Appreciating Chinese Guqin music

Guqin is a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument (wiki). Although the instrument is of simple structure, the music it carrys can express complicated feelings. Just as the Chinese phrase “meaning beyond the strings” (弦外之音) says, careful appreciation of Guqin music gives us not only pleasure but also meditation about life.

There are ten most famous Guqin music pieces. Here I pick three to represent three different categories of Guqin music. Interested readers can see here (english website) and here (Chinese website) for more information about Guqin music.

The first one is Ping Sha Luo Yan (wild Geese Landing on the Sandy Beach), which purely depicts the beauty of nature. I’d imagine a group of wild geese flying in a clear Autumn sky when listening to the music. They are not in a hurry. They are moving at their own pace to their destination. There appears a sandy beach. They quitely land for a rest. The flowing melody symbolizes the vast sky and the motion of the wild geese. The friction of the strings mimicks the voice of the geese. It should be noted that wild geese flying in the sky was often used by Chinese poets as the symbol of their ambitions and the ideal.

The second category involves anecdotal contexts in Chinese history under which Guqin music was composed. Let’s take Guang Ling San as an example. The music was based on a story of a Guqin player assesinating the king for revenge. A variety of emotions are shown in this piece. Sometimes the music is tough and shows the internal struggle of the Guqin player; while sometimes the music displays a gentle and pleasant feel which perhaps depicts the love of the Guqin player to his father.

Lastly, some pieces of Guqin music praise a particular quality embodied in a nonhuman object (plant being the most often choice) and express the moral pursuit of the composer. For instance, Mei Hua San Nong (Three Variations on Plum Blossom) describes how the plum blossom strives to survive the coldness of winter and praises its persistence. Essentially the author conveyed the message that the literati should maintain a high moral standard and hold on to certain noble values. The word “San Nong” (three variations) is a musical terms referring to the structure of the notes. The varying style shows the plum blossom in static setting as well as in motion (in the wind, maybe) and adds more flavor to the music.

In recent years, there has been a trend of reviving the classic Chinese values, such as kindness to others and care for the old. Hopefully the youth will have increasing access to the treasure of Chinese ancient music and will enrich their mind by appreciating it.

An introduction to “New Chinese Folk Songs”

Chinese folk songs are often considered to be old-fashioned by the youth. However, in recent years, some Chinese singers trained in folk singing have absorbed elements of the pop music and created the so-called “new Chinese folk songs” (新民歌). Tang Can (汤灿), Zhang Yan (张燕), and Tan Jing (谭晶) are representative of this revival of Chinese folk songs.

Tang Can was the pioneer in this innovative trend. In 2000, she promoted her song A Million Years of Happiness (幸福万年长) composed by a famous pop-song writer. Her natural singing gave people a refreshing view of Chinese folk songs. The delicate design of the MTV was also appealing to young audience. This song absorbs the essence of folk songs — the subtle “Chinese” feel — but is not restricted to the conventional composition of folk songs.

Zhang Yan adopts a different interpretation of folk songs. Her voice is sweet and adorable. She has songs that emphasizes the folk features in them, among them the most famous example is Daughter of the Moon (月亮女儿). On the other hand, she also perform songs in a jazz-like way. Ye Lai Xiang , for example, is an 1930s song refurnished by Zhang. The song replicates the unique feeling of the 1930s Shanghai women but also caters to modern audience’s tastes.

Tan Jing is a bit of a rebel from folk singing, in that she sings more like a pop singer than folk song singer. Her song Sky (天空), shown in the opening ceremony of 2008 Beijing Olympics, is a perfect example. Another song, Distant Love (远情), is an incident in a popular Chinese TV series. Rich in content, this song incorporates Chinese traditional musical instruments and carries a heavy feeling of time changes.

I believe in the eternal beauty of the Chinese way of singing. Hopefully people (especially the youth) will be able to appreciate our precious cultural heritage better through novel performance and publicity methods.

Chinese folk songs featuring the moon

The moon has always been a special object in Chinese poems and songs. Usually the moon stands for the family, friendship, and love. We believe that our beloved ones can share the same moonlight with us, even if we are apart.

Wang Yue (望月) by Song Zuying is one of my all-time favourite Chinese songs. And my mum loves to hear me sing this song. I feel so nostalgic every time I listen to it. It’s about a girl separated from her family/lover, but hoping that they can be emotionally together forever. Song Zuying’s virtuous singing adds to the flavor of the song. Another similar song is Yue Zhi Guxiang (月之故乡). But I think the song would sound better with higher keys (better sung by a soprano), as what I would do if I perform.

The next is a classic song, Mingyue Qianli Ji Xiangsi (明月千里寄相思). The song was originally performed by Wu Yingying (吴莺音) in the 1930s. The lyrics are about the girl thinking about her lover in the past and wishes him all the best. The rhythms and meanings match perfectly. Here is a recent version by Zhang Yan (张燕). 

Young composers and young singers also like to use the moon as the leading image in the song. A good example is Yueliang Nv’er (月亮女儿) by Zhang Yan (张燕). It’s a sweet song about a girl dreaming about her future. The whole song is immersed in a cheerful mood.

Moon is also used in the song to create a romantic atmosphere. Bange Yueliang Pa Shanglai (半个月亮爬上来) is a typical example. It tells a story of how a young man waits under the window of the girl he loves. This is a minority song, so the melody might sound a bit “exotic” even for many Chinese.

Lastly, I want to introduce one of the most beautiful songs I know, Zai Yinse De Yueguang Xia (在银色的月光下). This version is by Cai Qin (蔡琴). This is also a minority folk song in China. The song tells a story of a young man who wants to pursue his true love and follow her to wherever she goes.

There are many other Chinese folk songs which incorporate the moon in the atmosphere. The Chinese folk songs are so rich in meaning that you need to spend time savoring it.

Chinese folk songs (Northeast)

“Northeast China” refers geographically to the Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces in China. The area is colder than most other areas in China, and the people there are known for their outgoing and hospitable character.Folk songs in this area reflect the features of the local residents, taking on a wider perspective towards life and an optimistic emotion.

Fishermen’s Song on the River of Wusuli (烏蘇里船歌) sung by Guo Song, is a representative minority song in this area. The song has a flowing melody which resembles the motion of the river. The lyrics talk about the beautiful scenery along the Wusuli River, and expresses the fisherman’s love towards his homeland.The song is adopted from a famous tune in Hezhe Minority in Northeast China. So Chinese people in other areas often find this song “exotic”.

Yue Ya Wu Geng (月牙五更)is more colloquial, with obvious accent and characteristic tunes. The verses of the songs tell four historical stories which happened in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.The song expresses the subtle feelings about the unfortunate events in life.However, the melody is not as sad as the lyrics. The song is easy to sing and popular among the elderly Chinese.

An example of the bright style in this area is Xin Huo Lang (新貨郎).  The song tells a story about a man going to villages to sell various  stuff for daily use, and the lyrics are very descriptive. In the undeveloped China when shops were not common, people in remote places rely on the travelling salesman for all the commodities they need. Other traditional Chinese instruments also help to enhance the festive atmosphere. A lot of the lyrics are said rather than sung, which makes the scene more vivid.

Chinese folk songs (Jiang Nan)

“Jiang Nan (江南)” is a beautiful geographical term in Chinese. A narrow definition of it refers to the Yangtze River Delta, roughly including Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shanghai (more information here). This area is also called “a land flowing with milk and money” (鱼米之乡). The provinces are economically developed, and culturally glamorous.

The folk songs there often incorporate elements of water. There are many lakes in the area. People describes the beautiful scenery and express their gratitude towards life. Tai Hu Mei (太湖美) is a good example. The song was composed in 1978 when China launched the “Reform and Open Up” policy. Jiangsu people feel the economy is taking off and they sing out their gratitude towards the Party. The song is performed in Suzhou dialect.

In the Jiang Nan area, some people collect tea to earn a living. Cai Cha Wu Qu (采茶舞曲) depicts the scene of a girl and a boy collecting tea together. The flowing melody reminds us of the rolling hills and green tea in the horizon. Moreover, we do feel the rigor and passion towards life in the simple yet expressive song. This song is documented by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Association (UNESCO) as one of the best Asia-Pacific folk songs.

Folk songs in this area are highly local, in terms of content and style. A lot are devoted to describe the scenery in a particular city, county, or even village. An example is View of Wuxi City (无锡景). Wuxi is a medium size city in Jiangsu province. The Wuxi dialect adds flavor to the song.

Jiang Nan folk songs are often short and repetitive in melody. It goes well with the gentleness of the Jiangnan landscape.

A typical view of Jiangnan village

Chinese folk songs (Qinghai Hua’er)

Qinghai Province is in Northwest China (map). It has relatively low population density. Most part of the province is plateau, so the people there mainly lives on pasturing animals. The nomadic lifestyle has nurtured their innate love for the nature, which is reflected in the folk songs.

Folk songs in Qinghai are called “Hua’er” (in enligh “flower”). This type of folk songs can also be found in Gansu, Ningxia, and some parts of Xinjiang Province. It originated from Qinghai, though.

The melodies of “Hua’er” vary across different areas. This is one example. “Hua’er” is an essential part of the local lifestyle. People sing it when they go to work, when they farm in the field, and when they look after the herds.

From the songs, we can feel the outgoing and brave characteristics of the herdsman. The lyrics are mostly in minority languages.

There are also love songs in “Hua’er”. A famous example is Hua’er Yu Shao Nian (花儿与少年). The girl describes the scenery of four seasons and expresses her love explicitly. There are many “er”(“儿”)s and “ya”(呀)s in the song, as is in many folk songs from the north part of China. Its simple and elegant melody makes this song popular across the nation.

Chinese folk songs about jasmine flowers

Jasmine is the national flower of The Philippines and the flower stands for purity and eternal love. In China, the fragrant flower symbolizes harmony and elegance. There are at least three Chinese folk songs that are explicitly devoted to jasmine flowers. They differ in their style, melody, and emotion. But they share the gentleness of Chinese folk songs about scenery.

The first one is from Jiangsu Province in southeast China. You can listen to the version by Song Zuying here. The song exalts at the beauty of the jasmine flowers. The girl in the song picks one flower and gives it to her lover. The flower symbolizes the purity of love and the vision of happiness between the two.

The second version is from North China. This version is the best I can find online. The melody resembles the Jiangsu version, but the meaning of the lyrics differs. The girl in this story thinks that there’s no other flower that can rival the jasmine flower. She also wants to pick one flower for herself, but is afraid of the flower keeper. What a cute account of the beauty of the flower!

The third is called June Jasmine. It is a Taiwan folk song. This chorus version takes on a romantic atmosphere. It was sung using Taiwan dialect. The melody is simple yet refreshing.

The jasmine flower fits into the Chinese definition of beauty: elegant and reserved. Its long-lasting fragrance makes it a popular home plant. Perhaps it is the popularity of the jasmine flowers among Chinese people that stimulates composers and writers to creat songs for them.