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Meet the temple musicians, hear the sounds of ancient China

A "living fossil" of ancient Chinese music – five things you need to know about the art and its dedicated musicians.


Published: 1 Apr 2016

Time taken : <5mins

A handful of musicians dressed in monastic yellow robes perform on string, wind and percussion instruments. The ethereal sounds make up an ancient music form that was first conceived as an amalgamation of court and religious music.

This is the ancient music of Zhihua Temple, an oral tradition that has been passed down 27 generations over 500 years. And this form of music is one of the most unique among the myriad of sacred sounds in 2016's A Tapestry of Sacred Music.

Curious? We tell you why you should experience this art form.

Discover the "living fossil" of ancient Chinese music

In the 1950s, a Zhihua monk discovered an ancient music book at the bottom of a chest. After some investigation, it was confirmed that it was a transcript made in 1694 by a musician-monk, Yang Yongqian. The scores in the book are exactly the same as the music performed today. Having originated in the courts of the Ming Dynasty, this music has remained almost untouched in spite of changes in China’s cultural landscape over 500 years. It therefore gives us a rare glimpse into the history and sounds of ancient China.

Did you know…This music was meant for royalty, not commoners. It was taken from the courts to the temples without the Emperor’s permission by Wang Zhen, the first Ming Dynasty eunuch with power in the court. He ordered that the Zhihua Temple be built in 1443.

Appreciate the art of jing yinyue

The music, often referred to as jing yinyue (Beijing music, a Buddhist genre) has distinctive artistic features, such as an elegant and grand tonal system, and a rich performance style. A slow and steady rhythm builds a tranquil ambience, meant to ease your emotional state and help in meditation.

Meet The Last Generation Temple Musicians 02

Meet the 27th generation of temple musicians

Appreciation for the Beijing music that the temple is known for is waning. Adding to the challenge of preserving its existing repertoire, the lack of successors does not bode well for the future. Owing to the Cultural Revolution in the late '60s and '70s, many Zhihua monks left to resume secular lives following the founding of the People's Republic of China. The temple restructured its policies: students learning the art no longer needed to be monks.

Did you know...The current generation of musicians are not monks, but they are passionate about the art form, and strive to take in more disciples to continue this disappearing tradition.

See ancient instruments come to life

The musicians perform on age-old wind and percussion instruments that were used in the courts. These include the taigu (drums), yunluo (a collection of ten mini-gongs), guanzi (an ancient Chinese oboe with nine holes, popular during the Ming Dynasty), sheng (mouth-blown reed flute) and dizi (traverse flute). Today, the ensemble has downsized from nine to just six.

Did you know…The sheng is used today in Chinese orchestras but the one used by these temple musicians dates back to the Song Dynasty and has only 17 reed pipes.

Hear some of the last 39 pieces of traditional temple music

Out of 300 known pieces of music, less than 50 are transcribed in hand-copied notation books. Each piece is passed down orally, through performance. As traditional notation only sets the “frame” notes, much of the more nuanced supplementary notes called kou (mouth) are required. Of the scores that survived, some include vocal sections that nobody knows how to sing. Today, only 39 pieces are complete enough to be performed.

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