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Chinese Music
10 Chinese Classics

These are considered to be the ten best-known ancient Chinese melodies

These melodies are the ones ordinary Chinese people regard as being their musical and cultural heritage. Some are very ancient and over 2, 000 years old. Others are more modern, and by that we mean they became popular over the last 300 years.

All the pieces are instrumental only, and some of the sounds may be alien to Western ears. To help introduce you to these instruments we have recommended a couple of tracks to get you started - Enjoy!


Gao Shan Liu Shui (5.08)

Image: Guqin

Meaning: High mountains and flowing water.

Legend goes that Guqin master Bo Ya was playing the instrument in the wilderness, and the woodman Zhong Ziqi understood that his music was describing the "high mountains and flowing water." Bo Ya was surprised, and said, "my heart echoes in yours," They became very good friends, and when Ziqi later died, Bo Ya was devastated because of losing one who could really understand what was in his mind by listening to his music. He broke the instrument, and never played again in his life. The Chinese word Zhi Yin (confidant), literally meaning knowing the voice, also originated from this story.

This tune is considered to be a masterpiece of Guzheng music. However this is the Guqin version as it would have originally been played.

Ping Sha Luo Yan (7.15)

Image: Guqin

Meaning: Peaceful dessert is beautiful to see

Ping Sha Luo Yan describes a sandy dessert scene that is peaceful and calm, with the horizon being a long way away. Up above a flock of Geese are flying and singing in the wind as they prepare to land. The writer compares the freedom of these geese to the life of a hermit, and his desire to be as free as the birds he is watching

Although this tune is relatively new at a mere 300 years old, it is the most prevailing Guqin melody and is often played today. Its popularity owes much to its novel and unique expressive methods, which make the tune easier for common audience to understand.

Recommended for first time listeners

Mei Hua San Nong (7.15)

Image: Guqin

Meaning: The beautiful language of three riffs as overtones

There are three overtones that are repeated on three different sections of the Guqin instrument, hence the name of Mei Hua San Nong (three overtones of the same riff).

By playing of the pureness, fragrance, pride and fortitude that each riff represents, this tune praises people of great nobility and high ethics. Later it reflects the industry of managers, officials, and entrepreneurs; whilst finally coming to rest with the common working people.

The first part is relatively slow and relaxed, demonstrating the composure and static beauty of the flower; while later is more rapid and hurried, depicting the tenacity of the plant. The violent contrast between these two parts adds to the attractiveness of the tune; as represented by the roots - or common people upon whom all else is founded.

Shi Mian Mai Fu (7.11)

Image: Pipa - Click to Enlarge

Meaning: Ambushes on all Sides.

Shi Mian Mai Fu, or ambushes on all sides, is a large-scale Pipa tune based on a historical story. There is still no agreement about when the tune was composed, but historical records show that it should be no later than the Tang Dynasty more than 1,000 years ago.

Ambushes on all sides describe the Gaixia War in 202 BC, in which Xiang Yu’s army fell into the repeated ambushes of Liu Bang’s troops. Xiang Yu, who was defeated and killed himself, was still considered as a hero by many. This tune is a representative of Pipa songs.

Xi Yang Xiao Gu (7.48)

Image: Pipa - Click to Enlarge

Meaning: Desolate Drum at Sunset

The name of Xi Yang Xiao Gu literally means "desolate drum at the sunset," yet it is a representative ancient Pipa melody.

The tune was adopted and renamed to "the moon night of spring river and flowers" around 1925 by Shanghai Datong Music Society, which integrates various static and moving scenes, contributing to the colorfulness of the music. The poetic landscape expressed in this acoustic way usually fascinates the listeners.

Yu Qiao Wen Da (9.27)

Image: Guqin

Meaning: Discourse between a fisherman and an woodman.

There are more than 30 versions of this tune, and some of them even came with lyrics. The current music score is from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The music describes the dialogue between the two, as a Question and Answer, in which a rising tone indicates a question, whilst a falling tone an answer.

By depicting the joyful integration of the fisherman and woodman with nature in a beautiful country scene, the tune expresses its disdain about pursuing fame and money in the hustling and bustling world.

Recommended for those still trying to understand the attraction of the Guqin. This recording displays typically classical Guqin techniques presented in a more modern way.

Hu Jia Shi Ba Pai (8.52)

Image: Suona - Click to Enlarge

Meaning: 18 Songs of a Reed Pipe

Hu Jia Shi Ba Pai means eighteen songs of a nomad reed pipe, which was composed on the basis of the poem with the same name. Hu Jia is a kind of reed pipe popular among the nomadic people in ancient Northern China, and was used in the army to boost the morale since it's very loud.

Hu Jia Shi Ba Pai tells the famous story of Cai Wenji's return to the Han kingdom. Social unrest forced Cai to marry a king of the nomadic Huns in the North at the end of the Han Dynasty, but she missed her hometown in the Central Plain every single day. Finally she got a chance to go back 12 years later, but by then she was already a mother of two. The ecstasy of being able to go back to the hometown was extinguished by the pain of having to leave her children. The music delicately expresses her mixed feelings at this moment.

Han Gong Qiu Yue

Image: Erhu - Click to Enlarge

Meaning: Autumn moon in the palace in the Han Dynasty.

This is another very famous tune. We are pleased to bring you three versions of this tune. There are respectively:

Guzheng (4.39)
Erhu (6.58)
Pipa (7.32)
The music reveals the bitterness and grief of the young maids in the palace, stirring people's sympathy towards the misfortune and loneliness of the girls. The Guzheng tune applies many playing techniques and emits a classic beauty, and Erhu edition makes a number of intentional pauses and a number of complex skills are also used to intensify its artistic inspiration.

Yang Chun Bai Xue (3.21)

Image: Pipa

Meaning: Spring sun on white snow

The tune also denotes highbrow art and literature of the day.

There is a story saying that in the Chu State (Before 1070 BC to 223 BC) when a singer was singing the song for the rustic poor, there were tens of thousands of followers in the state, but when the singer sang Yang Chun Bai Xue later, there were only a few people singing along. The word Yang Chun Bai Xue has had the meaning of highbrow art that very few people can understand it.

The music has been edited by celebrities throughout history, and its structure has been tighter and much easier to understand, suiting both refined and popular tastes.

Guang Ling San (22.30)

Image: Ji Kang

Meaning: The tune prevailing in Guangling area (Today’s Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province).

The theme based on a story from the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty (475 to 221 BC). A craftsman manufacturing sword was killed by a Han Monarch because he did not meet the due date of producing a desired sword for the Emperor.

Nie Zheng, the craftsman’s son, first disguised himself as a bricklayer to get into the palace to extract revenge, but his efforts were in vain. He then became a hermit in the mountains and practice the Guqin, even then an ancient music instrument. Ten years later he became the best Guqin master in the country. The Emperor summoned him to play in the palace. Nie killed the monarch whilst he was playing, and he himself was killed in turn.

This Guqin tune was composed by later generations and based upon this story. This figure in the picture is Ji Kang, a famous writer who also played this tune.


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