In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 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: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0021


One of the world’s most significant historical centers of scientific and cultural innovation, China is today a preeminent center of industrial and economic productivity. The Chinese cultural sphere remains vibrant, and is once again becoming globally impactful. Within the broad field of expressive culture, Chinese music includes a vast panoply of genres and usages: ancient and new; folk and elite; commercial and ritualistic; indigenous, imported, diasporic, and exported. The size and inherent diversity of the Chinese population ensures the sustaining of considerable stylistic and aesthetic variety in all this music, and globally distinctive components include a rich body of ideas about music theory and practice, several indigenous systems of music notation, numerous musical instruments, and many distinctive musical genres. Some of these musical expressions are confined to particular localities or ethnic minority populations; some are the preserve of subgroups of the majority Han Chinese, whether the urban youth, religious practitioners, elite theatergoers, or folk music revivalists. This bibliography provides pathways into this vast field, identifying research sources that serve as initial orientations within a large body of 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 available in Chinese, as well as significant work in Japanese, Korean, French, and other languages. I also cite books rather than articles, where available, as these have room for greater depth. Any in-depth study will require a working knowledge of Chinese or collaboration with Chinese culture bearers, and foreign-language sources inevitably cite key Chinese items in their references. After a look at accessible overviews and general reference sources, we explore studies of music history. Space is then given to research on a cross-section of representative traditional genres and musical instruments, which is followed by work focusing on more recent developments. A final section presents research on crosscutting issues in Chinese musical scholarship. The selected examples cover the historical and the present day, music from urban as well as rural settings, and expressions from across the amateur-professional spectrum. Although they cannot embrace every subfield or emphasis in Chinese music research, they collectively represent the breadth and depth of contemporary Chinese musical research currently open to readers of English, plus a few key sources in other languages.

General Overviews

Although Western authors have written many books on music in China, there has been a tendency since the 1980s to focus these studies 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, among which Liang 1985 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. It also offers little on ritual music, which has historically been a significant part of the musical lives of ordinary villagers. Meanwhile, 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 and Cheung and Wong 2010 are textbooks intended directly for use in high school or lower-level college classes.

  • Cheung, Joys Hoi Yan, and King Chung Wong, eds. Reading Chinese Music and Beyond. Hong Kong: City University of Hong Kong, 2010.

    Collection of articles intended for teaching use, offering an overview of Chinese music in historical and contemporary contexts. Topics embraced include music for traditional stringed instruments, new compositions in the mid-20th century, and the representation and appropriation of the music of minority ethnic populations.

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

    In-depth account of folk music genres among the majority Han people 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.

    Accessible starting point for study of Chinese music, with numerous short examples on CD. Interweaves contemporary and traditional topics, including Western-style genres. 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.

    Introduces history of music in China and numerous instruments and genres, with particular attention to the seven-stringed zither qin. Focuses on majority Han people. Many line drawings and music examples.

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

    Survey of Chinese music and its primary resources, including numerous musical instruments presented in their respective historical and societal contexts.

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

    Well-illustrated overview of key traditional instruments and ensembles, with integrated coverage of significant characteristics of Chinese music culture.

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