Northern Song Music

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Development of Chinese music during the Northern Song Dynasty

General information

Author Wiki Users
English title Northern Song Music
Date of publication

Entities mentioned

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Geographical span of this epoch

China Northern.jpg

Development of art in general

Three young boys sit and watch as a fourth boy dangles puppets from behind a small booth set up in a garden.
"A Children's Puppet Show" (傀儡婴戏图轴), a painting by Liu Songnian (刘松年 1174–1224 AD)

The Northern Song Dynasty lasted from 1 Jan 960 to 1127.

Theatre and drama in China trace their roots back to the academy of music known as the Pear Garden, founded in the early 8th century during the Tang Dynasty. However, historian Stephen H. West asserts that the Northern Song era capital Kaifeng was the first real center where the performing arts became "an industry, a conglomerate involving theatre, gambling, prostitution, and food."[1] The rise in consumption by merchants and scholar-officials, he states, "accelerated the growth of both the performance and the food industries," asserting a direct link between the two due to their close proximity within the cities.[2] Of the fifty some theatres located in the 'pleasure districts' of Kaifeng, four of these theatres were large enough to entertain audiences of several thousand each, drawing huge crowds which nearby businesses thrived upon.[3] The chief crowd that gathered was composed of those from the merchant class, while government officials only went to restaurants and attended theatre performances during holidays.[4]

From Kaifeng, the zaju dramatic style employed the beiqu style of poetic lyrics.[1] After the capital had shifted to Hangzhou, the dramatic style of xiwen (also nanxi or nanqu) developed separately.[5] These two different regional genres of musical drama used different regional dialects of speech, recitation, and dialogue, entailed their own unique sets of role types (juese), and employed different types of musical instruments playing different tunes.[6] In Kaifeng drama, one singer was preferred for each play, accompanied by string and percussion instruments.[6] In Hangzhou drama, there was a multitude of singers on stage for each set, while string and wind instruments were preferred.[6]

Color and clothing distinguished the rank of theatre actors in the Song.[7] Similar to vendors who wore specific outfits to identify which guild they belonged to, actors' generic costumes reflected the role type they played on stage, whether it be student, young man, young woman, official, soldier, etc.[8] Actors honed their theatrical skills at drama schools.[7] Musicians also found work in the theatre industry, since plays performed in the markets were often accompanied by music.[7] Actors on stage always spoke their lines in Classical Chinese; vernacular Chinese that imitated the common spoken language was not introduced into theatrical performances until the Yuan Dynasty.[9] Although trained to speak in the erudite Classical language, acting troupes commonly drew their membership from one of the lowest classes in society: prostitutes.[10] Themes enjoyed in stage skits varied from satires about corrupt officials to comedy acts with titles like "Setting fire when delivering the soup," "Raising a ruckus in the winehouse," "The peony smells best when the wine is stolen," and "Catching a monkey in a restaurant."[11][12] The only xiwen play to have survived from the Southern Song era is the Zhang Xie zhuang yuan (张協狀元), featuring interludes such as a clown stealing food and wine at a wedding banquet in act 16 and a quick comedy sketch about renting a room in act 24.[13]

Surprisingly, actors on stage did not have a wholesale monopoly on theatrical entertainment, as even vendors and peddlers in the street, singing lewd songs and beating on whatever they could find to compensate for percussion instruments, could draw crowds.[14] This practice was so widespread that West claims "the city itself was turned into a stage and the citizens into the essential audience."[15] Many of the songs played for stage performances were tunes that originated from vendors' and peddlers' songs.[16] Contests were held on New Year's Day to determine which vendor or peddler had the best chants and songs while selling wares; the winners were brought before the imperial court to perform.[15] The Wulin jiushi of the Southern Song states that these vendors, when presented to the consorts and concubines of the palace, were lavished with heaps of gold and pearls for their wares; some vendors would "become rich in a single evening."[8] Theatrical stunts were also performed to gain attention, such as fried-glutinous-rice-ball vendors hanging small red lamps on portable bamboo racks who would twirl them around to the beat of a drum to dazzle crowds.[17] Puppet shows in the streets and wards were also popular.[8]

Important milestones in Chinese music development

The Finest Blossoms in the Garden of Literature (Chinese: 文苑英華; pinyin: Wényuàn Yīnghuá) is an anthology of poetry, odes, songs and writings from the Liang Dynasty to the Five Dynasties era. The book was compiled by a team of officers headed by Li Fang under an imperial order from 982 to 986, during the Song Dynasty. It is divided in to 1,000 volumes and 38 genus by sections with 19,102 pieces of works written by about 2,200 authors, much of the crucial compilation of the writings came from the Tang scholars.

In 1105, an encyclopedic work on music called Yuè Shū (樂書; literally "book of music") was written by the music theorist Chen Yang (陳暘).

Further information

General information

Books on this topic

  • Gernet, Jacques (1962). Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250–1276. Translated by H. M. Wright. Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-0720-0
  • Rossabi, Morris (1988). Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-05913-1.
  • West, Stephen H. "Playing With Food: Performance, Food, and The Aesthetics of Artificiality in The Sung and Yuan," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (Volume 57, Number 1, 1997): 67–106.


  1. 1.0 1.1 West, 69.
  2. West, 69 & 74.
  3. West, 76.
  4. West, 98.
  5. West, 69–70.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 West, 70.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Gernet, 223.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 West, 87.
  9. Rossabi, 162.
  10. West, 72.
  11. West, 78–79.
  12. Gernet, 224.
  13. West, 79.
  14. West, 83–85
  15. 15.0 15.1 West, 85.
  16. West, 91.
  17. West, 86.