China

Music of China

from Smithsonian Folkways

This playlist, created in collaboration with the China program of the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, emphasizes Chinese cultural diversity and the exuberance of public life. China is a country of many distinct musical communities—from Northern Chinese opera and Cantonese classical music to Northwestern Muslim songs and Pacific Coast vocal arts. Listen not only for music composed around the themes of love and marriage, play, work, religion, nature, and political propaganda, but also the variety of Chinese traditional instruments, including pipa (plucked string instrument), erhu (two-stringed fiddle), xiao (vertical end-blown flute), and yangqin (hammered dulcimer originally from Persia).

1. Xiao Yue Er Gao

From The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2002)
By Wu Man

This track, which translates to “High Little Moon,” is a popular tune for pipa from the Shanghai area, composed toward the end of the nineteenth century. Wu Man is a pipa virtuoso whose repertoire encompasses traditional Chinese music and a range of contemporary genres.

2. Flower Drum Song

From Flower Drum and Other Chinese Folk Songs (Monitor Records, 1994)
By Stephen C. Cheng

This popular song and dance routine from Anhui Province developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The verses, sometimes humorous, express how a husband and wife were compelled by hard times to migrate to other places in search of better opportunities. Flower drum songs are typically performed by at least two people, with one beating a drum while the other strikes a gong. Stephen Chun-Tao Cheng (1923-2012) was an acclaimed international singer, composer, actor, and creator of the Tao of Voice, an East-West approach to singing.

3. In a Mountain Path

From West Meets East: Chinese and Balinese Music (Folkways Records, 1981)
By Northern Illinois University Asian Music Ensemble

In this piece, two erhus play in unison, accompanied by a yangqin. The composition’s two sections have been arranged into ABA form with a short ending phrase derived from the A section. The erhu is a two-stringed bowed musical instrument used by several ethnic groups in China. The yangqin, originally from Persia (now Iran) and introduced to China through the Silk Road, is a hammered dulcimer that is commonly used in Chinese chamber and orchestral ensembles.

4. Meeting at the Fair

From Vocal Music of Contemporary China, Vol. 2: The National Minorities (Folkways Records, 1980)
By Aodengaowa, Pulejie, and the Orchestra of the Inner Mongolian Song and Dance Troupe

Sung in Mongolian, this love song is about two young workers meeting. It was composed for the 1953 film People on the Prairie, which depicts the devotion of young people cultivating the northern frontier (Inner Mongolia). This track is from a compilation released by China Record Company in the 1950s.

5. Kazakh Song

From Music of Central Asia Vol.10: Borderlands: Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2012)
By Wu Man

This is an arrangement of a dombyra (long-necked lute) solo previously recorded by Beijing-based Kazakh fusion star Mamer. Wu Man explains, “I arranged this piece for pipa solo from a Kazakh tune. I’ve changed the tuning to imitate the dombyra, and tried to match the deeper and ‘older’ herdsman feeling.”

6. Kite-Flying

From Ellie Mao: An Anthology of Chinese Folk Songs (Folkways Records, 1963)
By Ellie Mao

This folk song from Hunan Province is about the popular Chinese pastime of kite-flying. The piano accompaniment simulates the merry cacophony that the rattles, bells, and whistles attached to the kites produce in a brisk wind.

7. They Have Good Land Beyond the Mountain

From The Ancient Shepherd Pipes (Folkways Records, 1975)
By Hillel Ilka Raveh

This melody is from a Chinese song composed in 1947 to express the people’s yearning for equality in Communist Party-occupied areas. On this album, Hillel Ilka Raveh, an Israeli musician, plays original songs as well as those adapted from several different countries on the shepherd’s pipe (chalil), a traditional Middle Eastern instrument.

8. Two Lullabies: Purple Bamboo/Cantonese Lullaby (medley)

From Flower Drum and Other Chinese Folk Songs (Monitor Records, 1994)
By Stephen C. Cheng

The origin of “Purple Bamboo” is unknown, although some sources claim it came from Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. “Cantonese Lullaby” describes the simple bedtime chat between mother and child. The mother asks the child to describe the sounds heard through the night; the child imitates the sounds, which are in turn imitated by the mother.

9. Chinese Opera Style

From The World's Vocal Arts (Folkways Records, 1955)
By Ma Lian-Liang

This track features an aria from the Beijing opera The Midnight Trial of Pan Hong by celebrated performer Ma Lian-Liang. Ma specialized in old male roles (laosheng) and established his own Ma school of performance. The small orchestra accompaniment uses percussion and bowed instruments. This track is from a collection that features diverse singing styles from around the world.

10. The Bubbling Brook

From Vocal Music of Contemporary China, Vol. 1: The Han People (Folkways Records, 1980)
By Hung Huang, Chinese Orchestra of the People’s Central Broadcasting Station

This love song from Yunnan Province tells the story of a girl who is reminded of her beloved while looking at the glowing moonlight and later when a breeze touches her face. She calls for him and wishes he were by her side. This track is from a collection of Han vocal genres that was recorded in the 1950s by China Record Company.

11. Riding up the Hill

From Ellie Mao: An Anthology of Chinese Folk Songs (Folkways Records, 1963)
By Ellie Mao

The lyrics of this song describe a rider surveying a little hamlet from the top of the hill and wishing lovers sweet dreams as the new moon keeps its vigil from above.

12. Evening Song of the Happy Fisherman

From Sea Music of Many Lands: The Pacific Heritage (Folkways Records, 1981)
By Flowing Stream Ensemble

This song was composed by Lui Man Sing, a well-known “modern” Cantonese composer. It exudes the characteristic vitality of music from Southern China, and it was popular in American Chinatowns. The track was recorded at the Festival of the Sea in San Francisco. The ensemble members, who live in San Francisco, perform under the direction of Leo Lew, originally from Guangdong Province.

13. The Never-Setting Sun Rises on the Grassland

From Vocal Music of Contemporary China, Vol. 2: The National Minorities (Folkways Records, 1980)
By Congmao Zhu and Yin Sheng

Composed by the Inner Mongolian artist Meiliqib, this song describes the beauty of the grassland, evokes the love of the homeland, and praises the Communist Party and Chairman Mao. This track is from a compilation released by China Record Company in the 1950s, a reflection of the Chinese government’s efforts to collect and preserve the music and culture of the country’s diverse ethnic populations. It also reflects the professionalization of minority arts troupes and the encouragement of patriotic expressions in their repertoire.

14. Lan Huahua

From Vocal Music of Contemporary China, Vol. 1: The Han People (Folkways Records, 1980)
By Liu Yanping, Orchestra of the North China Military District Cultural Troupe

This is one of the most famous folksongs from Northern China. It describes how a beautiful girl is forced to give up her lover and marry someone she does not love. Eventually, she escapes and leaves the village forever with her true love.

15. Yaru (Darling)

From Music of Central Asia Vol.10: Borderlands: Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2012)
By Sanubar Tursun

This folk song in two parts from Kashgar in Xinjiang Province is simply and beautifully realized by Uyghur singer-songwriter Sanubar, who also plays dutar, a Central Asian long-necked lute. The lilting, almost stumbling nine-beat rhythm of the second section is heard in a few classic Kashgar songs.

16. Pingsha Luo Yan

From China (UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1985)
By Ding Boling

This is one of the best known pieces of ancient Chinese music. Although there is no definite record of its composer, the music score was first discovered in 1634. It was then developed by generations of lyre musicians, diverging into various versions with distinctive characteristics. Ding Boling (1939-1981) from Henan Province was a master of zheng, a plucked zither which has influence over all of East Asia.

17. The Prince‘s Voyage (Taizi You)

From China: Chuida Wind and Percussive Instrumental Ensembles (UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1992)
By The Peartree Orchard Opera Troupe (Liyuan Xi) of Quanzhou

This track is an example of nanyin, one of the oldest types of Chinese ballads still heard today. Inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, nanyin is performed in local Minnan dialect and accompanied by elegant pipa, gu, and other string instrument melodies. This song is usually played for Buddhist rituals and ceremonies.

18. Liushui

From China (UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1985)
By Guan Pinghu

This song shares the story of the friendship between renowned qin player Yu Boya and Zhong Ziqi during the Spring and Autumn period (770–475 BCE). Guan Pinghu (1897–1967) was a leading player of guqin, a Chinese seven-string bridgeless zither. He also recorded this piece for the Voyager Golden Records included on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts in 1977.

Compiled by Cindy Xu

Music of China