Listen: The top ten traditional Chinese songs you need to hear

Learn more about the history of traditional Chinese music

For thousands of years, music has marked ceremonies, celebrations, and climactic events. But while some cultures used instruments to accompany mating rituals, rites of passage, or soldiers going to war, Chinese scholar Confucius felt music should preserve the public ceremonies of an orderly society. This required calm, tranquil, and yes, orderly music. Indeed, the great sage ranked music as the second of his top six scholastic subjects – below ceremony study, but higher than archery, chariot riding, calligraphy, and mathematics.

To preserve the atmosphere, he had specific suggestions. Musicians should avoid playing during times of great sorrow, anger, shock or sexual activity (so much for R&B), and must not play during violent weather, after burning incense, or while unhappy, unwashed or poorly dressed – or even if the player is deemed too vulgar to appreciate it, an idea that has merit. There were also codes of technique and style; pieces opened with a great instrumental flourish, then mellowed in tempo and volume before concluding with another crescendo. In addition, Chinese music followed a pentatonic (five-tone) scale, as opposed to the Western-style heptatonic (seven-tone) scale, one of many whole-tone/semi-tone scales that date back to ancient Greece. This complexity raised the concept of harmony to dizzying heights in the West while remaining almost non-existent in China. But while Westerners were, at least initially, trying to communicate with God, the Chinese were keeping order.

These rules, of course, apply to traditional Chinese music, and even then it was a Confucian ideal. While plenty of pieces celebrate moonlight and plum blossoms, countless more chronicle wars or tragic affairs between emperors and concubines. The peace and order guidelines also fall short, proving that artists from any century abhor codes; a brief listen to these and other works illustrate how even a solo instrument has the power to thrill. Furthermore, Chinese contemporary music is increasingly complex and virtuosic; versatile instruments such as the pipa and the guzheng are favourites for modern composers. As for traditional works, here are some of the favourites.

1. High Mountains and Flowing Waters

This one shows up on every list, and is deeply symbolic – the ancients believed water and mountains represented the earth’s blood and bones. Written by Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) composer Yu Boya, this piece is written for the guqin, also called the qin (gu means ancient), a seven-stringed member of the zither family that has changed little if at all in the last three millennia. This simple, languid piece tells of a deep friendship between the composer and his woodsman companion Zhong Ziqi, and creates the atmosphere Confucius had in mind. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), musicians divided the work into two pieces; the ‘Running Water’ section was launched into orbit as part of the 1977 NASA Voyager Golden Record.

2. Guangling Melody

Although guzheng versions exist, ‘Guangling Melody’ was written for guqin and is a shining example of what an able composer can do with only seven strings. Inspired by an area, now Yangzhou, in Jiangsu province, Guangling originates from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and is an adaptation of the local folk melody ‘Nie Zheng Assassinating the King of Han.’ But while this shares the same instrument as ‘High Mountains’, there is nothing peaceful about it; the forceful plucking and even scratching the strings create an atmosphere of tension and violence, which moments of silence drive even further home.

According to local legend, Nie Zheng committed suicide after stabbing the king who murdered his father. Musician, poet, and scholar Ji Kang, one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, performed ‘Guangling’ with renowned sensitivity and skill; after he was falsely accused and sentenced to death (a predictable fate for honourable courtiers), his final request was to play it one last time, thus cementing it in history.

3. Plum Blossom Melodies / Three Variations of Plum Blossoms

To the West, the plum blossom is just a flower, but in China, this plant overcomes adversity to bloom through the snow, and according to Confucianism, represents a gentleman with nobility and integrity able to withstand hardships. Although xiao (vertical flute) versions came first, today the guqin (zither) renditions are equally popular; the piece itself is surprisingly catchy, with a recurring, hummable theme. Composed by Heng Yi, a militarist and musician in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), the piece made its debut courtesy of famous Jin general and xiao player Huan Yin.

4. Ambush from Ten Sides (or All Sides)

This hugely popular work is for pipa, the Chinese lute, and is thrilling from the first note. Quite possibly the most versatile Chinese traditional instrument, the pipa explodes with fury and sheer violence, and even the quiet passages are fraught with tension. ‘Ambush’ chronicles the Battle of Gaixia, fought in 202 between rival kingdoms Chu and Han. Surrounded by Han General Liu Bang’s army, Chu General Xiang Yu suffered a dramatic defeat and committed suicide in Wu River. An exhilarating piece that crosses all borders; try to see it played live.

5. Wild Geese Landing on the Sandbank (alternatively, Sand Beach, or Clam Sands)

This piece for xiao (vertical flute) and/or guqin (zither) was first found in Gu Yin Zheng Zhong, a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) music book. The understated work brings to mind soaring geese and a peaceful landscape, and is meant to relax its listeners.

6. Flute and Drums at Sunset (alternatively, at Dusk)

A piece for several instruments including pipa (lute), xiao (vertical flute) and guzheng (zither), among others, the ‘flute and drums’ title actually refers to a famous art scroll. This is universally described as depicting a soothing image of the Yangtze River landscape, but if you’re accustomed to solo works, you may have some sensory overload. The theme was later adapted to another work, ‘A Moonlit Night on the Spring River.’

7. Dialogue between Fisherman and Woodcutter

This stirring piece celebrates the simplicity of hermit life, proving that even in ancient times, going off the grid held strong appeal. Here, two men who live off the land chat about mountains and rivers and all that lies between. Another guqin piece, ‘Dialogue’s’ simplicity and wide-open spaces create vivid pictures, and the rising and falling melodies depict questions and answers.

8. Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute (or Wu Gier)

With her 18-piece series chronicling her tortured life, [attributed] composer Cai Wenji raised homesickness to an art form. Cai, also known as Cai Yan, was a highly regarded Han dynasty (206-220BC) female poet and scholar who was kidnapped by Xiongnu nomads and held captive for 12 years. During her involuntary stay she married and bore two sons, but when warlord Cao Cao needed her to placate the ghosts of her ancestors, he paid a hefty ransom for her return. Although her authorship of ‘Songs’ is disputed, many believe she was conflicted at the most basic level, mourning the two sons she left behind, and longing for her homeland. The piece was originally – oddly, given the title – written for guqin (zither), but has since become popular with (xiao) flute interpretations.

9. Autumn Moon over the Han Palace

This mournful piece reflects the challenging lives of palace ladies-in-waiting, the bitterness they suffer in silence and the lack of control they have over their destinies. These women often played central roles in Chinese literature and drama, as beautiful innocents crushed by an unyielding system. Although the piece has spawned versions for erhu (fiddle), xiao (vertical flute), and guzheng (24-stringed zither), the urheen, a lower-pitched member of the huqin (like erhu) family, is particularly powerful.

10. White Snow in Early Spring

This bright cheerful melody focuses not on the snow but on the spring, evoking the world bursting into life after the long winter. The composer is either Shi Kuang, of the Jin State, or Liu Juanzi, of the Qi State, at some point in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476). Some scores have divided ‘Early Spring’ and ‘White Snow’ into two separate instrumental pieces; the most common version features the ever-versatile pipa. This is the most energetic and cheerful of the group; you’ll find your toes tapping.

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