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Han Dynasty Music: A Han-Dy Guide

Ian Kiu, Wikimedia Commons,  A map depicting the land under Han Dynasty control.,  28 January 2008

Ian Kiu, Wikimedia Commons, A map depicting the land under Han Dynasty control., 28 January 2008


The Han Dynasty is famous for its many contributions towards the Arts, especially in the field of music. It is in stark contrast to the Qin Dynasty, in which the infamous “Burning of the Books” and “Burying of Scholars” occurred, resulting in the loss of many sources of knowledge. However, the Han Dynasty did set out to change all that - and change all that they did. Music experienced a rise in popularity during the Han Dynasty, following its fall from grace during the Qin Dynasty, as a result of a return to Confucianism. As such, music was of vital importance during the Han Dynasty. It impacted court rituals and ceremonies, war customs and entertainment, and the spread of musical instruments out of China, as well as subsequently impacting modern music and it’s instruments.

Some Background Info…

Anonymous Qing dynasty artist, Wikimedia Commons,  A portrait of Qin Shi Huangdi, from an album of Chinese emperor portraits. , 18th century.

Anonymous Qing dynasty artist, Wikimedia Commons, A portrait of Qin Shi Huangdi, from an album of Chinese emperor portraits., 18th century.

In order to make sense of how important Music during the Han Dynasty was, we would have to first take a look at what transpired during the preceding Qin Dynasty. Specifically, the events that are now known as the Burning of the Books” and “Burying of Scholars, which took place in 213 BCE. While many people think that it was Qin Shi-Huang who came up with the idea to destroy the books, the actual mastermind was his Grand Councillor, Li Ssu. Li Ssu requested that Qin Shi-Huang approve the destruction of all official records and documents from the Hundred Schools of Thought prior to the Qin Dynasty, with the exception of documents regarding medicine, pharmacy, divination, agriculture and arboriculture. However, there are individuals who contest the actual occurrence of such an event, such as the scholar Michel Nylan. In his book “The Five ‘Confucian” Classics”, he speculates that it was the Han Dynasty that slandered the Qin Dynasty with such accusations.

Artist unknown, Wikimedia Commons,  A picture of Li Ssu ., Date of access: April 2018

Artist unknown, Wikimedia Commons, A picture of Li Ssu., Date of access: April 2018

In addition, Li Ssu specifically mentioned that those who discuss or harbour such documents was punished with capital punishment and forced labour respectively, which resulted in the “Burying of Scholars”, presumably because we believe that the scholars were dissatisfied with the Qin Dynasty and also couldn’t keep their mouths shut. This event has also been widely debated, with not much evidence that it happened apart from personal accounts by various scholars at the time (which could be biased).

Li Ssu’s ultimate aim for doing so was to cement political unity and stability. However, this resulted in the loss of many important sources of information that have regrettably never been fully recovered. There was, however, a strong effort during the Han Dynasty to recover such resources and practices. As such, music in the Han Dynasty can be seen to be an important agent in the restoration of such sources of knowledge.

Influence of Confucianism

So, what is it that influenced the Han Dynasty to place such emphasis on music? As it turns out, when China transitioned from the Qin to the Han Dynasty, Confucianism experienced a rise in popularity. This would probably be due to the attempts by the Han Dynasty to restore Confucianism, as well as various other schools of thought, whose written records and texts would have been destroyed as a result of the “Burning of the Books” and the “Burying of Scholars”. One example of the destroyed texts was the Confucian classic Shi-Jing (“Book of Poetry” otherwise also known as the “Book of Songs”).

Encyclopedia Britannica,  Confucius, gouache on paper , c. 1770

Encyclopedia Britannica, Confucius, gouache on paper, c. 1770

Given the rise of Confucianism, restoration and creation of music seemed the next logical step, as Confucius emphasized that music was something that was vital in a person’s education. In 8.8 of the Analects, Confucius instructs that in order to cultivate oneself in a virtuous way, one has “to rouse oneself with poetry, to establish oneself with rituals, and to accomplish oneself with music”. Here, we can see that music has established itself as one of three ways in which one can engage in self-development. However, music is also a vital cog in both poetry, such as in the Shi-Jing, as well as in rituals (which will be further explored later on). Here, we can see what exactly it was that drove the Han Dynasty to place so much particular emphasis on music.

Bjoertvedt, Wikimedia Commons,  The Analects of Confucius , 24 November 2010

Bjoertvedt, Wikimedia Commons, The Analects of Confucius, 24 November 2010

認識古書, Wikimedia Commons,  Illustrated Edition of the Shi Jing , Date of access: April 2018

認識古書, Wikimedia Commons, Illustrated Edition of the Shi Jing, Date of access: April 2018

The Music Bureau (Yueh-Fu)

In order to highlight how much the Han Dynasty emphasized the importance of music, we would have to look at their establishment of a Music Bureau, otherwise known as Yueh-Fu. What the Yueh-Fu essentially did was gather, organize, create and even re-enact certain musical pieces or performances. These pieces of music were often then subject to reinterpretation as well as replication over the years. These pieces of music were also collected from the perspectives of the various peoples with differing roles in Han Dynasty society. It seems that many of these pieces were passed on via oral transmission, usually due to the fact that written copies would have most likely been destroyed during the Qin Dynasty. Many of these collected songs would later on be came to known as “Yueh-Fu Songs”, in reference to the Music Bureau that collected as well as ensured the revival and survivability of these songs.

One way in which we think this is important, is that the Yueh-Fu, or Music Bureau, seems to bear a great resemblance to our modern-day music conservatories. Indeed, given that the original Music Bureau remained in operation until 1914, it would seem logical that the concept of the Music Bureau served as an influence for the many music conservatories that we see today. Here, we can see one way in which Han Dynasty music has had a long-lasting impact on history, with its influence on the concept of music conservation.

Court Rituals and Ceremonies

Having explored the concept of music conservation in the Han Dynasty, the next logical step would be to explore the concept of music transmission (which we touched on lightly while discussing music conservation). During the Han Dynasty, music was incorporated in the rituals and customs of the court, which marked the beginnings of a court music system that would later be used in the Tang dynasty: the Yuebu. In fact, the system is one that reflected the history and culture of Chinese music, which stemmed from the Han dynasty all the way to the early Tang dynasty, and lasted for a total of more than 300 years.

During this period, from the Han dynasty to the Tang dynasty, traditional Chinese music was passed down, via the training of musicians and transmission of the musical culture within the royal family. Because the Yuebu was an official court musical organisation, it set the model for classical Chinese music and played an active role in shaping Chinese music from the Han dynasty onwards. It contributed to the accumulation of musical knowledge, skills and practices from the Han dynasty to the Tang dynasty. However, it was a system that was based on the ideas that music education and transmission was limited within families, thus it lacked any external influences outside of familial circles.

The musicians and instruments were of equal importance, and both had to work together for the system to be fully functioning. Only then would the Yuebu be deemed as truly carrying the tradition of court ritual-ceremonial music, and it has held a crucial place in the history of Chinese music, ever since its inception.

War Customs and Entertainment

Philg88, Wikimedia Commons,  China during the Warring States Period.  27 October 2010

Philg88, Wikimedia Commons, China during the Warring States Period. 27 October 2010

Besides the role music has in the rituals and ceremonies of the Han dynasty court, music has great significance in Han dynasty war customs and entertainment. We are all familiar with epic soundtracks that play in films and movies depicting war. This culture in which “battle music” is created to accompany military might was already practiced in Western Han dynasty, with a performance form called Juedixi.

Dedicated to the martial arts, Wu (the Chinese term for martial arts), the Juedixi was usually held during the autumn and winter seasons. The emperor, Wudi, decided to employ it as a military stratagem to intimidate and control the nomadic opponents of the Han. He also used it to impress local and foreign dignitaries, who came at great expense, even while he waged war at China’s frontier. Juedixi would often be accompanied by sports and theatre, which work together with the military display to create a powerful political impact.

Artist Unknown,  Emperor Wu, responsible for using Juedixi as a military strategem ., Date of access: April 2018

Artist Unknown, Emperor Wu, responsible for using Juedixi as a military strategem., Date of access: April 2018

In fact, Juedixi was derived from a martial rite called Jueli, which were competitive performances organized throughout the Warring States period. Displays of martial skill in weaponry and combat were the features of Jueli. Since then, this form gradually evolved to include more non-martial displays, with the addition of song and dance, acrobatics, stunning technical effects and magic performances. This resulted in a magnificent spectacle that is the Juedixi.

Considered a state martial rite, Juedixi had significance for the state: if the rite ceased to exist, the state would fall. Thus, one can see how a form of entertainment, encompassing music, martial arts and dance and other forms of performances can mean so much for a state, military-wise and politically, in this case Western Han China.

Music Travels Through The Silk Road

Map by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Derivative work by Splette, Wikimedia Commons,  The routes on the Silk Road , 27 May 2010

Map by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Derivative work by Splette, Wikimedia Commons, The routes on the Silk Road, 27 May 2010

Another way of looking at the great influence of music on the culture of Han China is to look at the activity on the Silk Road. The Silk Road was first established during the Han Dynasty, linking many different parts of the Ancient World from 130 BCE. Among the ongoing trade of other valuables and commodities, instruments and music were part of a culture trade that occurred within the many countries using the Road.

It’s not very surprising to hear that music played a central part in expeditions on the Silk Road, if not least as a form of entertainment. It was most likely also of interest due to the novelty of hearing different forms of music. Though from different parts of the world, many instruments we know now have many similarities, indicative of a shared history. For instance, there are a number of stringed instruments with names with the root “tar” ("string" in Persian), from the tar itself to the dotar, dutar, lotar, setar, sitar, qitar, guitarra, and the guitar. While not integral to music within the Han Dynasty, this showed that the musical instruments of the Han Dynasty had some influences, or at the very least, possessed a shared history with the musical instruments of other civilisations.

In fact, it appears that some types of instruments were flexible and adaptable enough to be used in different music styles, to the point that instruments from other cultures spread and were incorporated into each individual culture. For China, some instruments that have been implemented into the Chinese orchestras have roots in other cultures. The sheng is a reed-pipe organ that is thought to have originated from southern China and was incorporated into Chinese orchestral music by 5th century BCE. From even further away, the ud is a Middle Eastern instrument that is a short-neck string instrument. The round-backed ud was transformed into the flat-backed pipa in China, and even migrated further West to become known as the lute. In fact, instruments such as the sheng and pipa remain significant instrumental components even in modern-day Chinese orchestras.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons,  A Ming-dynasty pipa ., Date of access: April 2018

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons, A Ming-dynasty pipa., Date of access: April 2018

Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons,  The Middle-Eastern Oud, for comparison. , 31 May 2014

Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons, The Middle-Eastern Oud, for comparison., 31 May 2014


In conclusion, music has had significant roots across various domains in Han China from religion and culture to military tactics. Music was an integral component in a myriad of practices and circumstances during the time which helps paint a mental picture of the past for people in the present, thus helping to illuminate certain aspects of Han China. It is a shame that part of the arts did not stand the test of time due to underlying factors, such as high illiteracy rates, which presented a problem in passing down information, especially at a time when China needed them (as a result of the loss of knowledge by the actions of the Qin Dynasty). Although the Yueh-Fu was established during the era of the Han, transmission of music comprised only of those who were from the upper class, but nonetheless, the initiative of the Yueh-Fu birthed the concept of what would eventually become music conservation.

Apart from the applications and ways in which music had been used during the Han dynasty, musical instruments themselves also comprised a part of the economical exchange, especially with the market for them on the Silk Road. In short, music has had a profound influence on the Han dynasty and it should not be overlooked as a subject of study because of the insights it has to offer on the thought processes and the life of the people of that time, as well as the various impacts that it had and still has, on civilisations after it.


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