much further. It also implies retuning all musical instruments with "the piano"; in other words, according to the Western tempered scale. Although, basically, Chinese music is pentatonic, the tuning of the instruments themselves and of the scale differs from the Western tempered scale. It appears that the Western tuning was a way to have a national tuning for all musical instruments, since each ethnic minority was tuning their musical instruments differently. As a result, these instruments do not sound the same, and the melodies are thus changed accordingly. As mentioned above, the aim is to have all music, and thus all musical instruments to suit a national music and a national Chinese musical sound.

Additionally, there is a strong trend in China, especially since the beginning of the 1980s, for young Chinese to learn Western instruments. Traditional instruments have been gradually losing ground. Concerts of traditional music hardly attract audiences these days. There was a documentary produced in 1980 with the well-known violinist Isaac Stern, who went to China to meet with young Chinese musicians learning Western instruments. Isaac Stern went back in 2000 to meet with some of them. We easily notice the Westernization of music. In particular, more and more young Chinese are taking on Western instruments instead of traditional ones, performing Western music (classical, or rork, for example). This documentary, titled From Mao to Mozart, can be seen on occasion, on PBS.


To date, the communist government strives to create a new tradition, but a state tradition. Music being a powerful means of communication, the government wants to be able to control to some extent, what its citizens think. Due to the fact that music is a powerful medium, creating a strong state identity through its music is viewed as an important step towards this goal. All other types of music, whether folk music or more popular forms of music, are considered vulgar. The collectors believe that they are doing a good thing, by raising the standard of these forms of music. And thus, what is heard on radio, television and in concerts, are the musical works of this forged tradition.

Yet, it must be said, as Trébinjac mentions on a few occasions, that not all music and songs are "given away" to the collectors. Some musicians appear to keep some of their treasured music for themselves.

I would like to end with one question, which Trébinjac unfortunately does not answer: Does the opening of China to a more Westernized and commercially based politic help change this situation, so as to keep these musical traditions real? I am not able to really answer it myself, but it can be said that we can find on the market a good number of CDs of traditional music from Chinese ethnic minorities.


Suggested Listenings of Classical and Traditional Chinese Music and some of China's Ethnic Minorities

Music of Chinese Minorities (King Record, 1988)

Chinese Music of the Han & the Uighurs (King Record, 1988)

China (Air Mail Music, 1997)

Li Xiangting, Chine : L'art du Qin (Ocora, 1990)

The Silkroad - China - Xinjiang (Playasound, 1992)

Lily Yuan, The Ancient Art Music of China (Lyricord, 1990)

China, Chuida Wind and Percussive Instrumental nsembles (Auvidis/Unesco, 1992)

Zhou Yu, The Art of the Chinese Erhu (ARC Music, 1999)

Musical Travel China - The 18 provinces (Silex/Auvidis, 1994)

Chine - Musique ancienne de Chang'an (Inédit, 1991)

TREBINJAC, Sabine (2000) Le pouvoir en chantant, Tome I: L'art de fabriquer une musique chinoise. France, Nanterre: Société d'ethnologie.



© 2002-2004 Bruno Deschênes. Tous droits réservés.
Design de Kwok Minh Tran.
Gravures japonaises de Shizuko Matsunaga.
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