Western Han Music

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History of Chinese music in the Western Han Dynasty.

General information

Author Wiki Users
English title Western Han Music
Publication Music-China.org
Date of publication

Entities mentioned

In this article, especially the following entities (bands, artists, cities, articles, etc.) are being called out:

Keywords & Genre

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Traditional, History

Geographical span of this epoch

Han map.jpg


The Western Han Dynasty lasted from 206 BC to 9 AD.

After the civil war that followed the death of Qin Shihuangdi in 210 B.C., China was reunited under the rule of the Han dynasty, which is divided into two major periods: the Western or Former Han (206 B.C.–9 A.D.) and the Eastern or Later Han (25–220 A.D.). The boundaries established by the Qin and maintained by the Han have more or less defined the nation of China up to the present day. The Western Han capital, Chang'an in present-day Shaanxi Province—a monumental urban center laid out on a north-south axis with palaces, residential wards, and two bustling market areas—was one of the two largest cities in the ancient world (Rome was the other).

Musical Development during Western Han Dynasty


In 112 BC, Imperial court music had a peak in the Western Han Dynasty, when an official administrative institution called Yuefu 樂 府 (the Ministry of Music) headed by Director Li Yannian 李延年 was established. It had 890 musicians as its staff members, responsible for collecting and editing folk songs and ballads, composing and revising music pieces, giving performances and concerts.[1]

Jing Fang (78–37 BC) realized (in musical tuning) that 53 perfect fifths was approximate to 31 octaves while creating a musical scale of 60 tones, calculating the difference at 177147176776 (the same value of 53 equal temperament discovered by the German mathematician Nicholas Mercator [1620–1687], i.e. 353/284).[2]


Music played an important part in the life of aristocrats of the Western Han Dynasty, as can be seen from the excavations at Mawangdui[3], which took place from 1972 to 1974. As part of the excavation results it was found that[4]:

They (the family) listened to music in particular, for the musical instruments excavated from the tomb included lutes, bells, flutes, and bi. The bi is an ancient Chinese stringed instrument and the one excavated from #1 tomb had 25 strings

Another evidence of music in daily court life is this color-painted pottery figurine arrangement from Han Dynasty Tomb No. 11 in the south of Wuying Mountain on the northern suburbs of Jinan, Shandong. The sculpture features 21 figurines, all of which are fixed on a pottery tray measuring 67.8cm long and 47.5cm wide. There are dancers and acrobats in the center of the tray, and an orchestra playing at the back, with spectators on both sides.[5]


Further information

General information about the Han Dynasty



  1. Chinese Civilisation Centre, City University of Hong Kong. "The Imperial Court Music". Retrieved on 2013-10-10.
  2. McClain and Ming (1979), 212; Needham (1986b), 218–219.
  3. Read more about the archaeological site of Mawangdui
  4. As seen on http://www.chinamuseums.com/changsham.htm
  5. Cultural China. "The color-painted pottery figurines of musicians and acrobats of the Western Han Dynasty". Retrieved on 2013-10-20.

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