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Surprising uses of Music in Ancient China

  News. Chinese Dragon Dance. By Conrad Poirier. [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

News. Chinese Dragon Dance. By Conrad Poirier. [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

"In changing customs and altering manners, nothing surpasses music; in pacifying the powers above and ruling over the people, nothing surpasses ritual" -  (Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China, p. 56)

Music in ancient China was mainly used for 3 purposes; rituals, cultural unification and healing. According to Chinese mythology and folklore, dragons have often been regarded as an auspicious symbol, with control over elements like water, luck and power. Since dragons are regarded as a symbol of good luck, they have been largely used in rituals during the ancient times to pray for rainfall in times of drought. A large part of entertainment in the past have also revolved around music, hence, it took little effort to shape the masses who enjoyed the same music. Lastly, music have also been largely used as an alternative to medicines in the past due to the scientific reasons that the ancient people have chance upon.


  Terrace rice fields in Yunnan Province, China. By Jialiang Gao,  . [GFDL or CC BY-SA 2.5 or CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

Terrace rice fields in Yunnan Province, China. By Jialiang Gao, [GFDL or CC BY-SA 2.5 or CC BY-SA 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

One such ritual was dragon dance. Dragon dance was introduced during the Han Dynasty from 206BCE to 24CE. During this period, dragon dance was primarily used for praying to ancestors for good health and rainfall. Dragon dance should not be confused with lion dance, which are seen during Chinese New Year. The main difference between these 2 dances are that lion dance only require 2 dances while many more are needed for dragon dance. 

  Cambodian farmers planting rice. 2004. By Brad Collis. [CC BY 2.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons.    

Cambodian farmers planting rice. 2004. By Brad Collis. [CC BY 2.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons.  

In modern day and time, we are able to use technologically advanced equipment like rain gauge to predict rainfall, hygrometers to assess humidity levels and thermometer to measure temperatures. However, it was not possible in ancient China since technology was not as advanced as it is today. As a result, farmers in the past would rely on signs from nature, religious beliefs, myths and traditions from the previous generation to forecast weather.

  A drought stricken paddock. By Plant Industry, CSIRO. [CC BY 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

A drought stricken paddock. By Plant Industry, CSIRO. [CC BY 3.0]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

An example would be people living in  the Shang Dynasty from 1500 to 1046 BCE. They believed that nature gods were the one controlling the weather and therefore found ways to get through to these gods by preparing offerings. Weather forecasting was a  priority in the past as farming was a  main source of income to support their  family. On top of planting crops for  consumption, they were also planted to  be traded or sold.

That is to say that agriculture was an important industry for the economy in ancient China. A variety of crops planted in the past were wheat, rice, corn, barley and millet (which requires considerable amount of water to grow). Therefore, the ability to predict rainfall was crucial to sustain lives of people in ancient China. By having an accurate projection of rainfall, farmers would be able to make necessary preparations to ensure bountiful harvests yearly.

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     Tet dragon dance. By Egul_. [CC BY-NC 2.0]. Via Flickr. 

Tet dragon dance. By Egul_. [CC BY-NC 2.0]. Via Flickr. 

Equipped with the background and importance of crops, it is therefore safe to conclude that dragon dance played a significant role in ancient China. During dry seasons, dragon dance rituals would be carried in many parts of China to appease the Gods and pray for rainfall. Dragon dance was only made possible with the use of music.

Music was a key factor in the execution of the dragon dance, especially the drums in this case. The moves of the dragon’s body strictly follows the timings and rhythms of drums. The loud noises of all 3 instruments (cymbals, gongs, drums) combined also helped with the removal of evil spirits and monsters like Chinese mythological character Nian. Nian is a Chinese mythological monster that preys on unsuspecting individuals and children.

Since dragon dance needed great teamwork and coordination, the instruments used had to possess the ability to reverberate and energise both dancers and spectators simultaneously. Each particular instrument mentioned above makes loud noises and strong rhythm necessary for the dance. Like how conductors wave their batons when conducting a band, dragon dance movements were conducted using the precise rhythm and harmony of the instruments. The length of dragons used for rituals differs greatly, it was believed that the longer the dragon, the more luck they bring. 

Cultural Unification

Music was an important tool for harmony and control of the state. Xunzi, a statesman and philosopher who lived in China shortly before the Qin Empire (221-206 BCE), described his views on the using of music for cultural unification. During 300 BCE, the state of Qin had already used music to unify the Chinese people. By listening to similar music, it was believed that anyone could behave in the same way due to psychological reasons. He believed that by changing music, same set of behaviours, beliefs and cultural norms could be altered to suit the needs of respective rulers. Mass psychology was effective and useful in bringing massive social order in place (Brindley, 2012).

  Chinese musical instruments. By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.). [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

Chinese musical instruments. By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.). [Public Domain]. Via Wikimedia Commons. 


Adding on, since the symbol of music was to bring about peace and harmony, musical instruments were frequently gifted for diplomatic reasons. At the same time, it was a means to divide groups with differing viewpointsZhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) used music to separate rowdy tribes from their otherwise harmonious culture (Brindley, 2012). Additionally, by giving musical instruments to states with contrasting point of view, mutual agreements could be achieved easily without the use of violence and even promotes the importance of living in peace and harmony by accepting each other's differences.

Music for Healing

Other than rituals and social harmony, music was highly regarded as a form of medicine for the body, both physically and psychologically. Music could be used as a form of 'medication' or for other healing purposes in place of edible medicines and tonics. Music was strongly associated with the ability to maintain a balance of Yin and Yang in the body. Yin represents the dark and negative aspects of the body (spiritually and mentally) while Yang represents the light and positive aspects of the body (spiritual and mentally).

  (Untitled). By Printoid. [CC0 1.0]. Via Pixabay

(Untitled). By Printoid. [CC0 1.0]. Via Pixabay


Ancient Chinese was categorized into 2 different types - “ancient” music and “excessive” music. “Ancient music” illustrates the heart and mind by calming the soul because of the harmonizing tunes, while “excessive music” depicts extremities because it consists of loud noises made by loud instruments like cymbals. Balance is hence achieved by regulating between these 2 forms of music. When Yin accumulates in the body, temperature of the body drops and when there is an abundance of Yang in the body, the temperature of the body increases (Brindley, 2012).

Lastly, “ancient music” was used as a form of therapy to cultivate the core of the body, mainly to warm up the heart and mind (Brindley, 2012). In short, music was significant as it was used to deal with the psychological balance in one’s body. The cosmic rationale behind music and medicine was also paramount in keeping the body in good shape.

The usage of music for healing is still used today. Music helps the body to release neurotransmitters like endorphins, serotonins and dopamine, which are hormones that help you "feel good" or happy in simpler terms.


To sum it all, music was significant in ancient China, and still is in today's context. We loved how music unified the Chinese tribes together. In today's context, music can also be used for a good cause. It can be used to spread awareness about specific causes. 'We Are the World 25 for Haiti' is a great example. Many popular singers such as Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Toni Braxton and Celine Dion gathered together to record a song in order to raise funds and awareness to help Haitians who were affected by the natural disaster. This meant that music have evolved so much from forecasting weather, healing and unifying groups of people to what it is today!


Brindley, E. F. (2012). Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China. Ithaca, US: State University of New York Press. Retrieved from

Kleeman, T. F., & Barrett, T. (2005). The ancient Chinese world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.