Melodies from the depths of history: Musical heritages from ancient China

Tang Dynasty (618-907)

Updated: Feb 9, 2023 Print
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The music of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) formed a brand-new style by integrating court music from former dynasties and folk music from the central part of China, the western regions and ethnic groups dwelling in peripheral areas. It reached a new peak of music culture in Chinese history.

The guqin music in the Tang Dynasty advanced considerably, marked by the perfection of notation and the formation of genres. Zhao Yeli and Cao Rou had successively improved the written music score since the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and developed the so-called "the score of reduced characters". It accurately recorded changes in pitch and timbre without the strict rules of rhythm.

Tang Dynasty guqin, with the name “Jiuxiao Huanpei” (Enchanting jingles of jade pendants from the highest heavens)


The front and reverse of the guqin “Jiuxiao Huanpei”, from the permanent collection of the Palace Museum [Photo/Official website of Palace Museum]

Literally meaning “Enchanting jingles of jade pendants from the highest heaven”, this guqin was made during the Tang Dynasty for the imperial household. It is made of platane wood and cedar and has a length of 124 centimeters. Both of its sound holes are oblate with a humped sound absorber.

The Tang Dynasty guqin “Caifeng Mingqi” is kept at the Zhejiang Provincial Museum. [Photo/Official website of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum]

Another cherished example of the guqin from the Tang Dynasty, the Caifeng Mingqi guqin, has a vermilion lacquer coating on the surface and rectangle sound holes. The body of the guqin is thick and the back penal is slightly convex. During manufacturing, it was firstly wrapped with burlap, then coated with a layer of antler ash and finally painted with lacquer. This made its sound more resonant and melodious.

Tricolor-glazed pottery camel carrying musicians, Tang Dynasty

This tricolor-glazed pottery camel carrying musicians was unearthed from the tomb of Xiayu Tinghui in Xi’an. [Photo/Official website of National Museum of China]

During the Tang Dynasty, many musicians and dancers from Central Asia lived in the capital city where they introduced fresh musical styles and instruments, as exemplified by this tricolor-glazed pottery work unearthed from the tomb of Xiayu Tinghui, a military general, in 1957. The camel stands tall and carries five male performers. Besides the dancer from the west regions in the middle, there are four musicians sitting around and playing instruments, including a pipa, a bili (a double-reed woodwind) and drums that are all from the western regions. With vivid shapes and bright color, the work represents the highest level of craftsmanship of tricolor polychrome lead-glazed decorated Tang dynasty pottery.


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