Musical instruments in Chinese history

Music has always been one of the most important aspects of Chinese culture. Chinese people play music for entertainment, education, self-cultivation, and for religious or civil ceremonies. Throughout history, Chinese achievements in music were as spectacular as in science and technology.

     The ancient Chinese created the earliest playable musical instruments in human history–the Neolithic Jiahu flutes, dated about nine thousand years ago. By 3000 B.C. Chinese musical theory already emerged and sophisticated musical instruments were used, including the world’s oldest free-reed wind instrument, the Sheng. The Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-770 BC) used about 80 different kinds of instruments and established the world’s first classification system for musical instruments. A twelve temperament scale was developed no later than 552 BC, and was widely practiced during the Spring and Autumn Period (475-221BC), as is evident from many unearthed Bianzhong (serial bronze bells). With over 3,000 tablatures, the Chinese Qin (a zither) boasts the largest collection of surviving ancient music anywhere in the world. It has become the icon of Chinese music. No later than 1581, during the Ming Dynasty, Prince Zhu Zaiyu (1536-ca.1610) first in the world precisely calculated the scale of twelve-tone equal temperament. It is universally adopted starting from Johannes Sebastian Bach. A British historian of Chinese science and technologe points out, “It is interesting that all the classical and romantic music for which the West is famous after Bach is based upon this Chinese invention, which made possible the modulation between keys. No piece of Western music today is based upon any other system than that invented by a Ming prince, so that all Western music could be described as Ming music.” (Robert Temple,2002)

     A considerable number of ancient musical instruments have been passed down from generation to generation over the centuries. Great quantities of them have been found at archeological sites. Many ancient books in words and in illustrations detailed Chinese musical instruments and the musical life of the time. Music was also a frequent subject in ancient paintings, murals, brick or stone reliefs, and sculptures. They inform us back then how the intruments were played and with what other instruments. This e-book contains over 500 illustrated pages of history of Chinese musical instruments. The introductory chapter presents some examples of Chinese musical life and traditional instruments as seen through ancient art. Each following chapter presents one category of instruments according to modern classification system. A brief description of each instrument or artifact appears under each picture.

     Below is a scroll painting (30.6cm by 574cm), Spring Morning in a Han Dynasty Palace by the great Ming Dynasty artist Chou Ying (ca.1509-1551). The center portion of the painting depicts a musical scene of the palace ladies. The top part is a magnified section. To view the entire the painting, scroll over the smaller image at the bottom.

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