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

The 2nd to the 5th centuries

Updated: Feb 9, 2023 Print
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The period between the second and fifth centuries witnessed drastic changes in feudal society. During this time of turmoil, a large number of people from northern China migrated southward to the central part of China, which enabled the music of the various ethnic groups to exchange and integrate extensively. With economic and cultural interactions foreign music also gained popularity in the Central Plains, setting the stage for the prospering and development of music culture in the following Sui and Tang dynasties (581-907).

Buddhism and its music culture spread extensively during this period. Buddhist temples provided places for musical activities, which were recorded in many of the existing Buddhist grotto murals and stone carvings.

The reliefs in the Gongyi Grotto Temple portraying music activities offer precious materials for study of the music culture during the Northern Wei Dynasty. [Photo/IC]
Wind music depicted in the reliefs of the Gongyi Grotto Temple [Photo/IC]

Located in Gongyi, Henan province, the Gongyi Grotto Temple stands at the foot of Dali Mountain. It was founded during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471-499) of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534). The murals and reliefs in the temple portraying music activities are precious historical materials reflecting the music characteristics of the dynasty, a time when Buddhism was highly promoted through images of both celestial and human beings.

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