Both in imperial times and under the People's Republic of China, the popular culture of China has persistently been neglected in favour of official, elite culture. The confucian values of the imperial age have been replaced in modern times by the domination of a new elite, stressing urban, professional, secular, and Party-sponsored music-making: meanwhile the music still performed by folk musicians throughout the Chinese countryside is often ignored. The search for an unchanged ancient music may still be tempting in a country with such a venerable history: but if there are no living fossils, we also need to rid ourselves of the idea that tradition has been thoroughly destroyed in modern times.
Instrumental music is only one aspect of Chinese music: folk-song, opera, and ballad-telling are also rich living treasures. This series concentrates on ensemble music, whose contexts are often ceremonial or religious. (Recordings of the solo instrumental traditions are already quite accessible, such as the plucked zithers qin and zheng, and the plucked lute pipa.)
Although the living folk music of China remained largely unknown outside China until fieldwork began to be possible for foreigners in the mid-1980s, the Chinese themselves showed great energy in collection from the 1940s. While commercial recordings of opera and urban professional instrumental arrangements have long been common, very few recordings of folk instrumental music have ever been issued.
The Music Research Institute (MRI) of the Chinese Academy of Arts in Beijing preserves China's most comprehensive archive of recordings of traditional Chinese music, recorded in the field since 1949. The former Director of the MRI, Yang Yinliu (1899-1984), was not only the leading scholar of ancient Chinese music history, but a fine performer and an ethnomusicologist much concerned to document living traditons. He himself made many field-recordings of great folk musicians, often with his cousin and lifelong companion Cao Anhe. Some of these recordings are included for their musical and historical value, despite their less than ideal recording quality.
This series is a tribute to Yang Yinliu and the unsung Chinese collectors who strove to document the heritage in conditions which have often been most adverse, economically, logistically, and politically. It is the story of nearly fifty years of Chinese fieldwork, covering many of the major genres of Han Chinese instrumental music. Although most genres resumed in the 1980s and can still be heard in China now, this set includes some outstanding recordings from before the Cultural Revolution, when traditions were still thriving and some venerable folk musicians were in their prime.