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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.
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.
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.
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.