A Brief History of the Music Research Institute, China Academy of Arts

When the doors of The Music Research Institute, China Academy of Arts (at that time known as the National and Folk Research Institute of the Central Conservatory of Music) officially opened on March 27, 1954, its stated aims were to ‘unite outstanding folk artists from China’s minorities and experts in ancient Chinese music,’ and ‘excavate China’s musical heritage’. Two directors were appointed, Yang Yinliu (1899-1984) and Li Yuanqing (1914-1979).

Yang, considered by many to be the doyen of (ethno)musicology in China, supervised a number of major recording projects from the early 1950s onwards. These included recordings performed by Hua Yanjun (Abing) in the summer of 1950, recordings of music at the Zhihua Buddhist temple in Beijing, November 1952-March 1953, and recordings of Shifan luogu and chuidaqu in Wuxi in December 1962. Yang also led an army of musicologists to Hunan province covering a period of almost three months from April 25-July 7, 1956.

The founding of Chinese Traditional Music Sound Archive was a subsequent result of the many recordings made during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the fieldwork accomplished during these years set in place a strong foundation and working base for a new generation of musicologists in China.

In December 2002 the Institute moved from Xinyuanli to Huixin Beili, located near the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital. The move signaled the end of an era that had been the home of the Institute since the early 1960s. The relocation and restructuring of the Institute saw large-scale pruning of its staff and many receiving redundancy payouts (like other state-run enterprises across China since the 1980s). The Institute now employs just over twenty full-time staff members.

Despite continuing structural changes, the Institute occupies a unique place in modern Chinese music history and will continue to be a resource of unparalleled dimensions.

Reference Library
The Reference Library holds some 140,000 volumes of books (including journals, pamphlets and the monumental Anthology of Folk Music of the Chinese People), 20,000 photographs, over 800 microfilms, as well as rare archival material placed on 'closed access' by reason of their age, value or uniqueness in order to ensure their long-term care and preservation for future generations of scholars and researchers. The Library also holds personal correspondence of musicians, composers and authors' manuscripts.

The Chinese Traditional Music Sound Archive

The Archive holds the most comprehensive collection of traditional music and folk music in China containing over 10,000 hours of recorded music. A catalogue of the Archive's holdings was published in 1994 titled The Chinese Music Sound Archive Catalogue.

The music includes folk songs of the Han and China's minorities, narrative genres, regional operas, religious music, song and dance music, traditional instrumental music (solo, ensemble, arrangements and original compositions), modern contemporary songs, Chinese music performed on Western instruments, modern and revolutionary operas, and speeches, lecturers and talks delivered by eminent Chinese music scholars.

Some of the most important recordings in the Archive include:

Xi'an drum music

Some of the music played by Xi'an drum music societies today in Shaanxi province can be traced back to the Tang dynasty (608-907 AD). The music of these drum societies has been passed on through notation called gongche. A number of rare Xi'an drum recordings include those of the drum master An Laixu (1895-1976). In December 1999, the Shaanxi Tourism Publishing House published a collection of Xi'an drum music (compiled and edited by Wu Wenbin) with forty-seven transcriptions titled Xi'an guyue quxuan.

Zhihua Buddhist Temple Music (Beijing)
Zhihua Buddhist Temple is located in Limicang alley, Dongcheng district. The temple was built in 1446 and is one of the largest and finest examples of Buddhist architecture from the Ming dynasty. The Temple contains handcopied music scores dating back to 1694. The discovery of this music occurred in the early 1950s by the guqin scholar and performer Zha Fuxi (1895-1976). Through contact with other Buddhist temples in the capital and the All-China Buddhist Association, Zha interviewed numerous monks at the temple whose lineage goes back some twenty-six generations. A number of chants have been transcribed and published in A Collection of Tunes from the Zhihua Buddhist Temple in Beijing and Scores from Chengshou Buddhist Temple (1999).

In April 1995 music from the Zhihua Temple was released on an international record label titled World Sounds: Buddhist Music of the Ming Dynasty—Zhihuasi Temple, Beijing. In subsequent fieldwork trips to the Baoding area in Hebei province, scholars from the Institute discovered almost eighty hand-copied scores in gongche notation similar to the scores used in the Zhihua Buddhist temple.

The Twelve Muqam
Muqam are large-scale suites consisting of sung poetry, stories, dance tunes and instrumental sections. In 1951, a team of musicologists from the Central Conservatory and officials from the Ministry of Culture went to Xinjiang to record the twelve muqam. The Archive contains a number of rare recordings by Turdi Ahong (1881-1956), one of the most outstanding muqam practitioners.

In 1998, Jian Qihua’s work on the muqam of north Xinjiang was published, a 204-page book containing over 30 muqam in western notation, a brief history, their musical structure, and a translation of some of the texts in English.


The Archive holds are a number of recordings of hua’er--popular folk songs from northwest China which covers the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Ningxia. Every year, several hua’er festivals are held in the rural and pastoral areas of the Tao River basin in Gansu Province. Musicologists from the Institute have recorded many songs by the famous hua’er singer Zhu Zhonglu.

In 1956, a group of scholars from the Institute carried out several fieldwork trips across China. Some seventeen cities in China were investigated, and almost ninety guqin musicians were interviewed. Transcriptions were later published in Guqin quji (1962). A second volume was published in July 1983. The Archive holds a number of rare recordings made in the 1950s.

Six recordings performed by Hua Yanjun (Abing)

In the summer of 1950, Yang, Cao Anhe, Li Songshou and other musicologists recorded a number of instrumental genres in Wuxi, Jiangsu province including Sunan chuidaqu and Shifan luogu. They met many musicians, among them Hua Yanjun (Abing).

Abing had succumbed to blindness in his mid thirties and had eked out an existence as a beggar musician for decades. Yang and Cao were eager to record a number of Abing’s works while he was still alive. An erhu was procured from a music store and a pipa from Cao’s own collection at her home in Wuxi. Abing practiced for several days before Yang and Cao recorded six solo pieces (three for pipa and erhu respectively) on a Webster Chicago wire recorder. The recordings were conducted in a school classroom and in Cao’s home. Abing died in December that year. These recordings literally saved Abing from fading into total obscurity. One piece in particular for erhu (a two string spiked filldle)—Moon Reflected in the Second Spring (Erquan yinyue)—has become one of the most popular and enduring of all Chinese tunes.

The East is Red
This Maoist anthem The East is Red (Dongfang Hong) was recorded on a set of thirteen bronze chime bells excavated at Xinyang in Henan province in 1957. These bells could produce two independent pitches, but it was by sheer accident that this phenomenon was chanced upon when a performer discovered that a c-bell could also produce the pitch e necessary to perform the piece. The two pitch phenomenon remained unrecognized until the discovery of a unitary ensemble of 64 bronze chime bells excavated in a fully preserved state from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng in Leigudun, Suixian county, Hubei province in 1978.

Collaborations with foreign institutions and foreign scholars
The Institute has collaborated with a number of foreign scholars and organizations. In 1993, Henri Lopes (Assistant director-General of culture for UNESCO) visited the Institute. In 1994-95, the Institute applied for UNESCO's assistance in making commercial recordings available of vast array of sound recordings in the Archive. George Boston and Dietrich Schüller, at the invitation of UNESCO, responded to the Institute’s application and forecasted that a budget of US$75,000 would be needed.

In June 1996, Cai Liangyu, a scholar from the Institute was invited to Oslo, Norway to take part in the 'Memory of the World Conference.' A number of topics were discussed, including the need to establish Memory of the World Committees at the national and regional levels, and priorities in safeguarding regional musical heritages. In early November that year Schüller, director of the Phonogrammarchiv at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, came to Beijing to investigate the state of the Traditional Sound Music Archive. In early February 2001, Qiao Jianzhong, Xiao Mei and Schüller recorded sixteen hours of sound recordings on DAT and four hours on digital video (DV format) in Hainan province.

Safeguarding folk music heritages was also the theme of two international conferences in 2002 and 2003. In December 2002 the 'International Symposium on the Safeguard and Preservation of Oral and Intangible Heritages of Humanity' was held in Beijing.

In late March and early April 2003, the Asia-Europe Programme for the Preservation of Traditional Music was held in the capital. A number of papers were delivered at this conference including 'The Ecology and Transmission of Chinese Folk Songs Today' (Qiao Jianzhong); What do we wish to Preserve of China’s Traditional Music, for Whose Sake?' (Frank Kouwenhoven and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck); Heritage Politics and Traditional Music: A History of Preservation in Sweden' (Owe Ronström) and ‘Researching Musical Systems: New Approaches in Preserving Musical Identities in South Asia’ (Gisa Jaehnichen). Two workshops were held during the conference discussing handling, storage and preservation of audio and visual recordings and the digitization of audio and video documents.

A number of foreign scholars have collaborated with the Institute, including Frank Kouwenhoven, Antoinet Schimmelpenninck, Stephen Jones, Bell Yung, and Eli Marshall. Jones has worked with Qiao Jianzhong, Zhang Zhentao, Xue Yibing, and Xiao Mei on music associations in Hubei province, in particular, music associations in Nangaoluo village as well folk music rituals in northern China. He has studied the living music traditions of these music associations over a period that spans almost twenty years.

Jones co-supervised one of the Institute's doctoral students Wu Fan (now a full-time staff member). In the forward to Wu Fan’s dissertation on peasant music in Yanggao county, Shanxi province (published in Beijing, September 2007), Jones applauds Wu’s determination and persistence in bringing to light the folk ritual music in that county, but rightly points out it is 'just one small corner' of the province, and only one small coloured piece in the mosaic of living music traditions in China:

If we get round to making any useful general observations about Chinese culture, or even north Chinese ritual culture, it will need an awareness of all the local historical, economic, political, and personal factors that make up the experiences of millions of overlapping communities, and will require a whole new army of scholars with Wu Fan’s determination and aptitude [1].


[1]. Stephen Jones, 'Forward' in Wu Fan, Yinyang Guqiang, Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2007:6.

Zhongguo yishu yanjiuyuan Yinyue yanjiusuo 40 nian (Forty Years of the Music Research Institute of the Academy of Arts), Yinyue Yanjiusuo (eds.), Beijing, 1994.

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