Unearthing China's Informal Musicians: An Archaeological and Textual Study of the Shang to Tang Periods

By Furniss, Ingrid | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Unearthing China's Informal Musicians: An Archaeological and Textual Study of the Shang to Tang Periods


Furniss, Ingrid, Yearbook for Traditional Music


In the past three decades, the study of music in ancient China has expanded significantly with the discovery of numerous tombs containing musical instruments. These finds have revealed substantial information about ancient music theory and organology. One issue that has remained on the periphery, however, is the study of the musicians themselves. From the Eastern Zhou (770-221 BCE) to Tang (618-907 CE) periods, musicians fell broadly into three groups: (1) formal musicians who performed for important ritual occasions and state sacrifices; (2) informal musicians who provided entertainment for banquets and other less formal occasions; and (3) military musicians who performed in processions.1 Formal musicians generally specialized in yayue (refined music), the official music of the royal Zhou court.2 Yayue continued to be played in formal ritual settings at court long after the Zhou period. Informal and military musicians specialized in less traditional forms of music, such as suyue ("popular" or "folk" music) and foreign music.3 Formal and informal musicians appear in the archaeological record as early as Eastern Zhou, while military musicians appear slightly later in the Han. Of these three groups, informal musicians appear to have been most popular among elite audiences, especially between the Han (206 BCE-229 CE) and Tang periods. These musicians were often paired with lively dancers, acrobats, sword-swallowers, and jesters, indicating the entertainment-rather than formal-nature of the music they performed. As demonstrated by sculptural works and mural paintings excavated from Han through Tang tombs, the most common types of musicians outside the more formal music sectors at court were foreigners, dwarfs, idealized women, and scholarly recluses. This paper will focus on archaeological and textual evidence for the existence of these informal musicians as early as Shang (c. 1570-1070 BCE) and Eastern Zhou, and the rising popularity of such performers in the period from Han to Tang. I hope to show that the very social marginality of informal musicians is exactly what enhanced their exoticism and popular appeal among their elite audiences.

Musicians prior to Han

Although there is little archaeological evidence from the Shang period to aid us in reconstructing the identities of musicians, textual records from the Zhou and Han occasionally describe Shang music and the cultural and social excesses, such as drinking and sexual debauchery, that accompanied it.4 The final Shang king, Zhou Xin-who Han historians accused of losing the "mandate of heaven" because of his excesses-is described in the following passage in the Shi Ji (Records of the grand historian):

He loved wine and licentious music, and devoted himself to his concubines ... Thus he had Shi Zhuan create new and depraved sounds, the "Northern Suburb" dance, and the "Fluttering Earthwards" music ... He assembled a large company of musicians and actors at the Shaqiu Garden, filling a pond with wine and hanging up meats to make a forest; he caused men and women to disrobe and pursue each other through this scenery, as part of a drinking feast lasting long into the night. (Major and So 2000:26)

This passage, written by a Han historian nearly a millennium after the Shang, is probably reflective more of the biases of the Han than of real musical practice. However, there is some interesting information that we can draw from this. First is the association between women and licentiousness, an issue I will explore below. Of equal importance is the reference to a specific Shang music master, Shi Zhuan. The names of Chinese music masters appear frequently in the Zhou and Han textual tradition, pointing to the high prestige of music during this time. As David Schaberg notes,

Both because of music's rhetorical possibilities and because of the status accorded to musical skills in the societies that produced the texts, officials with musical duties are remarkable characters in historiography. …

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