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The Origin of Modern Chinese Choral Music

the origin of chinese choral music


Chinese traditional music gives people the impression that it has a robust national personality. However, Chinese choral music is different from other kinds of traditional music, it is a hybrid gene. It experienced a strong influence of western choral music from the 1920s, developed over one hundred years, Chinese choral music mixed with the elements both western and eastern.

Keywords: Chinese choral music, western, eastern

Though choral music is an essential part of Chinese higher music education, the earliest choral curriculum in China’s educational institutions only began in the early twentieth century. There is no evidence showing that China has had a choral tradition, only a few choral music elements exist in Chinese folk music.

The Origin of Modern Chinese Choral Music
Ex. 1 Song of Civil Revolution (国民革命歌, Guo Min Ge Min Ge)was published in 1926, based on the melody of Brother John (Frére Jacques)

European music had a strong influence on Chinese musical modernity until the end of the nineteenth century when China fell behind in economic and military development. In the early twentieth century, the new school system was established in China, at the same time, the Chinese school songs (xuetang yuege 学堂乐歌) was the origin of Chinese modern musical education. The majority of songs in Xuetang yuege were based on pre-existing tunes from Japan, Europe, and the United States, that were adapted to newly composed Chinese lyrics. The composers of these songs mostly have a foreign educational background.

The first modern Chinese choral composition “Spring Outing” (春游)created by Hong Yi[1]. This composition is a combination of western compositional techniques and Chinese traditional poetry. Moreover, in the 1920s, Yuen Ren Chao[2] created an oratorio-like work, “Rhythm of the Wave” (海韵), which was considered as the representative composition of early Chinese choral music. This work is a soprano solo, a mixed choir with piano accompaniment. The text was chosen from modern Chinese poetry. The musical features of this composition are unique, the melody of the soprano solo was written in a Chinese pentatonic style, while the texture and harmony of the choral part were in western choral style.

Ex. 2 Hongyi, Spring Outing (春游, Chun You)

In the 1930s, during World War II, most of the choral works in this period had war as the theme. To awaken the national consciousness of the public, many small-scale choral works appeared at that time. Some representative compositions were “Song of the Guerrillas” by He Luting[3], “Song of Resistance to the Enemy” by Huang Tzu[4].

Moreover, Huang Tzu created the first Chinese oratorio “A Song of Immortal Regret” (长恨歌), this work has ten movements and the text was chosen from a poem by Bai Juyi[5].  The composer used a famous Tang Dynasty poem to express the emotion of love for the family and the nation and worries about the fate of the country.

In 1939, “Yellow River Cantata[6] (黄河大合唱)created by Xian Xinghai[7]. This piece was considered a monument of Chinese choral music. The cantata has eight movements, it is meant to be performed by a full western orchestra with some Chinese instruments, and a full SATB choir. Soloists include a bass in the second movement, a tenor and baritone in the fifth, and a soprano in the sixth. There is also a male speaker, who recites various political exhortations at the beginning of each movement. The cantata also could be considered as the most popular repertoire during the history of Chinese choral music, it marks the maturity and peak of Chinese choral composition.

In the 1950s, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, some big cities established professional choirs and followed by a lot of amateur choirs, which promoted the development of choral activities in China. In 1951, a female choral work “Charming Xinjiang” by Liu Zhi Spreaded across the country, which set off a new trend of folk song arrangements. In 1953, a Northern Shaanxi Women’s Choir established in Peking, the composer Wang Weiliang arranged a series of folk song choral music for this choir, and the natural voice and local dialects of the choir garnered them public notice and success. Since then, until today, folk song arrangements have become one of the most important subjects in Chinese choral music.

Since the twenty-first century, Chinese choral music is experiencing a huge development. Not only did the quantities of Chinese choral composition become more, but the styles also become more varied. Some Chinese composers such as Tan Dun and Chen Yi won their reputations on the global stage with their choral compositions. These compositions not only reflect their proficiency in choral music but also mixed with the Chinese traditional musical elements.

Moreover, choral activities become more and more flourished in China. First, the choral commercial performance and concert occupied a large portion of the music market. Some professional choirs such as Shanghai Rainbow Chamber Choir, who has a strong influence on the music market. They even have a huge number of fans same as some popular stars. Second, choral music education become an essential part of the education system, from the elementary school to the college had established their school choirs. In the curriculum system, the choral repertoire shows its diversity includes western and Chinese choral repertoire.

In conclusion, Chinese music has thousands of years of history, but relatively, modern Chinese choral music is a “new” art that only had one hundred years of history. In the present day, Chinese choral music had been connected to the world with its unique features, it blended the cultural and musical barrier of western to the Chinese audience.

The Origin of Modern Chinese Choral Music.


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Lynne Gackle, and C. Victor Fung. “Bringing the East to the West: A Case Study in Teaching Chinese Choral Music to a Youth Choir in the United States.” Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, no. 182 (2009): 65-78.

Yip, Mo-Ling Chan. The Emergence and Development of Chinese Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, 1994.

Yan, Kaisen. “The European Beginnings of Choral Art in China.” Culture of Ukraine, no. 63 (2019): Culture of Ukraine, 2019-03-04 (63).

Leong, Samuel., and Bo Wah. Leung. Creative Arts in Education and Culture Perspectives from Greater China. 1st Ed. 2013. ed. Landscapes: the Arts, Aesthetics, and Education, 13. 2013.

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Tien, Adrian. The Semantics of Chinese Music. Cognitive Linguistic Studies in Cultural Contexts. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2015.


[1] Hong Yi (23 October 1880 – 13 October 1942; Chinese: 弘一; pinyin: Hóngyī, and Chinese: 演音; pinyin: Yǎnyīn), born Li Shutong (李叔同 and 李漱筒) was a Chinese Buddhist monk, artist and art teacher. He also went by the names Wen Tao, Guang Hou, and Shu Tong, but was most commonly known by his Buddhist name, Hong Yi. He was a master painter, musician, dramatist, calligrapher, seal cutter, poet, and Buddhist monk.

[2] Chao Yuen Ren (simplified Chinese: 赵元任; traditional Chinese: 趙元任; pinyin: Zhào Yuánrèn; 3 November 1892 – 25 February 1982), also known as Zhao Yuanren or Yuen Ren Chao was a Chinese-American linguist, educator, scholar, poet, and composer, who contributed to the modern study of Chinese phonology and grammar.

[3] He Luting (traditional: 賀綠汀; simplified: 贺绿汀; pinyin: Hè Lǜtīng; July 20, 1903 – April 27, 1999) was a Chinese composer of the early 20th century.

[4] Huang Tzu (simplified Chinese: 黄自; traditional Chinese: 黃自; pinyin: Huáng Zì; Wade–Giles: Huang Tzu; 23 March 1904 – 9 May 1938), courtesy name Jinwu (Chinese: 今吾; pinyin: Jīnwú; Wade–Giles: Chin-wu), was a Chinese musician of the early 20th century.

[5] Bai Juyi (also Bo Juyi or Po Chü-i; Chinese: 白居易; 772–846), courtesy name Letian (Chinese: 樂天), was a renowned Chinese poet and Tang dynasty government official.

[6] The Yellow River Cantata (Chinese: 黄河大合唱; pinyin: Huánghé Dàhéchàng) is a cantata by Chinese composer Xian Xinghai (1905–1945). Composed in Yan’an in early 1939 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the work was inspired by a patriotic poem by Guang Weiran, which was also adapted as the lyrics. Premiered on April 13 of the same year in the Shanbei Gongxue Hall of Yan’an, the work soon spread to all parts of China.

[7] Xian Xinghai or Sinn Sing Hoi[1] (Chinese: 冼星海; pinyin: Xiǎn Xīnghǎi; Wade–Giles: Hsien Hsing-hai; 13 June 1905 – 30 October 1945) was one of the earliest generation of Chinese composers influenced by western classical music and has influenced generations of Chinese musicians.[2] Xian composed in all the major musical forms (two symphonies, a violin concerto, four large scale choral works, nearly 300 songs and an opera), and is best known for the Yellow River Cantata upon which the Yellow River Concerto for piano and orchestra is based.

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