In This Article Music in China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Encyclopedias and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Crosscutting Issues and Approaches in Chinese Music Research

Chinese Studies Music in China
Jonathan P. J. Stock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0021


China is recognized as a preeminent center of industrial and economic productivity. Its modern cultural life remains less well-known overseas but is equally vibrant, and the broad category of Chinese music includes a vast panoply of styles and usages: ancient and new; folk and elite; commercial and ritualistic; indigenous, imported, and increasingly exported. There are few stylistic commonalities in all this music as a whole, a point that is unsurprising given the size and diversity of the Chinese population. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of distinctive Chinese elements, including a body of ideas about music theory and particular systems of musical notation, musical instruments, and musical genres. In exploring elements such as these, which retain a strong Chinese identity, this article takes a broad view on Chinese musical culture, seeking to illustrate major trends and characteristics of actual practice. This practice includes the adoption and naturalization of genres and instruments from overseas, and the music making of ethnic groups residing within China beside the majority Han Chinese. This bibliography provides a pathway into research in this vast field, noting some of the most essential sources for scholarship on music in China. Primarily English sources are cited because this is an English-language resource, but it should be emphasized that there is far more research on this topic published in Chinese than in any other language. Any in-depth study will require a working knowledge of Chinese or collaboration with Chinese culture bearers. Most if not all the Western-language sources included here cite key Chinese sources in their references. After a look at general reference sources and accessible overviews, sources on music history are explored. These first sections provide an overview of the field of Chinese music. Space is then given to annotation of research sources on a cross section of musical genres and instruments, with some focus on the modern situation. It is not practical to cover here every significant form of music making in China (or among Chinese living overseas), but those selected exemplify the full range of music, from historical to present day, from urban as well as rural settings, and from across the amateur-professional spectrum. A final section presents research on crosscutting issues in Chinese musical scholarship, primarily to signal the numerous directions that remain open to further research.

General Overviews

Although Western authors wrote many books on music in China in the 20th century, there has been a tendency since the 1980s to focus in depth on a single region, genre, musician, or instrument. Running against this trend are entries in major reference works (see Encyclopedias and Bibliographies) and also a small number of volumes written by experts, not least of which is Liang 1985, a work that remains valuable as an introduction to the history, instruments, and aesthetics of Chinese music, although it obviously does not cover the years since 1985, a period that has seen a considerable amount of change in many areas of Chinese musical culture. Picard 2003 takes a thematic approach, first looking at salient characteristics of the setting of Chinese music, genres, and instruments, and finally at China’s musical impact outside its early-21st-century borders. Also valuable as a primary source is Thrasher 2000, which uses descriptions of highly characteristic musical ensembles and instruments to convey information on central principles in Chinese traditional music more generally. Jones 1995 focuses on folk traditions; here the treatment is regional, with much information on the origins and styles of folk music from across much of mainland China. Like Picard 2003, Jones 1995 pays significant attention to the interface of ritual and music. Lau 2008 is a textbook intended directly for use in high school or lower-level college classes.

  • Jones, Stephen. Folk Music of China: Living Instrumental Traditions. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

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    In-depth account of folk music genres as they existed in the 1990s and in historical context. Combines ethnographic observation and extensive literature review. Some coverage on urban and elite genres.

  • Lau, Frederick. Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    Accessible starting point for study of Chinese music, with numerous short examples on CD. Final chapter focuses on music of overseas Chinese, overlooked in many studies.

  • Liang, Mingyue. Music of the Billion: An Introduction to Chinese Musical Culture. Paperbacks on Musicology 8. New York: Heinrichshofen, 1985.

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    Introduces history of music in China and numerous instruments and genres. Focuses on majority Han people. Many line drawings and music examples.

  • Picard, François. La musique chinoise. Paris: Éditions You-Feng, 2003.

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    Survey of Chinese music and its primary resources.

  • Thrasher, Alan Robert. Chinese Musical Instruments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Well-illustrated overview of key instruments and ensembles. Also covers significant musical characteristics.

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