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Chinese music


Admission requirements

This course is intended for students of sinology (second year), and students of musicology, anthropology, faculty of arts and the music conservatories (advanced year) from Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Leiden and The Hague. No practical experience or specialized knowledge in the field of music is needed to participate in this course.


What do Chinese musicians view as important in Chinese music? Why is Chinese music performed, for whom, and what does it mean to the people who participate in performance ? In this course we will try to answer these questions for a limited number of key traditional genres: folk song, opera, teahouse music and temple- and procession-music. We attempt to trace how folk songs, operas and processions are used to negotiate power, status and individual happiness in rural society, why certain genres are performed exclusively by men, or primarily by women, and what ‘playing together’ means in these contexts. We will also examine if and how these aspects have changed under the influence of modernity in contemporary Chinese (pop and ‘classical’) music.
This series of lectures on Chinese music is jointly organized by the Leiden Sinological Institute and the CHIME Foundation. The emphasis is on practice: a broad range of film and sound materials will be offered, and there will be interviews and live demonstrations with/by a number of Chinese musicians.

Course objectives

  • Provide insights in a number of key genres of Chinese music and the social processes that have shaped it

  • Provide practical knowledge about key musical instruments (qin, zheng, pipa, sheng, erhu, dizi, Chinese percussion) and performance traditions


Second semester, two hours per week. Monday 13-15h. Location: CHIME Sound Archive, Gerecht 1, Leiden (close to the Museum for Antiquities on the Rapenburg). For time also check the time table of Chinese Studies: collegerooster

Mode of instruction


If any foreign students participate, the course will be taught in English, otherwise in Dutch.

Assessment method

Attendance and active participation (discussion and oral presentation) (33%)
Written exam (listening apprehension and terminology) (33%)
A series of three to five short writing assignments (one-page mini-essays), based on subjects dealt with in the lectures (33%)

The grades for ‘written exam’ and ‘mini-essays’ will only be included in the final grade if the student passes ‘Attendance and active participation’.


Not applicable

Reading list

(subject to change)

Johnson, David – ‘Action speaks louder than words: The cultural significance of Chinese ritual opera.’ In: David Johnson (ed.) – Ritual Opera, Operatic Ritual, “Mu-Lien rescues his mother” in Chinese Popular Culture. Oakland, California, 1989, pp.1-45.

Riley, Jo: ‘Jia’, ch.1 of Chinese theatre and the actor in performance. Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre.Cambridge University Press UK, 1997, pp.12-53.

Mackerras, Colin – Peking Opera. Images of Asia series. Oxford University Press, HK / Oxford / New York, 1997.

Lau, Frederick – Music in China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, Oxford University Press, New York / Oxford, 2008. Excerpt from chapter 1, ‘Music of the people’, pp 15-29.

Witzleben, Lawrence – Prologue (pp1-4) and Chapter 2, ‘Jiangnan sizhu in Shanghai 1981-1985’ (pp.23-36) from the book ‘Silk and Bamboo’ Music in Shanghai, Kent State University Press, Ohio, 1995.

Major, John S. and Jenny So – ‘Music in Late Bronze China’. Chapter One of: Jenny F. So – Music in the Age of Confucius, pp.13-33. Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C./University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2000.

Kouwenhoven, Frank, and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck – ‘I prefer a man who is fresh like a jumping fish’ – Gender issues in shan’ge, Chinese popular rural songs.’ In: Rachel Harris and Rowan Pease (eds) – Gender in Chinese Music. Rochester University Press, Eastman, Rochester Studies in Ethnomusicology, 2011.

Kouwenhoven, Frank – ‘Meaning and structure – the case of Chinese qin (zither) music’. In: British Journal of Ethnomusicology, 2001, Vol.101, pp.39-62.

Wong Shengmiao, Samuel – [3 sections from the book:] Impressions of a pipa player, Beamont Publishing, Singapore, 2003:
‘The History of the Pipa and I’ and ‘The First of Many’, pp.1-12.
‘The Pioneer’, pp.12-18 (interview with Ma Shenglong).
‘The Traditionalist’, pp.43-46.

Kouwenhoven, Frank, and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck – ‘The Shanghai Conservatory of Music – History and Foreign Students’ Experiences.’ In: CHIME Journal, no.6, Spring 1993, pp.56-91.


Enroll on time for this course via uSis. Not registered, means not allowed to attend this course. For more information on registration, deadlines, etc., see Aanmeldprocedures voor colleges en tentamens

Contact information

For further information about the content of this course, please contact the lecturer Frank Kouwenhoven: phonenumber: 071-5133.974, e-mail, website or