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  • UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music

    UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music

    UNESCO Collection Week 6: China, from Qin to Chuida

    Week Six of the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music spotlights both Chinese classical and folk music styles. China is a focus for the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which runs from June 25 to June 29 and July 2 to July 6 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music is being re-released two albums per week via digital download, streaming services, and on-demand physical CDs.


    By Jing Li

    In the world of Chinese traditional arts, there are two main categories of study: classical culture (concerned with intellectual pursuits) and folk culture (concerned with popular expression). Classical culture, associated with the educated elite, has played an important role in China for more than 3,000 years. It has been influenced by both royal taste and trends from popular culture.

    Although it is hard to say which has had a bigger impact on the other (as classical and folk cultures co-existed and developed side by side in history), the cultures are the two most distinctive aspects to serve as introduction to Chinese traditional music. The two newly re-released albums from Smithsonian Folkways’ UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music illustrate both aspects.

    ChinaRecorded in 1985, China is a beautiful presentation of some of the most celebrated pieces of classical music. Confucius’ idea that one’s education and academic cultivation must include music points to the art form’s importance in Chinese intellectual life.

    The qin (or guqin, a seven-string board zither) is said to be among the most beloved instruments of the intellectuals because it represents high taste and is of equal importance to books.1 Other instruments presented in this album include the xiao (vertical flute), the zheng (eighteen to twenty-one string board zither), and the pipa (plucked lute).

    One of the pieces featured in this album is legendary qin solo “Liushui” (Flowing Waters), performed by Guan Pinghu. Guan Pinghu also recorded this piece for the Voyager Golden Records included on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts in 1977.

    “Liushui” tells the story of a fictional qin player Yu Boya, who went to the mountains to find a celestial master said to help musicians elevate their skills. He set his qin by the water and started to play, creating two famous qin pieces: “Gaoshan” (High Mountains) and “Liushui.” Struck by the awe-inspiring environment around him, Yu Boya realized that the celestial teacher is Nature itself.

    Guan Pinghu’s recording delivers this narrative just perfectly. You can hear water flowing, falling, jumping, and splashing as it lands, creating a resonant echo in the mountains.

    China“Shi Mian Mai Fu” (The Great Ambuscade) is one of the best-known pipa pieces. It presents an epic warfare scene of the Chuhan War (202 BC) through a single instrument. Records say an older version of this piece called “Chuhan” dates back to the sixteenth century, while the score of “Shi Mian Mai Fu” was first seen in 1818. In this work, a variety of musical techniques combine to create a large-scale sound.

    In the 1653 article “Biography of Pipa Player Tang,” Qing Dynasty essayist Wang Youding described the sound of “Shi Mian Mai Fu”: “When the two armies took their final fight, the sound shakes the sky and the earth. Even the tiles on the roofs seem to be falling down. If you listen closely, there are sounds of metal clashing, drum beating, bow tightening, and there are sounds of frightened men and horses. Suddenly it is silent. Then you hear Chu songs sung by the enemy Han’s army; then, there is the sad singing of the Chu emperor Xiang Yu and his farewell to his concubine Yuji. There is the sound of him stuck in the swamp, chased by enemy army. Then there is the sound of him killing himself by the river and the sound of the rest of his troupe trying to save him. The piece makes you excited at first, then frightened, finally sad and helpless.”

    ChinaIn contrast to the classical music of the previous album, China: Chuida Wind and Percussive Instrumental Ensembles presents musical genres that continue to play an important role in day-to-day Chinese community life. Chuida (“wind and percussion”) is considered the most typical instrumental folk style across the country, widely played for occasions like weddings, funerals, festivals, and other rituals. However, this album features instrumentation beyond wind and percussion, such as melodic strings played in both the Quanzhou Nanyin (ballad) and Jiangnan sizhu (silk and bamboo) styles.

    Quanzhou is a port city in Southern Fujian, a province known for its rich musical and theatrical traditions. Quanzhou gained its reputation as the “biggest port of the East” in the late twelfth century because it was the starting point of the water silk route. As a result, the city’s music absorbed and blended elements from other cultures brought with the flow of merchants and travelers.

    Among its diverse musical traditions, Nanyin is one of the oldest types of Chinese ballad music still heard in communities 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, xiao, and string instrument melodies. “Incantation to Guanyin” is a typical example of this genre.

    Another distinctive Quanzhou style is Longchui, which literally means “musicians with wicker baskets.”2 Longchui is typically comprised of the suona (oboe-like wind instrument), xiao, and string and percussion instruments such as drums, gongs, and clapping boards. The musicians travel with storage baskets for their instruments and carry the baskets while performing during processions. They usually play at celebrations and rituals.

    “Overture” features the suona, a bright, loud, and high-pitched wooden instrument brought to China from Central Asia. By the sixteenth century, it could be heard throughout China in the Northern Provinces, the Qinghai and Tibetan Plateau, the Yellow River valley, the central plain, and the southern coast. Compared to the sounds of the graceful Nanyin, the lively Longchui gives you a totally different listening experience.

    The two pieces from Shanghai present two further distinct musical characters: the delicate and soft sizhu (silk and bamboo) and the loud and exciting percussive drum and gong ensemble. Silk and bamboo, referring to string and wind instruments, is a melodic musical style often performed in teahouses as entertainment. In the piece “Four in One,” you hear a dialogue between the melodic silk and bamboo ensemble and the rhythmic percussion group as they perform in turns.


    At the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, China: Tradition and the Art of Living will present a special evening concert on Saturday, July 5th by classically-trained pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Wu Man is a Smithsonian Folkways artist who has created new compositions for the instrument and brought it into intercultural musical dialogue. In addition, the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe will perform an ancient theatrical tradition with accompaniment from another distinctive musical institution, the “puppet opera.” Other Festival performers include the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe and musicians from Inner Mongolia and the Miao and Dong ethnic groups.

    Jing Li
    Program Coordinator of China: Tradition and the Art of Living, 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Performing arts manager, former intern and huge fan of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

    1 The Editorial Committee of Chinese Civilization, China: Five Thousand Years of History and Civilization (Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong, 2007), 462.

    2 Franςois Picard, liner notes for China: Chuida Wind and Percussive Instrumental Ensembles, UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music, 1992, compact disc.

    UNESCO Collection Week 6: China, from Qin to Chuida | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings