Whether you stumble across an opera performance in the park, or are taken by a catchy Canto-pop tune while shopping in Hong Kong, you’re sure to come across local music of some kind on your trip to China and if you’re a keen music fan you’ll find plenty of styles to search out, from classical to pop.
Visitors to China most commonly experience traditional music via opera performances, but this is only the tip of the iceberg and there are countless regional styles.
Music in China dates back 6,000 years, and although some traditional instruments and melodies were lost in Qin Shi Huang’s purge and again two millennia later during the Cultural Revolution, today it is enjoying a renaissance.
Traditional Chinese music focuses on tone rather than melody and the scale is pentatonic, which is believed to be symbolic of the five elements of earth, fire, metal, water and wood.
Instruments are divided into eight categories according to the material they are made from: bamboo, clay, gourd, metal, silk, skin, stone and wood.
Regional varieties are based on one or more of the instrument types. Thus the south is famous for its silk strings and bamboo flutes, while the north is characterized by “blowers and drummers.”
Playing the erhu
Popular traditional instruments that remain in use today include drums, the dizi (flute), erhu (silk-stringed violin), gongs, guqin (silk-stringed zither) and the pipa (silk-stringed lute).
One of the most relaxed ways to enjoy traditional music in China is at one of the daily performances which you’ll find in parks and teahouses across the country.
These range from organized performances for which you must pay, to impromptu shows by the locals – the Temple of Heaven grounds in Beijing and Hangzhou’s lakeside parks are good places to try.
Temples are often filled with the sound of gongs and chanting and are another place where you’ll come across traditional music.
Although opera has a lengthy imperial history in China, it has long been enjoyed by the masses, unlike in the West, and several different regional styles have developed, of which Beijing Opera is by far the best-known.
Other famous styles include Cantonese and Szechuanese, the latter renowned for its deft mask changing. Stories generally focus on traditional tales such as the Outlaws of the Marsh and are designed to be easily understood as much through the over-emphasized actions of players as the words themselves – indicative of the fact that performances were played out in noisy teahouses and theaters.
Traditionally, all roles were played by men and actors playing female characters had to wear special supports to make it appear as if they had bound feet – it took a year just to learn how to walk on these! The make-up is a work of art in itself and each actor spends hours perfecting it before the start of a performance.
There are also some things you should watch out for in the characters’make-up – black represents loyalty, white is generally used for baddies, red for heroes, yellow for indecisive characters and a metallic sheen is given to those who have supernatural qualities. In the 20th century, film and then television brought opera to an even wider audience.
Indeed, Beijing opera’s history is closely intertwined with acrobatics and martial arts and some of China’s biggest movie stars, like Jackie Chan, started their careers with traditional operatic training. Although the onset of modernity in China has detracted somewhat from interest in opera, it still features heavily on TV and radio and is hugely popular with the older generation.
If you’re in the capital, it’s easy enough to catch a tourist opera show, shortened to a more convenient 90 minutes and sometimes hilariously subtitled. Some performances are also held at tourist sites, such as the Master of the Nets Garden in Suzhou and these are worth attending for the surroundings as well as the show itself.
But for more authenticity, visit a training school or seek out an original production, even if you don’t stay for the whole thing. Many people find an hour and a half more than enough though. While the costumes are spectacular and the acrobatics astounding, the shrill pitch of the singing can be overwhelming.
It is generally worth arriving at the theater a little before the performance as you may get the opportunity to see the performers preparing. Tickets for tourist performances cost in the region of ¥40-400/US$5-50 and can be bought at larger hotels, travel agencies and the venues themselves. Local performances are a different story and cost a fraction of those prices for a much longer show.
See also : Music, opera and song in Beijing
Not so long ago Chinese music was confined to Beijing Opera, revolutionary songs and party anthems (no, not that kind of party anthem, the Communist one …). In the late 70s when things started opening up, Taiwanese and Hong Kong tunes began to make their way to the mainland and they were accompanied by a trickle of foreign music tapes from returning exchange students and foreigners working in China.
Little by little a new kind of music began to emerge, heavily influenced by the smuggled tapes and, all of a sudden, underground protest rock emerged. Cui Jian was a trumpeter who’d trained as a classical musician and joined the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, but was strongly influenced by Taiwanese Deng Lijun’s (aka Teresa Teng) tunes and he diverted his attentions, formed a band and is now known as the Godfather of Chinese Rock.
Cui’s early songs were ostensibly about love but became anthems of democracy and his lyrics and tone have angered authorities more than once. Cui and a collection of other early pioneers opened the door for popular music in China and, while these days Canto-pop and Mando-pop tunes feed the masses, Beijing has continued its rock tradition and remains the best place in the country to see locally grown live music, in spite of its seemingly few venues.
Beijing rock bands to look out for include the long-running, long-haired Cold Blooded Animal and neo-folk rock legends Second Hand Rose. Where? Bar and Yugong Yishan are good venues to try, but check out that’s Beijing or City Weekend for upcoming gigs.
Canto-Pop & Mando-Pop
Canto-pop is characterized by catchy tunes and romantic lyrics and, along with Taiwanese and Western pop, has heavily influenced modern mainstream Chinese music to produce mainland Mando-pop. Some of the biggest names in Chinese pop today are Aaron Kwok, Faye Wong and the multitalented Andy Lau.
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