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15 Apr 2020

“Traditional” and Western aesthetics in “Chinese music”

Contributed by Wang Chenwei
3 Apr 2020


The Composers Society of Singapore (CSS) would like to thank our member Wang Chenwei for permitting us to publish his essay on CSS’ website. All views belong purely to the author.

On Feb 2020, two articles published in the Singaporean newspaper «Lianhe Zaobao» sparked interest and discussion in the Chinese music community. Ng Teck Seng believes that the progress of classical Chinese music is hindered by a lack of scientific understanding in the instruments’ design, making and performance. Zang Zhuomin argues that the music of each culture developed within their own context, and one should not use the science of western instruments as a benchmark for other musics.

From the two articles and the comments on them, I noticed that people can have very different understandings of what “Chinese music” is. This essay seeks to examine some differing notions in “Chinese music” based on my experience as a composer.

1. What is “Chinese music”?

While it may seem superfluous to even ask this question, it is actually difficult to give a straightforward answer. If Chinese folk music is played by Chinese instruments, that must surely be “Chinese music” – but many other cases are arguable. Should the following be considered “Chinese music”?

  1. Chinese folk music played on Western instruments
  2. Western music played on Chinese instruments
  3. Music drawing inspiration from Chinese folk music, composed by a non-Chinese
  4. Music composed for Chinese instruments in a non-Chinese style

These examples make us think of what prerequisites of “Chinese music” should be. Is “Chinese music” determined by the instrument or the musical style? Can a non-Chinese composer compose Chinese music? What if the composer is ethnically Chinese but grew up learning only Western music – would his musical output be different from a Western composer?

While there are numerous possible definitions, this article will consider either of the following to be “Chinese music”:

– Music bearing characteristics of Chinese folk music, regardless of what instrument is used to play it, OR
– Music composed for Chinese instruments, regardless of what musical style is used
(must not be an arrangement of a piece originally written for non-Chinese instruments)

According to this definition, all except b) above would be considered “Chinese music”. The ethnicity of the composer is not taken into account.

2. What is “traditional”?

Although a frequently used term, the interpretation of what “traditional” is can vary widely among people. For example, which of the following are “traditional”?

  1. Jiangnan Sizhu 江南丝竹 (silk and bamboo ensemble music)
  2. «Dance of the Yao People» 《瑶族舞曲》 for Chinese orchestra (composed by Liu Tieshan 刘铁山 and Mao Yuan 茅源 1952, arranged by Peng Xiuwen 彭修文 1962)
  3. «The Insect World» 《昆虫世界》 for Chinese orchestra (composed by Doming Lam 林乐培 1979)

Most would say that Jiangnan Sizhu is “traditional” because it is minimally influenced by Western music. However, the word “silk” reveals that the string instruments were supposed to use silk strings, whereas these have long been replaced by metal strings. Is this then “untraditional” practice?

«Dance of the Yao People» is considered by many to be “traditional” because it has been a staple of the Chinese orchestra for decades. Others argue that it is not “traditional” because it uses western major and minor chords – and for that matter, it was arranged from a symphony orchestra piece in the first place.

«The Insect World» would probably be deemed not “traditional” as it shows obvious influences from post-war European “contemporary” music. However, this piece from 1979 is past its 40th birthday – should a 60-year old piece be deemed “traditional” and a 40-year old piece “new”? Should a piece using European major and minor chords be deemed “traditional” while a piece using post-war European composition techniques be deemed “new”?

For another example, which of the following are “traditional”?

  1. Six-holed Dizi 六孔笛
  2. Ruan 阮
  3. Keyed Suona 加键唢呐

Most would say that the Dizi is “traditional” because the basic design has not changed very much for the past few centuries. The keyed Suona probably would not be called “traditional” because it shows obvious influences from western woodwind instruments. The Ruan is often called a “traditional” instrument – even though the modern Ruan was essentially reinvented in 1953 by Wang Zhongbing 王仲丙 based on ancient pictures of Ruan.

From these examples, we see that the notion of “traditional” is complex and debatable. Before talking about “traditional” Chinese music or “traditional” Chinese instruments, one needs to be aware of what “traditional” is supposed to mean.

From my observation: for most people, “tradition” is simply things that they did not witness change.

Through my research on the Dizi for my Magister thesis, I have seen a lot of opposition surrounding attempts to add holes or keys to Dizi to improve its chromatic playing capabilities (on the grounds that it undermines “tradition” or is trying to be “Western”), while the keyed Suona and chromatically-fretted Ruan are well-accepted members of the Chinese orchestra (since people are used to their presence already).

Also, many people call the Chinese orchestra “traditional” although it is very obviously modelled after the symphony orchestra. On the other hand, the Chinese orchestra has not changed very much in terms of instrumentation since the 1960s – does that then count as a “tradition”?

The discussion gets even more complicated if we consider that “tradition” can evolve over time. When we see something that differs from the “historical practice” (how people played music at a certain place and time), do we call it “untraditional” or an “evolving tradition”?

As the term “traditional” is very subjective, I shall instead focus on the degree of Western influence as a more objective measure for what one might term “traditional” or “untraditional”.

3. Degrees of Western influence in Chinese pieces

A Chinese piece may show varying degrees of Western influence. We could pick out the two ends of the spectrum and the mid-point to obtain three archetypes:

  • Archetype 1: “Unwesternised”: Chinese music that bears minimal Western influences. This includes most folk music and compositions based on folk styles.
  • Archetype 2: “Semi-Westernised”: Chinese music that is strongly influenced by Western music theory, e.g. through the use of harmony or certain compositional techniques.
  • Archetype 3: “Fully Westernised”: Compositions for Chinese instruments based on aesthetics of Western music.

In my opinion, Ng’s article pertains to Archetypes 2 and 3, whereas Zang’s article pertains to Archetype 1. This is why the two articles have such contrasting views.

4. A dilemma between individuality and collectivity in the Chinese orchestra

The significance in assessing the amount of Western influence in a Chinese piece lies in the contrasting aesthetics and requirements of Western and Chinese music. While the richness of Western music lies in its harmony, the richness of Chinese music lies in its melodic nuances. In Chinese folk traditions, style and flavour are much more valued than intonation and cohesion.

Since the 1950s, a new form of Chinese music performance has been enjoying persistent popularity – the Chinese orchestra. As it is founded as much on principles of Western symphonic music as on principles of Chinese folk music, it needs to consider both Chinese and Western aesthetics, resulting in a state of dilemma.

Firstly, there is almost universal use of harmony in its repertoire, i.e. there is hardly a piece not using Western chords. This places much higher demands on intonation than what is acceptable according to folk music aesthetics.

Secondly, several of the same instrument have to play in unison in the orchestra. This means that the players have to standardize their playing in terms of intonation, rhythm and ornamentation. Whereas one Erhu can play freely with a strongly individualistic style, a group of Erhu doing so will result in chaos.

Thirdly, the Chinese orchestra’s instruments are heterogeneous, i.e. every instrument has a distinctive timbre and playing techniques. With a large total number of musicians playing simultaneously (more than 60), the orchestra has to work towards a homogeneous sound to achieve a cohesive effect. This means that each player cannot play like they would in a solo setting, and must strive for a more mellow timbre and less protruding style.

In summary, Chinese folk music values individuality while orchestral playing requires collectivity. The need for intonation and standardisation is due to the nature of the music being played, and has nothing to do with “cultural colonialism”. 

If one were to insist against any form of Western standards of judgment being applied to the performance of Chinese instruments, then one would have to reject the Chinese orchestra format altogether – which is also a valid standpoint. (Sure, we can stick to chamber ensembles and compose without using Western chords.) However, it would be a contradiction to promote the Chinese orchestra format while condemning Western standards of judgment applied to it in the name of “tradition”.

To Chinese orchestra composers, the limitations of some Chinese instruments often present obstacles. For example, each Dizi (Chinese flute) can only play 6-7 of the 12 chromatic pitches in an octave with reliable intonation and optimal timbre at fast speeds. When half-hole fingerings or fork fingerings are employed, the intonation is hard to guarantee at fast speeds and the timbre become muffled. (This does not mean that only pieces with complex tonality are affected – if a Dizi has to modulate from one pentatonic mode to another, half-hole or fork fingerings would be involved too.

From a traditional perspective, modulations and chromatic notes are non-traditional elements that should not be imposed on Dizi playing, and that the muffled timbre of half-hole fingerings is also “beautiful” in its own way. In solo playing, we of course can avoid modulations and chromatic pitches, and utilise the muffled timbres of certain pitches in an aesthetic way. For example, the Dizi solo piece «Orchids in Spring» 《幽兰逢春》 begins with a slow section in a key that often requires half-hole/forked fingerings, and transits to a lively section in a key that hardly requires half-hole/forked fingerings. The more muffled timbre of the half-hole/forked fingerings establishes a contrast between a darker slow section and a brighter fast section. Furthermore, the slow section gives more time for the player to intonate each note.

The above approaches the topic from an individualistic perspective. If we take one instrument to be the “lead actor”, we can tailor-make the entire piece to it, showcasing its strengths and avoiding its limitations. We can make all the accompanying roles conform to serve the interests of this one instrument, e.g. the entire orchestra can be made to play in the key most convenient for the concerto soloist.

However, in a collective effort, such as with a Chinese orchestra piece, the minority has to adapt to the majority, and not vice versa. For example, sometimes when composing an orchestral piece, I know that the Dizi player will run into intonation and technical problems due to the scale being used, but I would be unwilling sacrifice the artistic design of the piece just to accommodate the limitations of one out of twenty instruments in the orchestra. I then face the dilemma of whether to let the Dizi play (with the risk of creating intonation problems in the piece), or to drop out the instrument entirely.

This is not to say that the Dizi has limited capabilities. On the contrary, I feel that the Dizi is capable of producing much more melodic nuances than the Western flute. This is why in my arrangement of «The Sisters’ Islands» for symphony orchestra, I scored two important solos for the Dizi even though the orchestra had to hire a guest player – the Western flute would not be able to express the nuances required.

The problem faced by the Dizi in the Chinese orchestra is that when an instrument with strong individuality is placed in a situation that requires collectivity, its limitations emerge and its strengths become under-utilised.

This is the dilemma present since the beginning of the Chinese orchestra, and has led to criticism that Chinese instruments should not be even played in an orchestral setting. No matter whether one agrees with this criticism, the popularity of the Chinese orchestra format remains hard to challenge.

If we continue promoting the Chinese orchestra format, we have to continuously work towards resolving the dilemma between individuality and collectivity. We have to acknowledge that some instruments’ strengths in solo playing become weaknesses in orchestral playing, and we have to strive to find solutions, whether by adapting the method of playing, or by adapting the instrument for orchestral use.

5. Culture and science are not contradictory

While Ng’s article focuses on science, Zang’s article focuses on culture. Although culture is often associated with the “traditional” and science with the “untraditional”, culture and science can in fact go hand in hand.

In the past century, Chinese musical instruments have enjoyed a great expansion in expressive capabilities arising from the incorporation of “untraditional”, “scientific” advancements.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Erhu used silk strings and were played only in the first position, making it extremely limited in volume and range. In the early 20th century, Liu Tianhua 刘天华, who played the violin and was familiar with Western music theory, introduced the concept of position change as well as other violin techniques to the Erhu. In 1957, Sun Hengbai 孙恒柏 became the first to use steel strings on the Erhu. These “untraditional” changes are now taken for granted. 

Most Chinese musical instruments that we see today have undergone drastic redesigns in the 1950s to 1970s. Chromatic Sheng and keyed Suona in soprano, alto, tenor and bass registers were developed, the Yangqin got a new chromatic layout and a vastly expanded range, the Pipa got chromatic frets, the Ruan and Liuqin were (re)invented, the Sanxian was redesigned and the Erhu got a modified soundbox and steel strings.

Musicians and composers also explored new playing techniques and more consistently applicable teaching methods, expanding the possibilities of instrumental performance.

Rather than eroding tradition, advancements in instrument design, making and performance have led to the creation of a rich and varied solo repertoire. Most of the “classic” solo pieces were composed after 1950, and many of their composers are still alive.

6. Not because the instrument design was bad

While many redesigned Chinese instruments have been established as the standard, a great lot of other redesign attempts did not gain a large following and were soon forgotten. This was often not because the idea was bad, but because musicians were content with the instrument as it was, and thus were reluctant to expend effort in adapting to a new instrument design. For example, they may only have been concerned whether the instrument was good enough for the solo pieces that they wanted to play, and not concerned whether the instrument could fulfil the needs of the orchestra.

When assessing the viability of a redesigned instrument, we have to differentiate between the quality of the concept versus the quality of the construction. For example, when a damper pedal for the Yangqin (to mute the vibrations of its strings] was first made decades ago, the construction was so bad that players did not want to use it. However, that does not mean that a damper pedal is a bad concept – it is absolutely essential for playing music with rapidly changing harmonies. Fast-forward to now, the construction of the pedal has improved greatly and several professional orchestras are using Yangqin with damper pedals.

[While the lingering resonance of the strings is fine for pentatonic Yangqin solo pieces, they cause big problems in orchestral playing. As the vast majority of amateur orchestras still use Yangqin without damper pedals, composers often have to worry about their harmonies being obfuscated by the Yangqin’s resonance.]

Any new way of making an instrument takes years, or even decades of trial and error to finetune. When musicians try a prototype instrument and feel that “this instrument is lousy”, they might not realise that the problem lies in the construction and not the concept. As a result, good concepts get killed off before they have a chance to develop their potential.

Therefore, when anybody is willing to dedicate the time and effort to redesign an instrument, we should seriously consider its potential, and together examine ways to bring good concepts to fruition.

If there is no way to fit individuality and collectivity in one instrument, then I would advocate developing a separate version of the instrument for orchestra use, like was done with the chromatic Sheng family and the keyed Suona family.  In the case of the Di, adding a key system like on the Western flute would hinder most of its unique playing techniques and render it unusable for solo pieces of the “unwesternized” archetype. However, it might be a feasible option to keep the keyless Dizi for traditional solos and develop a chromatic Dizi to use in the orchestra.

7. Finding reconciliation within dilemmas

How could we then reconcile individuality and collectivity, “tradition” and Western influence?

In section 3, I illustrated three archetypes of “Chinese music” – the “unwesternised”, “semi-westernised” and “fully westernised”.

Firstly, the “unwesternised” works (the folk traditions and historical practices) should be preserved in its original form as a heritage of Chinese culture.  

Other than that, I believe that upholding Chinese traditions is not about excluding non-Chinese elements, but about showcasing characteristic elements of Chinese culture.

As new works and performances are constantly created, the effects of globalisation show their inevitable influence. Like it or not, Western influence and scientific advancements are already deeply ingrained in Chinese music, and there is no point in rejecting them in the name of “tradition”. Instead, we could think of how all the available resources can fit together to pass the torch of Chinese culture amidst an everchanging world.

This would first require an in-depth understanding of Chinese culture. We can never learn enough about the vast Chinese culture, including its folk music, history, literature, customs and values. The more we know about Chinese culture, the more artfully we can innovate without losing its essence, thus creating effective “semi-westernised” works.

 “Fully westernised” works (pieces composed for Chinese instruments but based entirely on Western aesthetics) have seen a large growth in recent years as more and more composers from Western music backgrounds take interest in Chinese instruments. They have pushed the boundaries of Chinese instruments and promoted an international exchange of culture and ideas. The performance of such works naturally requires a different skillset as compared to “unwesternised” and “semi-westernised” works, and offers an opportunity for musicians to train new skills.

8. Transforming dilemma into counterpoint

My first contact with Chinese music was through the Chinese orchestra in secondary school. At that time, I thought that the Chinese orchestra was the most “advanced” state of things and thought of folk music traditions as “old-fashioned”. Through continual reflection on Chinese cultural identity and the meaning of “tradition” over the years, I realised that the character of Chinese music was to be found in folk music traditions (and solo pieces based on them) – because that is where the individuality in Chinese culture has been the most strongly preserved. I am continuously learning about folk music traditions, not to replicate them, but to extract essential elements to expand the depth of my compositions.

Although the Chinese orchestra is a Western-influenced, collective way of performing, I strive to incorporate the individuality of folk music traditions in my compositions, including non-Chinese folk traditions. If I were to compose a Chinese orchestra piece entirely based on Western aesthetics, then why not use the symphony orchestra instead? Therefore, I seek ways to make use of Chinese instruments in ways that are hard to replicate by Western instruments, by constantly learning from each instrument’s solo repertoire.

«The Terracotta Warriors Fantasia» 《秦兵马俑幻想曲》 (1984) by Peng Xiuwen showcases both the grandeur of the orchestra and the nuances of individual instruments. It can be considered a successful example of how the “dilemma” between individuality and collectivity can be turned into “counterpoint”. Peng was an expert in both folk music and Western composition techniques, and respected by most Chinese orchestra musicians and composers for his works that are symphonic in a Western way, but yet have a Chinese “soul”.

Chinese music practitioners are constantly navigating between individuality and collectivity, culture and science, tradition and Western influence. I hope that this essay can provide a basis for deeper discussion on how the dilemmas in the many forms of “Chinese music” can be transformed into a musical counterpoint.

9. Epilogue

At first, I only intended to express some thoughts on the two articles by Ng and Zang. However, one topic led to another, and the more I wrote, the more I realised how big the subject matter was. Even after one month of repeated rewrites, many ideas are still not refined, and I do not have the time now to do a thorough academic analysis. Nevertheless, I decided to publish this essay as an opinion article first, in hopes that commentaries from readers can help me to refine my thoughts.