By Katie Yang
Water murmurs, birds sing, winds moan – nature’s ethereal voice gives us not only a gift, but also an inspiration for life. But the question is, do you really pay attention? According to ancient wisdom, we hear someone’s voice before actually meeting, as a crucial harbinger, and complement, to the physical form. Similarly, music can act as an elevated reflection of the growth of a nation.
Five-thousand years of Chinese national development and accordant multicultural heritage has forged Chinese classical music symbiotically. Since the period of ancient myths, celestial music has lingered in its creation by traditional instruments, hovering over acts of basic labor, themselves performed with the expectation of increased comfort and tranquility. As in those myths, with immortals materializing to satisfy human desires, the music comes as an announcement of divinity. Attractive men and women, playing instruments and garbed in flowing white gowns, stand beside the immortals, enlightened and serene.
Consequently, the emperor and royal members of subsequent dynasties, in their desire to become immortal, treated music as a medium of communication with the gods. During the Spring and Autumn period, characterized by the clash and melding of different cultural systems, eventual unification fortified the spread of Chinese classical music. The cacophony of hundreds of years of social unrest, migration, and fierce ethnic collisions proved capable of morphing into a harmony that allowed traditional Chinese music to reach an unprecedented height. Grand phenomena such as weather worship, palace banquets, celebrations, and even wars, became inseparable from the magnificence of gentle, passionate, and graceful classical music embellishment.
The development and strengthening of Chinese classical music, however, was not limited to the court; there are a variety of folk music forms. The widespread anecdotal studio was the best place for society’s literati to relate poems and couplets, and discuss politics. You can furthermore imagine the beauty of a young lady softy singing “the wind stretched the willows under the moon” or the unrelenting intensity of armored cavalry clashing, and countless bloodied warriors beneath the fevered passion of traditional percussion.
At the time of the Zhou Dynasty, the court established the primary musical canon, called the Great Musical Division. Courses taught therein included ethical principles, behavior, and theory, all based on Taoism. Ethics were appropriately concerned with justice, sincerity, goodness, honor, and fidelity. Behavior instructed on Confucian or feudal ethical codes. Theory included the chanting of psalms chant, as well as dance and performance courses. The Great Musical Division laid a formal foundation for the temperament of Chinese classical music.
Later, during the Tang Dynasty, poetry blended mellifluously with famous songs. This fusion of verse and music became a characteristic of Chinese classical music. The poems, complementing songs and dances, came to be known collectively as the melody of Chinese classical music. After all these years of smelting and fusion, traditional Chinese classical music evolved from “Gong Shang Jue Zhi Yu” five-rhythm to “Gong Shang Jue Bianzhi Zhi Yu” Qiyin court music. This movement solidified the unification of what is now well known as quintessential Chinese classical music.
Talking about this, I must mention the ancestors’ pious reverence towards instruments and their regimented manner of orchestrating temperament and yin-yang. Their playing of instruments was very particular with regard to atmosphere, including the necessity of burning incense and taking a bath to compose and focus. They played with expertly mastered breath and stringent mettle such that one could come to know the nobility and virtue of the instruments. Traditional Chinese music could purify the mind, and take it back to nature. Therefore, Chinese classical music is not frivolous or simply enjoyable – it is the essence of sublimation. In this way, the force and melody of traditional Chinese can augment the rhythm of ordinary breathing and provide embellishment for the soul which lies beneath.
Katie Yang is a freelance writer and young musician of Chinese traditional music based out of Beijing. Her principal instrument is the yueqin, or moon guitar, and she has been performing internationally since the age of 13. Anyone interested in getting in touch with Katie can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.