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PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal

Taoist music of China in the context of the religious practice of Taoism

Yan Peifan

Lecturer, Music Department, Cangzhou Normal University

061000, China, Hebei Province, Cangzhou, Guofengnan str., 16

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The subject of the research is the music of Chinese Taoism, which was formed as an integral part of religious rituals in Taoist monasteries. In the depths of the ancient culture of Taoist monasticism, a stable system of genres, a stable circle of melodies and a set of ritual instruments has developed. The purpose of the study is to consider Taoist music in the context of the centuries-old spiritual practice of Chinese Taoism. The object of the study is the music that voices the rituals and ceremonies of Taoism as an integral religious system. The ideas of Taoism as a philosophical system are touched upon indirectly. For the first time in Russian-language musicology, a periodization of Taoist musical culture has been developed, two levels of interaction between music and ritual, determined by the type of worship, have been identified and analyzed, varieties of vocal intonation of Taoist prayers have been identified, and the connection between Taoist music and local folklore traditions of China has been substantiated. The main conclusions of the study: in the history of Taoist music, five periods can be distinguished, the change of which is due to the development and complication of the ritual practice of Taoism, the expansion of instruments, the spread of liturgical tunes outside the monasteries; the religious traditions of Taoism predetermined the selection of temple instruments, among which the timbres of percussion and wind instruments predominate; the functioning of music in spiritual rites is determined by the internal (in the monastic circle) or external (in the secular environment) type of ritual; in the musical practice of Chinese Taoism, four types of vocal intonation can be distinguished - chanting, scan, recitation, vocalized speech; Taoist music is closely connected with the folklore culture of various provinces of the country.


Taoism, Taoist music, Chinese traditional culture, Chinese folklore, Tao, emptiness, ritual Taoist music, Taoist chants, music of Taoist monasteries, Taoist prayers

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.

The relevance of the appeal to the Taoist music of China is determined by two growing trends. The first of them is its return to the legal sound space of the country after a ten-year ban during the Cultural revolution. Since 1988, professional Taoist orchestras and ensembles have been created. The first was the "Orchestra of the Temple of White Clouds" created in Beijing in 1988. It was followed by the Hong Kong Taoist Orchestra (1996), the Tianjin Taoist Orchestra (2003), the Shanghai Taoist Orchestra of the Temple of God (2003), the Taoist Orchestra of the Temple of God of Xi'an Province (2005), and then many other ensembles.  They participate in large-scale festivals of Taoist culture, perform outside of China, record audio albums and distribute their creativity via the Internet. In 1990, the "First Week of Taoist Music" was held in Beijing, organized by the Ministry of Culture, the Committee on Religious Affairs and the Institute of Art Studies of the People's Republic of China. In 2008, Taoist music was included in the list of intangible cultural heritage of China. Currently, the collection and systematization of regional musical material has been established. Taoist cultural centers located in different provinces of the country are involved in this work.

The second trend is determined by the increasingly noticeable influence of Taoism on the work of the world's leading composers. In the XX century, John Cage and Isan Yun became the pioneers of this direction. Tan Dun (), Zhou Lun (), Chen Yi (), as well as many young musicians have followed in their footsteps in the XXI century.

According to these trends, research interest in Taoist music is growing. However, in Russia, this growth has not yet led to tangible scientific results. Only two articles are fully devoted to this problem [1; 2], another one is partially [3]. At the same time, modern Russian–language studies of Taoism and traditional Chinese culture contain many references to Taoist music - from contextual references to more or less detailed references. In recent years, materials have also begun to appear on the influence of Taoist ideas on the work of modern composers [4]. Thus, the degree of research of the topic by Russian music science is still low.

In Chinese musicology, the situation is different. A significant amount of research has been devoted to Taoist music. According to the scientist Liu Hong, only from 1957 to 2008, 290 scientific papers (books and articles) were published, of which 274 were in mainland China, and 16 in other countries [5, p. 64]. Even before the Cultural Revolution, considerable field material was collected, and the Taoist music of several regions was described. In the 1980s, the directions of scientific search that are still relevant today were formed: collection, systematization and notation of musical sources; research of the history and genres of local traditions, as well as analysis of specific works.

The history of Taoist music consists of five periods.

1. The preparatory period (XI century BC – I century AD) precedes the formation of Taoism as a religion. There is a primary selection of instruments, traditional melodies and forms of music-making that accompany both the rituals of the Taoists themselves and magical folk rituals. As Long Huayun notes: "the origins of Taoist music lie in shamanic songs and dances of primitive society" [6, p. 28].

2. The early period (II – VI centuries) coincides with the emergence and development of the religion of Taoism. The musical part of the Taoist sacred practice is being formed. According to the Chronicle of the Wei Dynasties, in 415, the influential reformer of Taoism, Kou Qianzhi, met with the Supreme Venerable Lord Lao at the sacred Mount Songshan, gave him "Heavenly Commandments chanted", and also formulated a way of voicing them. According to this method, the texts "Praising China" and "Steps in the Void" were musically performed, which became the first examples of Taoist liturgical music [7]

        3. The mature period (VII – XVII centuries). The instrumentation is expanding: strings and woodwinds are added to the voice and percussion; Taoist music sounds in the palaces of emperors; the first studies appear; an education system is being formed. In particular, the Sung Emperor Huizong at the beginning of the XII century ordered to teach Taoist music to all Taoist monks of the country [3, p. 111]. Her influence extends far beyond the temples: she is mentioned in many poems of the Tang and Song eras, and is gaining great popularity among the people. The corpus of Taoist melodies is actively replenished with folk and even Buddhist and Arabic melodies; music collections are being compiled. The very first was the collection "Precious Words about Worship" () compiled in the era of the Northern Song Dynasty, containing 50 chants recorded in the notation of quyanpu ()). In the era of the Yuan Dynasty, two musical styles were formed, corresponding to the main schools of Taoism Quanzhen and Zhengyi. During the Ming Dynasty, the liturgical musical repertoire of Taoist temples was detailed and standardized.

4. The late period (XVIII century – 1970s). In the Qing era, Taoist music is replenished with many regional traditions by adapting local folklore melodies. There is also a secularization of Taoist music, its release "into the world". In the XX century, due to the persecution of supporters of Taoism, as well as large-scale social upheavals, Chinese Taoist music was in decline until the end of the Cultural Revolution.

5. The modern period (since the 1980s) is characterized by the return of public and state interest in Taoist music. Comprehensive measures are being taken to preserve and popularize it.

Turning to the characteristics of Taoist music, we will make a few preliminary remarks. The first of them relates to the toolkit. It is based on an ensemble of obligatory ritual instruments: muyu wooden block, Ling table bell, cha and dan plates, zhonggu drum, Dizi and Xiao flutes, Sheng mouth organ. The priority of percussion and wind instruments is rooted in Taoist beliefs, according to which the gods preferred these timbres [1, p. 746]. Depending on the scale of the Taoist temple and the type of worship, this series is supplemented with traditional instruments. These are string-bowed erhu and jinghu, string-plucked ruan, yangqin, pipa and sanxian, wind son. The string-plucked qin instrument, widely used in individual Taoist practices, deserves special mention. As the researchers note: "Playing the qin with its special timbre perfectly answered the tasks of regulating the relationship between Heaven and Earth, the contact of ancestral spirits with living people. It was considered by them as a means of spiritual emancipation, the acquisition of harmony with the surrounding world" [8, p. 46].

The second remark concerns the designation of forms of music-making. Taoist music does not have the usual division for Europeans into vocal, instrumental and vocal-instrumental. Any vocal performance is called yunzi ( – "child of melodious sounds"), and any playing on an instrument is called paizi ( – "chant"). Thus, Yunzi and paizi can accompany the Taoist ceremony separately or together.

Exploring the musical design of Taoist worship services, one should pay attention to two levels of interaction between music and ritual. They differ in the degree of its subordination to religious content.

On the inner level, music accompanies the collective prayer of the monks, read during the morning or evening prayer service. In this case, the instrumental ensemble duplicates the vocal melody in unison. The music is characterized by grandeur, regularity, which is emphasized by rhythmic beats of drums and percussion. Tempo changes, the number of drum beats, the movement of the melodic line, etc. are verified. The complete absence of instrumental interludes that can disrupt prayer concentration is characteristic. Thus, drums and percussion regulate the flow of prayer in time, and other instruments amplify the voices of the monks.

Also, music accompanies the sermon of the Taoist priest, that is, complements the scene of the merging of the cosmic and human worlds. This ceremony is characterized by a more lively character, thanks to which musical instruments act freely. Percussion and percussion not only count the meter, but also color the metric canvas with more or less whimsical rhythmic patterns. Melodic instruments duplicate the chant performed by the priest, as well as shade it with undertones and fill in the pauses. If the sermon consists of several parts, the tutti of the ensemble indicates their change. In the sequence of musical fragments, a peculiar dramaturgy of increasing volume and accelerating tempo can be traced.

Music of the second, external level accompanies Taoist rituals conducted outside the temple. One of such rituals – hojiudao ( – "The Tao of fiery Life") is a large-scale action of traditional culture, common in the villages of southern China. Along with singing, hojiudao includes processions, dancing, fireworks, lighting candles and water lanterns. The music of such ceremonies, on the one hand, indirectly correlates with the doctrine of Taoism, since it weakly reveals the meaning of Taoist verses. On the other hand, the musical arrangement of hojiudao is as close as possible to the folklore tradition, as if returning to it. Such rituals help many people who are not ready to observe all the rules and commandments necessary for prayer practice to join Taoism.

The genre appearance of religious music is determined by the internal or external type of Taoist ritual. Internal rituals are divine services performed within the walls of a Taoist temple: liturgy, ordination to the priesthood, a meeting on the occasion of the deity's birthday, etc. External rituals are private events performed at the walls of the temple or in the abbot's house. These include rituals (exorcism of evil spirits, worship of lower deities, funeral rite, prayer service or sermon), as well as healing, divination or spiritualism [9, pp. 203-205].

At the internal, temple rituals, yang verses are vocalized (sung, chanted, pronounced) ( – "male rhymes"). Their addressees are heavenly gods, earth spirits and other transcendent entities. Yang's vocal verses correspond to a genre variety of instrumental music called zhengqiu ( - –main music"). It has a strong religious expression and, like Yang's poems, is intended to be performed specifically for the gods.

The most famous example of Taoist temple music is the chant "Steps in the Void" (""), one of the most significant in the liturgical sense. Its name means the highest goal of the Taoist – spiritual movement to the state of emptiness. Emptiness in the Taoist creed is not the absence of anything, but the detachment of consciousness, in which only the comprehension of Tao is possible. Tao, in turn, is an inactive "absence/non-existence" that gives rise to heaven and earth. At the same time, the tao is the beyond, generating all things "existence/being" [10, pp. 230-231], therefore, the concepts of "emptiness" and "Tao" in Taoism are closely intertwined. In addition, emptiness symbolizes the infinity of space in which the heavenly gods dwell. It is synonymous with absolute purity, untainted by anything mundane. Thus, the footsteps in the void are the footsteps of the gods, which the Taoist must hear. Singing the melody "Steps in the Void" expresses hope for the realization of the Tao, and serves as a kind of material preparation for its comprehension.

The origin of the chant "Steps in the Void" is described in the book "The Garden of Miracles" ("") by the writer Liu Jingshu, who lived in the V century: "The ruler Chen Xi was taking a walk in the mountains, and suddenly heard a clear (literally – "void" ?) sound of the chant, and recorded it, realizing that it was the singing of the immortals. Taoist priests followed his example and called the chant "Steps in the Void" [11, p. 20]. Researchers question the authenticity of this story on the grounds that different tunes have been fixed under this name in the musical usage of different schools of Taoism. Existing today in a variety of melodic variants, the chant "Steps in the Void" remains very significant for all Taoist schools. He voices the ritual of the "Circling of the Heavenly Venerable", during which the Taoists sing around the altar, forming a symbol of the Great Limit. In addition, the text of the "Steps" is read in Taoist temples at the beginning of each evening service. Liu Hong gives the following version of it [11, pp. 20-21].

Fig. 1. "Steps in the void".


At open rituals outside the temple, such as a charity ceremony or food distribution, yin poems ( – "female rhymes") are sung, mainly. They are addressed to all Taoists. The musical basis of yin poems is often the melodies of local folklore adapted to the structure of the verse stanza. The instrumental music of shatsui ( – "game music") corresponds to the verses of yin. It is also based on borrowed and modified melodies of folk tunes. Compared to zhengqiu, shaqiu's music has a more lively character, its melodies are less melodious. The shaqiu does not reveal the nature of the Taoist creed, and therefore the Taoists themselves consider it secondary. Nevertheless, before and during many Taoist rituals held outside the temple, such instrumental music is played. The most popular melodies are "Eternal Joy" (""), "Sichuan Tune" (""), "Snowflakes in the Wind" (""").

Fig. 2. "Eternal joy".


Let's move on to the characteristics of the types of vocal intonation of Taoist prayers. In the religious practice of Taoism, four varieties are used.

1. Chant. In this way, most of the verses of internal rituals are voiced. This type of singing is distinguished by delicacy, melodiousness and lyrical expressiveness. It generates the most beautiful yunzi melodies, which can be called without exaggeration the essence of Taoist music. These tunes sound in the genres of verse (? – "rhyme"), glorification (? – "praise"), challenge (? – "pull, call") or hymn (? – "decisive").  These are, for example, "The Verse of enlightenment", "The Verse of the other world", "The Verse of sorrow", large, small and medium "Glorification", "The Call of the soul of the deceased", "The Call of rain", "The Call of deliverance of children from misfortune", "The Call of deliverance of the elderly from misfortune", large, small and the military "Anthem", and many other melodies. Usually, the chant is accompanied by playing ritual instruments – wind organs and flutes: they have a unique timbre characteristic of Taoist celestial music (Daojia xianyue).

Fig. 3. "The verse of enlightenment".


2. Chanting. In this case, phrases of 4-9 words generate the corresponding intonation patterns. This manner of performance involves small vocal ups and downs, between which the melody "hangs" at the same height, demonstrating the similarity of recitation, and not actually singing or reading. The chant is embodied, for example, in the melody of the veneration of the gods and saints, "The Precious Instruction of Heaven." Taoists sing it at every morning and evening service. The melody of "Precious Instruction" is laconic, does not contain rhythmic variation and melodic chants, the points of chanting are clearly adjusted relative to each other.

Fig. 4. "The precious instruction of Heaven".


3. Recitation. In Taoism, this method of voicing the text is used when reciting mantras. It consists in repeated repetitions of a small motif on the principle of "one word – one sound". For its extreme melodic simplicity, some Taoists call this method "ban-ban-ching".

Fig. 5. "The Mantra of the Golden Light".

4. Vocalized speech. Not being, in the strict sense, singing, this method consists in singing the text, which is facilitated by the tonal nature of the Chinese language. With an intonation pattern, such vocalization vaguely resembles chanting, which sounds in some local traditions of Chinese musical theater. Vocalization of speech is used exclusively in external rituals, such as "The Example of ancestors", "Food donation" and "Charitable assistance".

The main feature of Taoist music should probably be considered proximity to folklore. Although the music of Taoism belongs to the category of "religious", it is firmly rooted in the folk tradition. The whole history of Taoism, which arose and developed in opposition to Confucianism as a "folk religion", testifies to this.

The modern panorama of Taoist music also speaks of a great folklore influence. Thus, the music of the temple "Abode of the Hidden" () in the city of Suzhou echoes the music for wind instruments in the south of Jiangsu province. The Taoist music of Shanghai was strongly influenced by the string and wind music of the right bank of the Yangtze. The Taoist music of Jiulu County in Hebei is close to the Hebei melodies for chuige wind instruments (), and the music of the Xi'an "Temple of God" () is similar to the drum music of Xi'an Province [6, p. 29].

Moreover, folklore influences are found in the strictest parts of Taoist rituals, for example, accompanied by prayer services. The testimony of Liu Hong, who talked with the abbot of the "Temple of the Purple Sky" on Mount Wudangshan, is indicative: "I asked him if the melodies of the verses they sing contain any folk intonations. Abbot La replied, “We don't sing that. What we do is transmitted to us from our Teacher.” In the course of a desk analysis of the verses of morning and evening prayers, we found few exact coincidences between folk songs and Taoist verses. <...> But it is still obvious that some of the melodies of the prayer services are similar to local folklore tunes" [12, p. 42].

So, the musical traditions of Taoism are formed in the depths of its religious practice. Ceremonial music is closely related to the type of worship: temple rituals in Taoist monasteries, aimed at creating a prayer concentration, are markedly different from the spectacular worship outside the walls of the temple for laypeople. Going out into the folk environment determines the proximity of such rituals of folklore tradition. The type of ceremony strictly determines the system of genres and types of vocal intonation. In the process of centuries-old evolution, ritual instruments (mainly brass and percussion) and a stable circle of canonical prayers are being formed, the manner of voicing of which is determined by the text. Summing up the results of the study, we note that if the external appearance of Taoist music is due to its proximity to folklore origins, then its internal content is primarily related to the attitudes of the Taoist creed. Both of these aspects can be the subject of further study.







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The subject of the study, as reflected by the author in the title of the article ("Taoist music of China in the context of the religious practice of Taoism"), is the Taoist music of China, which is characterized by the author based on the traditions of the religious practice of Taoism. Based on the work of colleagues, the author identifies five historical periods of the development of Taoist music in China: 1) The preparatory period (XI century BC – I century AD), 2) The early period (II – VI centuries), 3. The mature period (VII – XVII centuries), 4.) The late period (XVIII century – 1970s), 5. The modern period (from 1980s to the present). According to the reviewer, it is essential to highlight a long "preparatory period" when Taoism was not yet formalized and canonized as a traditional religion, but developed, as should be assumed, simultaneously with other elements of traditional Chinese culture, including folklore musical creativity. In general, although the author does not single out specific milestone events in the history of Chinese culture that led to significant changes in the development of Taoist music, with the exception of a significant change in China's cultural policy in the 1980s, the undertaken periodization generally characterizes important stages in the development of an original musical tradition and corresponds to the dynastic periodization traditional for Chinese historiography. Turning to the essential characteristics of Chinese Taoist music, the author justifiably connects the development of traditional genres of vocal and instrumental music making with Taoist rituals and the function of music in them. The author traced the connection of the forms of melodic intonation organization of the main genres of Taoist music (chanting, chanting, recitation, vocalized speech) with their place and functions of music in ritual and ceremonial practices. It seems appropriate for the author to divide, following the types of ritual and ceremonial practices, the features of the structure of their musical accompaniment into internal and external levels: "At the internal level, music accompanies the collective prayer of monks recited during morning or evening prayer," "Music of the second, external level accompanies Taoist rituals conducted outside the temple." In this division, according to the reviewer, in addition to the ritual and ceremonial functionality, the structure of musical works was also influenced by the acoustic features of music making: in the temple there was a stable acoustic space, the features of which were designed, in some cases, by the architects of temples at the stage of their design; outside the temple, the acoustic space is changeable and unpredictable, which certainly influenced the nature of music making. The author appropriately connects the composition and role of the instrumental ensemble in Taoist music with prayer and ritual practices in which music played not only an accompanying role, but also an important sacral and symbolic one, as in the case of the world's most famous chant "Steps in the Void", the intonation organization of which is due to a complex complex of ethical, aesthetic and religiousphilosophical traditional ideas about the essence of Tao and the way of its cognition. The subject of the study is thus disclosed by the author at a fairly high theoretical level. The research methodology is constructed by the author from the components of comparative historical, biographical and comparative stylistic methods widely used in historical musicology. In general, the research program, although not formally indicated in advance, is clearly visible in the structure of the presentation of the author's thought. Instrumental techniques, as well as illustrations, are used in accordance with the objectives of the study. The author explains the relevance of the appeal to the Taoist music of China by two growing trends. The author associates the first of them (the growing popularity of Taoist music) with its return "to the legal sound space of the country" in the 1980s after a ten-year ban. The second trend, according to the author, "is determined by the increasingly noticeable influence of Taoism on the work of the world's leading composers." Of course, these trends are extremely important, although, according to the reviewer, the gap in Russian musicology noted by the author is no less important, when the internationally recognized value of intangible heritage remains aloof from systematic research. The scientific novelty, which consists, first of all, in the explication into Russian theoretical discourse of a special topic with international resonance and an author's sample from the corpus of special literature, is not in doubt. The author quite reasonably concludes that "ceremonial music is closely related to the type of worship." This conclusion is also valuable for systematic research of Russian medieval musical culture, therefore it reveals possible prospects for further comparative studies of ritual and ceremonial music of various peoples. The overall style of the article is scientific: individual blots are not significant and do not affect the quality of the publication. The structure of the narrative reflects the logic of presenting the results of scientific research. The bibliography sufficiently reveals the problem area of research and is designed in a uniform style. An appeal to opponents is quite appropriate and absolutely correct. The article will undoubtedly arouse the interest of the readership of "PHILHARMONICA. International Music Journal" and may be recommended for publication.
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