In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Essays
  • Historical Sources
  • Contemporary Sources

Music China
Joseph S.C. Lam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0013


Chinese music constitutes a tremendously complex and expansive phenomenon; like the renowned Yellow River of China, it flows through diverse communities, places, and times in a massive land that Chinese have called home since antiquity. And like the river approaching its estuaries, this musical tradition was particularly turbulent in the past two centuries or so, when China experienced drastic cultural, political, and social transformations brought forth by its encounters with the West. As such, Chinese music resists simple characterization and demands analyses with different perspectives and contrasting methodologies. Responding to this reality of Chinese music, Chinese and non-Chinese scholars have creatively and diligently examined the phenomenon with a multitude of methods and perspectives, many of which have combined traditional Chinese scholarship with Western or westernized approaches. The result produced is a wealth of writings on Chinese musicians, histories, theories, practices, repertories, structural-stylistic features, and aesthetic-cultural-social meanings and connections. To introduce this vast scholarship to general readers, this short bibliography will present a short, selective list of contemporary publications that register current and representative interpretations by native and non-native scholars, revealing their similar and different approaches and interests. The list cites current and standard works written in English, which are more accessible to international readers, as well as a relatively limited number of seminal monographs and articles written in Chinese by native scholars whose creativity and productivity have been particularly vigorous and fruitful since the mid-1990s. Readers are encouraged to compare and coordinate the annotations in different sections because many cited works would fit in two or more bibliographic categories. Readers are also encouraged to consult the specialized bibliographies attached to many of the publications cited here.

General Overviews

Surveys and historical overviews introduce salient features of Chinese music, describing its repertories, historical developments, cultural and social contexts, creative agents, and other topics. Differences and similarities among the publications described here attest to the authors’ different approaches to Chinese music, their command of source materials available at the times of writing, and their orientations, which can be heuristically described as traditional, contemporary, Chinese, or non-Chinese. For example, van Aalst 1933 sharply contrasts with Jiang, et al. 2001. If the former appears factually sketchy and theoretically simplistic to contemporary readers, it nevertheless registers a European view that tells much about Chinese music and culture at the turn of the 20th century. As such, it not only evokes how much Chinese music and scholarship have changed in the past hundred or so years, but also underscores the nationalist and socialist perspectives in current narratives by some Chinese writers. To probe the complexities of Chinese music and its meanings in the 21st century and the globalized world, one needs to consult diverse interpretations.

  • Courant, Maurice. Essai historique: Musique classique des Chinois. Paris: Librairie Ch. Delagrave, 1912.

    Emulating classical Chinese music scholarship, this French treatise comprehensively discusses music aesthetics, theories of tuning and temperament, musical instruments, and historical records and notated examples of classical Chinese music. As it introduced Chinese music to non-Chinese and early 20th century scholars, it also helped stereotype historical Chinese music as essentially ritual and theoretical in nature. It was not.

  • Jiang Jing 蒋菁, Jianhua Guan 管建华, and Rong Qian 钱茸, eds. Zhongguo yinyue wenhua daguan (中国音乐文化大观). Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe, 2001.

    This encyclopedic work includes four sections: 1, aesthetics and philosophies; 2, Chinese music and traditional Chinese culture; 3, a historical survey of Chinese music genres and their developments; 4, a description of Han and non-Han Chinese music in their ethnic and geographical contexts. This work indexes Chinese music scholarship at the threshold of the 21st century.

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

    This introduction to music in contemporary China highlights music as an expression and practice of Chinese regionalism, nationalism, and globalization.

  • Levis, John Hazedel. Foundations of Chinese Musical Art. New York: Paragon Reprint, 1963.

    Written by a Westerner born and brought up in China, this unique treatise argues that ancient Chinese music could be recovered in the present because it was rooted in Chinese language and poetry, the traditions of which had never been interrupted. Echoing the historical Chinese elite’s musical aesthetics and views, this treatise presents a wealth of information about classical Chinese linguistics, and proposes creative theories on relationships between Chinese words and melodies.

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

    This introduction outlines Chinese music history from antiquity to the present, and surveys major genres of Chinese music, their aesthetics, features, and performance practices. The discussions can be selective, and the arguments insightful and partial.

  • van Aalst, J. A. Chinese Music. Peiping: Inspector General of Customs, 1933.

    Written by a Jesuit priest and China specialist, this introduction combines historical research and personal observations; it is representative of 19th-century and colonial scholarship on Chinese music. The author was sympathetic toward the Chinese music he observed, and cognizant of Chinese and Western differences; his descriptions and interpretations, nevertheless, register Western and musical biases of his time.

  • Yang Yinliu 杨荫浏. Zhongguo gudai yinyue shigao (中国古代音乐史稿). Beijing: Renmin Yinyue Chubanshe, 1981.

    This is the standard history of Chinese music written by the doyen of 20th-century Chinese musicology. Written from a Chinese socialist perspective, the monograph nevertheless gives an authoritative and coherent view of Chinese music and its historical developments. Illustrated with many pictorial and notated examples, the monograph attests to Yang’s Herculean integration of traditional Chinese music scholarship with its early 20th-century Western counterpart, generating a mid-20th-century foundation for Chinese music studies.

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