Xi'an Drum Music - Living Fossil of China's Ancient Music


On hearing that Xi'an Drum Music was nominated by Shaanxi Province for listing in "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity," 85-year-old Li Shigen, who had studied it for over 50 years and was nearly in despair, picked up his pen to continue writing his unfinished research outline on Xi'an Drum Music. He said, "If I don't write it down, I'm afraid that the authentic information will not find its way into the revival of the drum music. Now I consider this my last mission and only after finishing will I leave the world without regret." Certainly, for Xi'an Drum Music in danger of extinction, it's a good sign to be nominated to the intangible heritage list.

Xi'an, located in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province, is famous for the terra-cotta warriors which are often called the eighth marvel of the world. In the past, Xi'an, then called Chang'an, was the capital of several powerful dynasties such as the Qin (221 BC-206 BC), the Han (206 BC-220AD) and the Tang (618-907) dynasties.

A folk wind and drum musical style called "Xi'an Drum Music" was popular around the city's suburbs. The repertories played by Xi'an Drum Music folk music societies have preserved some of the musical styles of the Tang Dynasty. It is among the three kinds of best-preserved traditional instrumental music in China and is praised as the "Living Fossil of Chinese Traditional Music." However, if young musicians don't learn the nuances of the ancient techniques, by the time the old masters die, they're at risk of being lost.

During the rebellion (755-763) of An Lushan and Shi Siming, two border generals of the Tang Dynasty, lots of royal musicians escaped from the palace to live among civilians in Chang'an. This is how the royal drum music of the Tang Dynasty was introduced to the populace and it has been played in what is today called Xi’an for over 1,200 years. It is currently called Xi'an Drum Music or Chang'an Drum Music.

However, as a side-effect of modernity, fewer and fewer folk musicians can play Xi'an Drum Music properly. In the traditional sheet music, the musical notes are indicated by seven Chinese characters and their variants. They were passed from generation to generation and it is impossible for ordinary people to read them. Now, many old masters of the Xi'an Drum Music societies have passed away and few people want to learn the old notation system.