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Chinese contemporary music

This guide, compiled by Visiting Scholar Zhang Jihong, provides information about contemporary music in China. Links to scores and recordings are provided where available.

Table of Contents


The history of Chinese music dates back at least 5000 years, as long as the culture of China.  There are numerous types of Chinese music today, classified roughly into three categories: traditional music, contemporary music, and popular music. Traditional music includes royal court music handed down from ancient times, folk music, and the music of various ethnic groups. Contemporary music refers to works composed with Western music techniques, and date from the beginning of the twentieth century until the present.

The timeline of the development of Chinese contemporary can be divided roughly into three phases: 1900-1949, 1950-1976, and 1977-

In the earliest phase, music educators and composers, inspired by the enlightened thought of the Western world, composed a large number of songs in order to teach their students and motivate the general population.  The most famous works include Wen (Asking, Youmei Xiao ~ audio), Meigui san yuan (Three wishes of Rose, Zi Huang, 1932 ~ audioJiao wo ru he bu xiang ta (How Can I Help But Think of You, Yuanren Zhao ~ audioYi yong jun jin xing qu (March of the Volunteers, Er Nie, 1933 ~ audio). One of the earliest symphonic works, Huai jiu ( In memoriam, Zi Huang, 1929 ~ audio), belongs to the late Romantic style. Mu tong duan di (Buffalo Boy's Bamboo Flute, Luting He, 1934 ~ audio) is a piano piece combining contemporary compositional techniques with rich Chinese melody.

The second phase, dating from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and ending at the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, is called the “Revolutionization” period of Chinese contemporary music. Under the policy of art in the service of working people, many musical works were composed in a strong national style. The most famous Chinese violin concerto Liang shanbo and Zhu yingtai (Butterfly Lover, 1959 ~ audio), was written by Gang Chen and Zhanhao He, based on the Yue Ju work with the same name. The piano concerto Huang he (Yellow River, Chengzong Yin, Wanghua Chu, 1970 ~ audio) was based on the Chorus of Huang He composed by Xinghai Xian. These two works are expressions of revolutionary spirit, with Chinese folk music materials merging with the Western concerto form.

The third phase marks the current period of reform and opening in China. With the wide-ranging exchange of culture between China and other countries, Chinese contemporary music has become diversified in genre and individualized in expression and technique. Vocal music no longer holds a dominant position; there is an increased output of solo instrumental, chamber music, and orchestral works. Many works have strong individuality and high artistic quality, such as the mixed chamber piece Meng Dong (Qu Xiaosong, 1984), the orchestral work Meng size (Four Dreams, He Xuntian, 1986), the work for string quartet and orchestra Tangshi Si Shou (Poems from Tang, Zhou Long, 1995), the orchestral work Di ping xian (Horizon, Ye Xiaogang, 1985), the solo piano piece Duo ye (Chen Yi, 1984), the string quartet Feng Ya Song (Tan Dun, 1982), and the flute concerto Chou shan kong (Guo Wenjing, 1992).




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These are the standard books on Chinese contemporary music.
Zeng ding ban. Xianggang : Zhong wen da xue chu ban she, c2009.
East Asia Library » Chinese Collection » ML336.5 .L58 2009
This book is about the history of Chinese contemporary music. The Hong Kong musicologist Liu Ching-Chih observes music phenomenon both historical and current, offers criticism of composers and music educators, and reflects on the experiences and lessons of the development of Chinese contemporary music outside the social and political context on the mainland. This book has been disputed extensively, because many of the opinions are different from the traditional opinions of mainland musicologists.

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Hong Kong : Chinese University Press, c2010.
Music Library » Stacks » ML336.5 .L56 2010
This is the English version of Zhongguo Zhongguo xin yin yue shi lun.

Di 1 ban. Shanghai Shi : Shanghai yin yue xue yuan chu ban she, 2012.
East Asia Library » Chinese Collection » ML336 .W364 2012
This is a standard textbook for students majoring in music in mainland China. It narrates Chinese music history over the past 160 years, which covers nearly the whole of contemporary music history. The development of art music, traditional music, and folk music is explored.

Beijing di 1 ban. Beijing : Wen hua yi shu chu ban she : Xin hua shu dian jing xiao, 1992-1998.
Music Library » Stacks » ML385 .W34 1992 V.1
As a complementary of Zhongguo jin xian dai yin yue shi, this book introduces 38 Chinese composers and their works from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1980s. It focuses on descriptions of events rather than on music analyses.

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Di 1 ban. Changsha Shi : Hunan mei shu chu ban she, 2002.
East Asia Library » Chinese Collection » ML336.5 .J8 2002
The author sorts out the history of musical thought, musical language and style, and narrated the story of representative musicians and works in every period of the Peoples Republic of China. The book’s emphasis is on narrative events and historical materials.

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Di 1 ban. Beijing : Ren min yin yue chu ban she, 2010.
East Asia Library » Chinese Collection » ML1251 .C5 Z46 2010
As an introduction to Chinese symphonic music, this dictionary-like book covers all the materials in this field, including the history of the symphony, famous composers and their works, conductors, and orchestras.