China Language and Music

By | January 14, 2022


It is customary to distinguish the Chinese language into ‘spoken’ and ‘written’. The spoken Chinese language (Hanyu), used by 97% of the population and distinct from the languages ​​of the 54 recognized national minorities, is classified into 7 main dialect groups, among which the Northern dialect group (beifanghua) formed the basis of the language national. It is monosyllabic, monosyllables are often grouped into bisyllables with a new meaning different from that of the monosyllables that compose them. It is also polytonic: monosyllables can be pronounced in 4 different tones which correspond to different meanings.

The written language, the first examples of which date back to the 5th millennium BC, is uniform throughout the territory, with the exclusion of the languages ​​of recognized national minorities, and is ideographic. It consists of ideograms (or ‘characters’) that are written in regular succession (formerly on vertical lines proceeding from right to left, currently on horizontal lines, from left to right). Among the characters it is recognizable a small part derived from successive stylizations of pictograms or ideograms that directly represent the object or concept they denote. There are about 40,000 ideograms, but most of them are almost never used. For reading newspapers, magazines, modern novels, scholastic works, the knowledge of 8-9000 characters is more than enough. Until the revolution of 1911 the means of written expression was the so-called ‘classical Chinese’ or ‘literary’ (guwen), in 1917 a new means of written expression was sought that better corresponded to the language commonly spoken in most of the country; this new means of written expression, always through ideograms, was called baihua; it mainly presented structures specific to the Beijing dialect, which was affirming itself as a national language (guoyu) as it was spoken by the educated classes of the capital. With the advent of the People’s Republic, when the problem of the linguistic unity of China arose, in 1955 the formulation was reached according to which the common language (putonghua) “has as its base the dialects of the North.

According to calculatorinc, the problem of the phonetic transcription of the Chinese language, and in particular of the Beijing dialect, has been faced by Europeans since the 17th century. and has produced numerous phonetic transcription systems; of these systems, the most widespread in Western Europe was that due to TF Wade, with vowels pronounced in Italian, and consonants pronounced in English. The Chinese have also developed several projects of phonetic alphabets. In 1958 a phonetic alphabet consisting of 26 letters was adopted, all belonging to the Latin alphabet, called Hanyu pinyin fang’an (“phonetic alphabet scheme of the Chinese language”) or, briefly, pinyin; this phonetic alphabet does not replace the characters (for which subsequent writing simplifications are carried out), but is mainly used to annotate the characters phonetically and to spread the common language.


Music appeared in China with the most ancient memories of civilization. Over the centuries, there was a flowering of very refined instrumental and vocal music. The former mainly benefited from the 5 or 7-stringed lute, called qin. Of the vocal music, most belonged to the theatrical genre, and developed into the plays and comedies of the Mongolian period (Yuan dynasty), of which hundreds of librettos with recitatives and sung parts have survived. Important was the modern production from the 16th to the 19th century. in which the music of the plays was accompanied by the flute.

In the theatrical production of the last period, from the middle of the 19th century, new stylistic directions are perceived, where the music took on a more passionate character. The accompaniment is no longer with the flute but with a string instrument. This new theatrical genre was called jinoxi or Peking Theater. From the early 20th century, popular musicians such as Nie Er (1912-1935), Xian Xinghai (1905-1945) and, for opera, Ma Ke (1918-1976), fused elements of Western music with the Chinese tradition.

The basis of Chinese music is the diatonic scale: in 5 degrees determined by fifths (close together as in the series do-re-mi-sol-la) in ancient music and in today’s Southern music; in 7 degrees (analogous to do-re-mi-fa disesis-sol-la-si) from the Zhou era (1066-221 BC) onwards. These scales can be carried on each of the 12 degrees of the semitone scale. The rhythm is almost always binary (or quaternary). The instruments found since ancient times are: bells, sound stones, drums, 5 or 7-stringed lutes (qin) and 25 (shi), 2-pipe flutes (guan), 13 or 19-pipe (sheng), similar to small mouth organs etc.

After the interlude of isolation in the years of the cultural revolution, from the early Eighties the musical life in China has undergone a decisive change of direction, thanks also to the progressive opening to the West. Among the most interesting authors born in the 1950s are Tan Dun (the most famous in the West), Qu Xiaosong and Guo Wenjing. Since the late 1990s there has been a progressive expansion of spaces dedicated to consumer music, in the great international pop and rock trends, with the inauguration, for example, of many websites dedicated to music, a vehicle for communication with bands. youth from the rest of the world.

China Music