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Buddhist Music of China*



Buddhist music in China is a complex concept that encompasses varied, if not contradictory, thoughts, notions, practices, values, and aesthetics.  Indeed, the term "Buddhist music" itself is somewhat ambiguous and controversial--for although chanting is an important component of Buddhist liturgy, the traditional Buddhist literature strongly resists using the generic term yue 'music' either to describe Buddhist rituals, and many Buddhists do not even consider sacred chanting to be music. Still, despite these differences over the notion of music, Buddhist liturgy does involve music in the form of chanted prayer, hymn, or mantra.

The practice of Buddhist liturgy in China appears to be twofold: on the one hand, the core structure always maintains its unity; on the other hand, deviations are common, and result from the contrasting philosophical and disciplinary frameworks of various Buddhist schools (such as Mahayana and Theravada) and sects (such as Chan or Zen Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism). Thus, to understand the essence of Chinese Buddhist music, one must realize that this is a broad concept, related not only to different traditions (Mahayana and Theravada) and ethnic groups (Han and non-Han Chinese), but also to classification (hymn, prayer, mantra) and context (liturgical and nonliturgical). Today, while the majority of the Han Chinese Buddhists follow the Mahayana tradition, some minority nationalities in Yunnan Province (southern China) follow Theravada Buddhism. And the inhabitants ofTibet and certain northwestern regions practice yet another tradition: Tibetan Buddhism, a syncretic form combining Buddhism, Tantrism, and native Bon.

Although chanting has an important role in Buddhist liturgy, general discussions of music and systematic descriptions of liturgical music are scarce in the Buddhist literature. This may be attributable to the Buddhists' self-imposed asceticism and their rigid stance against secularism. According to the doctrine of pancendriyani (wugen in Chinese), desires and delusions can be obstacles to Buddhist enlightenment.  Desire for wealth, for pleasure, or for fame can be aroused by the objects of the five senses, things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched.  Music, dance, and other entertainments are considered objects of the five senses that create passions and desires which are contrary to Buddhist morality.  Buddhists believe that music or dance which tends to entertain us or please our senses is luxury, leading to degeneracy. Thus a number of precepts have been developed to discipline Buddhists to guard against these temptations. For instance, in The Ten Precepts for Sramanera there are precepts that prohibit young novices (the sramanera) from "listening or singing song, watching or performing dance." In this regard, Buddhism is similar to Confucianism, since Confucian ideology holds that although ritual music can inculcate morals, entertainment music (especially music with amorous lyrics) incites depravity.


This antihedonist stance, however, does not preclude music in Buddhist orders. On the contrary, chanting is not only legitimate but indispensable in the liturgy. Furthermore, devotional music expressing devotion to Buddha, to dharma, and to the sangha is worthy of being accepted, at least according to the concept of music as reverent praise. In the Amita Surra, for example, sounds of extraordinary birds and vegetation in the Buddhist paradise are described as tianyue, 'music of heaven', and miaoyin, 'wonderful sounds'. "These sounds smoothly penetrate the five roots . . . . When people hear this music, they concentrate on chanting the names of the Buddha"; consequently, "they all strengthen their faith". Clearly, then, what Buddhism is against is music for sensory satisfaction and entertainment, not music or sounds associated with religious faith and devotion. This can be further demonstrated in the terms Buddhists use to differentiate their music from non-Buddhist music. The Chinese generic term for music, yue, is rare in Buddhist discourse, because it lacks specificity: it could mean just about any kind of music, including secular music, which Buddhists call suyue. Instead, Buddhists use the word yin 'sound' or, more often, compounds of yin to convey religious connotations:   fayin 'sound of dharma', zhihuiyin 'sound of wisdom', cibeiyin 'sound of charity'.

In the context of ritual, Buddhists use the specific terms fanbei or fanyin to designate chanting. It is believed that liturgical chant is not only a sacred offering to Buddha but a powerful vehicle for prayer, which helps bring the individual to awareness of the nature of Buddha . Together with sacred texts, sacred music is a bridge linking devotees to the spiritual world. Furthermore, Buddhist chanting is believed to have a profound power to keep rituals solemn, signifying a ceremony and inspiring faith, as described in Sheshi yaolan 'Prescription of the Sakya Clan': "Because fanyin functions to end chaos and ensure that rituals will have a solemn atmosphere, it is also called zhiduan or zhixi 'refraining'." Many Buddhists also believe that numerous gongde 'virtues'--such as comprehension of the sutras, clear utterance, and a mighty thoracic cavity--can be gained from Buddhist chanting . For this reason, Buddhist monastic institutions promote chanting and offer novices intensive training in it.

The Chinese term for liturgical chanting, fanbei, is derived from the Sanskrit patha or pathaka 'chants'. According to Gaoseng zhuan 'Biographies of Masters', thousands of Buddhist literary works, including Indian chants, were translated from Sanskrit into Chinese at the time of the initial religious contact; but none of the practice of pathaka chanting survived in China, primarily because of the language barrier between the two cultures and the incompatibility of their musical systems. Chinese Buddhists therefore had to develop their own liturgical music. Through references in the literature, the origin of Chinese Buddhist chant can be traced at  least as far back as the Three Kingdoms (220-280 AD), but this chant did not become institutionalized until the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420), when Master Dao An (312-485) formulated three observances:  sermon (jiangjing), daily services (kesong), and confession (chanfa)--through which fanbei gradually became an important part of Buddhist liturgy.

Today fanbei is widely used in various fashi (Buddhist services and ceremonies), including the sacrament of ordination, the ceremony of fasting, memorial services, holiday and festive observances, sermons, confession, and daily services.  Fanbei generally involves a choir accompanied by numerous percussion instruments. Occasionally, one or two woodwinds or stringed instruments may be added, especially when fanbei is integrated with folk religious elements (such as ancestor worship and funeral processions). Monastic chant is usually sung only by the clergy; but laypeople may sometimes join in, especially when a monastery has its own congregation.  In most monasteries a cleric called the weina 'preceptor' (karma-dana in Sanskrit) is the leader in the chanting; he usually starts each section of fanbei by singing the first syllable alone, and then all join in, in unison.

Two major types of fanbei can be identified: song or niansong (reciting) and zan or gezan or zanzi (singing). Stylistically, song may be comparable to recitative, since it is characterized by speechlike reiteration of a relatively short rhythmic pattern, syllabic settings of the text (one syllable against one note), and irregular or flexible meters. Zan is equivalent to the style of a hymn:  it is melodious, embellished, melismatic (multiple notes against one syllable), and wider in range (slightly over one octave). In theory, both types of fanbei are approximately monophonic when sung.  In practice, however, various degrees of heterophony (simultaneous minor variants in the melodic line)may often be heard; to a large extent this can be attributed to the ability of individual performers or to the congregation's general level of ability. Unintended heterophony or even polyphony (two or more distinct melodies) often occurs when song or nainsong is performed so that the text is recited in long unmeasured phrases, in which ostensibly random pitches and volumes flow one after another like waves. In such a context, the reciter may feel that individual utterance of the text is far more important than unified pitch.  According to some accounts, the motivation in this case is strongly religious-meditative or even mystical-rather than aesthetic.


Four major types of text are used in liturgical music: jing, zhou, zan, and jiJing (sutra in Sanskrit) and zhou (mantra) are the major components of liturgical text. The former are scriptures comprehending sermons attributed to Buddha and to the bodhisattvas, saints who have reached enlightenment. The latter are incantations. Both are prose and tend to be "read," but the renditions differ. Sutras are translated and read in Chinese whereas most mantras are only transliterated to Chinese.  These transliterations have no semantic meaning; they are kept intact phonetically because the sound of the original languages (Sanskrit and Pali) is regarded as inherently efficacious and powerful.  Zan (stotra in Sanskrit) and ji (gatha) are hymns in verse; they are generically referred to as zanbei in the context of Chinese Buddhist ritual. The distinction between zan and ji is formal:  ji are generally metric and symmetric, whereas zan often sound irregular. In both types, six-stanza and eight-stanza chants are among the popular zanbei.

Musically, jing and zhou are generally sung in recitative style, and zan and ji in a more elaborated melismatic style.  All four types are rendered in the vernacular and are altered in performance. In most rituals, zan or ji are performed at the beginning and end; jing and zhou are usually performed in the middle sections in conjunction with invocations to bodhisattvas.  Instruments used in monastic rituals are called faqi (instruments of dharma, or law). Most of them serve to signal or transmit routine commands (for instance, to announce that is is time for meditation) and also have symbolic meanings (for instance, "Buddhist consciousness" may be symbolized by evening bell chimes). However, a few faqi, mostly idiophones and membranophones, are used mainly in liturgical services. These include the daqing (a large bronze bowl-shaped bell), yinqing (a small cup-shaped bell suspended from a wooden handle), hazi (a pair of cymbals), dangzi (a small gong), dazhong (a large suspended bell), gu (a large barrel drum), and muyu (a fishhead-shaped wooden slit drum). Prescribed for rituals, these instruments are used not only for punctuation, beating time, and setting the tempo in Buddhist chant but also to guide the process of worship (bowing and circumambulation).

All liturgical music is learned and transmitted through oral-aural tradition, which involves watching, listening, coaching, imitation, and extensive exercises. No notated music is available for learners, although a type of instruction book called Chanting Instruction Book or Collection of Buddhist Liturgical Chant usually serves as a guide; such a book provides liturgical texts commonly used in daily services along with the prescriptions for worship, and it has a symbol (graphic notation for percussion instruments) printed alongside the texts.

Buddhist liturgical music not only is central to monastic services but also is important outside the monastic orders, especially in rural communities, where certain calendrical events and folk traditions are associated with Buddhist rituals. For instance, during Buddhist daochang (memorial ceremonies), funeral processions, and the "Hungry Ghosts" festival, Buddhist music is often used to soothe the dead, comfort ghosts, and exorcise demons. In such a context, Buddhist ritual tends to blend into folk religion, which is characterized by polytheism and pragmatism. On other occasions, it is customary to play a familiar type of Buddhist tunes (known as foqu) associated with certain types of folk music traditions at folk festivals and miaohui (temple fairs). This music usually shows a close affinity to local theatrical or instrumental music. For outdoor performances, an instrumental music ensemble is typically added to the vocal chanting; woodwinds--such as the sheng, a mouth organ; the guanzi, a double-reed oboe; and the di, a bamboo flute--and percussion instruments predominate.


The foqu tradition not only has been integrated with folk tradition but also has sometimes been introduced into the imperial court, where it could be transformed into a new genre. During the Tang dynasty (618-907), for example, a considerable amount of Buddhist music, both vocal and instrumental, was brought from western Asia to the court and became a part of court music. Over time, this music was gradually transformed into a type of secular or semisecular music used largely for court entertainment, although the original Buddhist tunes were kept.  Buddhist influences can also be found in some elite music. For example, a number of pieces for the ancient qin (a seven-stringed zither), such as Naluo foqu 'Naluo Dharma Hymn' and Shitan 'Buddhist Words', are believed to have Buddhist origins.


Today, despite a severe setback during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, Buddhism continues to thrive. Yet this tradition faces new challenges brought by modern sociopolitical changes. In responding to such changes and reviving age-old practices, many Buddhist institutions and individuals carry over the spirit of sujiang, a secular tradition of sermons in which folk idiom is used to preach Buddhism by creating new foqu to reach out to younger audiences. These new foqu incorporate some Western musical elements (such as harmony and Western instruments) and thus exemplify a trend toward using syncretic forms to expand religious expression and develop new dimensions.


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Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Cai Junchao.  Tianningfanbai [Hymns of Tianningsi monatery]. Quanzhou: Zhongguo Nanyin Xuehui and Quanzhou Lishi Wenhua Zhongxin (transcriptions), 1993.
  • Cai Junchao.  Foqu [Buddhist hymns], vol. 1 (2 sub-vols.). Quanzhou: Zhongguo Nanyin Xuehui and Quanzhou Lishi Wenhua Zhongxin (transcriptions) 1988.
  • Cai Junchao.  Foqu [Buddhist hymns], vol. 2 (2 sub-vols.). Quanzhou: Zhongguo Nan yin Xuehui and Quanzhou Lishi Wenhua Zhongxin (transcriptions, n.d.).
  • Cai Junchao.  Foqu [Buddhist hymns], vol. 3 (2 sub-vols.). Quanzhou: Zhongguo Nan yin Xuehui and Quanzhou Lishi Wenhua Zhongxin (transcriptions, n.d.).
  • Cai Junchao.  Foqu: Yujia Yankou [Buddhist hymns: Yogacara Rite of Feeding Flaming Mouth], Vol 4 (2 sub-vols.). Quanzhou: Zhongguo Nanyin Xuehui and Quanzhou Lishi Wenhua Zhongxin (transcriptions, 1992).
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