Chinese music
Traditional, Classical and contemporary

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Some remarks on traditional Chinese music

for pipa and guzheng

1. Pipa Music

Liu Fang plays the pipa, a Chinese luteThough also used in ensembles, the pipa is primarily a solo instrument like a guitar. The pipa music repertoire consists of ancient Chinese master pieces whose composers are mostly anonymous, and the contemporary works by composers with both Chinese and western musical influences.

Traditional Chinese music generally refers to the compositions that have stood the test of time and are likely to exists "so long as man can breathe or eyes can see". However, when talking about "traditional Chinese music", just like Chinese, it is helpful to keep in mind that China is made up of many peoples, with each more or less having their own tradition and music.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of traditions, namely classical traditions and folk traditions. Music from the 'classical tradition' refers to 'sophisticated' music (or classical music) as opposed to folkloric music or music to dance. The major parts of classical traditions can be dated back several hundreds year, with some even over thousand years in Chinese history. It is mainly an oral tradition from generation to generation; there were written scores combining numbers and symbols representing pitch and finger techniques. However it is almost impossible to play directly from the score without learning the from a teacher.

Traditional music in the classical sense is intimately linked to poetry and to various forms of lyric drama and is more or less poetry without words. In the same manner as poetry, music sets out to express human feelings, soothe suffering and bring spiritual elevation. Their interpretation requires not only perfection of pipa playing techniques, but also (and more) relies on the level of spiritual development of the interpreters in order to deliver the deep meaning and inner feeling of the master pieces (see Interview with Liu Fang).

The folk melodies are rarely used unchanged for pipa concerts, but have been a constant source of inspiration for contemporary composition. Most contemporary music for the pipa takes advantage of advanced pipa techniques and music theories. The sources of inspiration are rich and are mostly traditional and folkloric themes. In fact, many pieces simply modify, transcribe or rearrange those melodies, so successfully such that some of the excellent works have been regarded as part of the growing classical repertoire, for instance the famous Dance of Yi People composed by Wang Hui-Ran. The repertoire is further expended by pieces composed or arranged for duets or trios in which the pipa is accompanied by cello, guitar, flute, piano or zheng. There are also pieces for pipa and orchestra. Famous pipa concerti are Little sisters on the grassland (Liu Dehai and Wu Zhuqiang), Ghost Opera (Tan Dun), Mulan (Gu Guanren), and The king takes off his armour (arranged from traditional solo piece by Zhou Long, an different version by Yang liqin). Note that are several new works for pipa concertos in recent years in China.

Once the pipa was introduced to the west, its music began to fuse with western classical and contemporary traditions. More and more composers with western music education background begin to explore new possibilities with the pipa, such as USA-based composers, Tan Dun, Zhou Long, Chen Yi. Recently, Melissa Hui, an accomplished Canadian composer, composed one piece for pipa and string quartet and another piece for pipa and nine western instruments, both having been premiered by Liu Fang in 1999 and 2002. Quebec composers Simon Bertrand and Hugue Leclair have all composed for pipa and string quartet and pipa concerto, and having been premiered by Liu Fang.

In 2001 , the internationally renowned composer R. Murray Schafer composed and produced opera entitled "The Palace of the Cinnabar Phoenix" for 5 opera singers, 20 instrumentalist including Chinese pipa, guzheng and erhu, a women chore, and a team of puppet player. The premiere of this great work (where Liu fang performed both pipa and guzheng) turned out to be magical, and highly acclaimed in the media and by the audience. This work will be presented soon again in a natural environment on a lakeshore near Toronto from August 31 to September 9, 2006 in 8 spectacles.

A brief introduction to Chinese Traditional Music

The following demo is for Guzheng (0 - 1:40) and pipa (1:40-4:12)

2. Guzheng Music

Liu Fang plays Guzheng

Guzheng has been closely related with guqin (7-stringed zither) in the sense that they belong to the same zither family, but has been enjoyed much greater popularity than the guqin throughout its history of over 2000 years, mainly because the guzheng is a folk-rooted instrument from its origin, and with the time it has developed among folk traditions from various parts of China. Whereas guqin is highly regarded as the most representative of classical music genre in China, performed by scholars, high society ladies and amateurs, and thus belongs to a small "minority" of the elite society in China's historical past. On the contrary, guzheng has been always a folk music instrument. Solo guzheng music has always strong local flavour - every region has its own style, in a way like local dialects of the Chinese language. Thus there are Henan style, Chaozhou style, Shandong Style, Zhejiang style, Kejia style etc. Since the last century there are increasing number of solo guzheng compositions with more or less western influences (commonly known as "contemporary music"). Meanwhile, some of the classical guqin music has been transcribed successfully for guzheng. It is now one of the most versatile instruments from China that can play both classical and folk styles. (More ...)

Some further topics:

"If the audience is not moved by the music, particularly if it is a masterpiece from the guqin core repertoire, it is usually the player's fault and not the listener's." - Prof. Li Xiangting, internationally-reknowned Chinese guqin master.
The same is true for all kinds of master pieces from the traditional repertoire!

Liu Fang, soloist for Chinese Pipa and Guzheng

Selected video demo pieces for pipa music performed by Liu Fang

Chinese traditional pipa music
(classical tradition)

Wenqu - civil (lyrical) style
Wuqu - martial style

1.The King Chu doffs his armour (youtube here), martial style.

2. Wild geese descending on the sandy beach (lyrical style)

3. Songs from the Other Side of the Border (lyric style)

4.Autumn moon in the Palace of Han (lyrical style)

5.Falling snow decorate the evergreen (lyrical style)

6.The ambush from ten sides (martial style)

Contemporary music

Liu Tianhua (18951932): On the theme of an air to dance
Wang Huiran (1936- ): Dance of Yi People
Wu Junsheng ( ): The night of the Bonfire Fest
Zeng Qingrong( ): Red river
Wang Fandi (1933-): Spring on the Tianshan Mountain

pipa & guitar

Guzheng music video demo

Chinese traditional guzheng music performed by Liu Fang on Solo guzheng

1.Guangling San (youtube here), classical tradition.

2. Autumn moon in the Palace of Han (Traditional)

3. Chanting of Tiema (Zhao Dengshan, 1980)

4.Seagulls playing in water (traditional)

5.Three variations of plum blossom (extract, classical tradition)


1. Traditional Chinese music

1. The Song of Fishermen on Homebound Boat (traditional), guzheng & Dan bau
2. Three variation of plum blossom (traditional classic), guzheng & shakuhachi  

2. Traditional Japanese music

The Sea in Spring
Kibitaki Forest


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