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Arts and Culture, Music and Dance

Chinese folk music, foot binding, Tang dynasty, imperial China, professional dancers

The philosopher Confucius saw music and dance as enormously important to keeping society in good order, and both have always had an important role in Confucian practices. The earliest surviving Chinese musical instruments include bronze bells dating from the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties. Complete sets of these bells, as well as some stringed instruments, survive from the Eastern Zhou dynasty, which followed the Western Zhou. In imperial China, the ability to play and appreciate music was a central aspect of high social status. Educated gentlemen were expected to be particularly familiar with the musical repertoire for the qin (ch’in), a long zither plucked with the fingers.

Alongside the music of the educated elite, a rich tradition of folk music developed in China’s towns and villages. This tradition continues to thrive today. Most of this music is instrumental and employs a wide variety of stringed and blown instruments, as well as complex percussion sections of gongs, drums, and cymbals. Chinese folk music varies considerably from region to region. Many urban centers now have both Chinese and Western style musical groups, including symphony orchestras and rock bands.

Until the end of the Tang dynasty, dance was an important form of entertainment for the elite, especially at the imperial court. Men performed vigorous dances with swords, and it was fashionable to watch dances performed by professional dancers imported from other parts of Asia. In the Song period the practice of mutilating women’s feet (known as foot binding) gradually became widespread, and this reduced the role of dance among the upper classes.

Forms of folk dance continued to be practiced in China’s countryside, and in the 20th century China’s Communist government promoted them as part of a new emphasis on popular art forms. Also during the 20th century, originally Western forms of dance, such as ballroom dance and ballet, were introduced to China. Ballroom dance was banned for much of the period after 1949, while ballet was used in the 1960s to create “model” revolutionary ballets, such as The White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women. Since 1976 forms of social dance, such as ballroom and disco, have become popular pastimes at all levels of Chinese society.



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