modern Chinese orchestra

The name ‘modern Chinese orchestra’ is a convenient descriptive term to denote a musical organization that has various names in different places: Minzu yuetuan or Minyue tuan (national or folk orchestra) in mainland China, Guoyue tuan (national orchestra) in Taiwan, Zhongyue tuan (Chinese orchestra) in Hong Kong, and Huayue tuan (Chinese orchestra) in Singapore. All these names refer to the same type of orchestra made up of Chinese instruments, but partially formed according to Western orchestral principles that was developed in the twentieth century to represent both traditional and modern Chinese taste and identity. As a result of modernization at the turn of the twentieth century, Western music was introduced to the Chinese public through Christian churches, Western-style military bands and the newly established school system. Intellectuals who were trained in the new music system began to think and hear music in terms of Western intonation and harmony, and came to prefer the standardization of musical instruments as well as large orchestras.
Using the traditional Jiangnan sizhu (Silk and Bamboo ensemble of the lower Yangzi River valley) as a base, the first attempt at such an orchestra took place in Nanjing in 1935. It was the Central Broadcasting Company’s orchestra and only performed on air. The first appearance of such an orchestra on stage in concert form took place in Chongqing in 1942. This was the same orchestra that was moved to Chongqing due to the Sino-Japanese War. The orchestra continued its mission on Taiwan after moving there in 1949. One important step in the formation of the orchestra was the ‘improvement’ of Chinese musical instruments according to Western standards of tuning, range and efficiency. Medium and large instruments were made to accommodate the lower pitch range for Western harmony. From the 1950s on, this new type of orchestra went through numerous transformations in China and Taiwan until it finally reached the form we see and hear today.
Principally based upon the Western classical symphony orchestra that is categorized into strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion, the modern Chinese orchestra is also divided into four sections, namely bowed strings, plucked strings, winds and percussion. The bowed string section that consists of several sizes of erhu (fiddle) type of instruments is the equivalent to the violin family of the West. The plucked string section is unique due to the many lute type of instruments popular in China, for instance the pipa (lute). Yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and zheng (zither), both stringed instruments, are part of this section even though they are played differently. Or they are considered to be independent.
The wind section consists of di (flute), sheng (mouth-organ), suona (oboe), etc. The percussion consists of many gongs, cymbals and drums (see luogu). In recent practice, some Western instruments such as timpani and harp, have been included. In fact, cello and double bass have replaced the larger-sized Chinese fiddles for their better intonation and volume. The high bowed string is subdivided into two sections and the first erhu player is the concertmaster. Finally, a conductor is essential. This type of orchestra can be encountered in all urban areas including overseas Chinese communities. Unlike traditional folk ensembles whose function is for gatherings of musical friends or to accompany seasonal activities, the modern Chinese orchestra is for concert performance, just like its counterpart in the West.
Han Kuo-Huang (1979). ‘The Modern Chinese Orchestra’. Asian Music 11.1:1–40.
Thrasher, Alan R. (2000). Chinese Musical Instruments. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
——(2002). ‘The Introduction of Western Music in Modern Times’. In Robert C.Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru and J.Lawrence Witzleben (eds), The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 7:373–8.
Witzleben, J.Lawrence (1995). Silk and Bamboo Music in Shanghai. Kent: Kent State University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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