Locals in Xi’an are working to preserve the art of ancient Tang Dynasty court music. Dating back to the seventh century, this music is said to be comparable to Europe’s Gregorian chants in age, which are “commonly described as the earliest written music”.
Li Kai, a Xi’an local who leads a Tang Dynasty music performance group, is helping to keep the aural memories of this musical era alive. Judging from the dwindling numbers of such Tang Dynasty music ensembles (from 40 in 1950 to just 12 today!), his job is crucial.
During the Tang Dynasty, Xi’an was China’s largest city and a mecca for foreign influences. Tang Dynasty music is said to have a tinge of Western musical conventions. However, the music is still distinctly Chinese, with roots in Confucian ideals of harmony:
Li says that the Tang Dynasty adhered to the Confucian idea that music’s highest function was as a tool of moral education and socialization. It taught people to respect authority and hierarchy, and to cultivate a spirit of composure and moderation.
That means that everyone in the orchestra played the same note at the same time.
“Music emphasized harmony,” Li says. “The myriad sounds were united as one. This united sound was used to promote the emperor’s authority. So while each person played a different instrument and had a different role in society, they all acted according to the same standards and rules.”