Film Music in China

A Report by Andrew Douglas © 1987
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

The Red Detachment of WomenCinema in China developed slowly, the first locally made film being an adaptation of scenes from a Chinese opera, Tingchun Mountain, made in 1908. When sound came to motion pictures, Chinese filmmakers found themselves burdened with the additional problem of producing synchronized talkies for a multidialect population. As a result, a decentralization of film production occurred and many small film companies sprouted in various regional cities of China.

Among early Chinese films, many of which had social and political overtones (influenced to a large degree by the political threats of nearby Japan), were Cheng Bu-kao’s WILD TORRENT (1933), which dealt with the oppression of peasants by landlords, and Tsai Chu-sheng’s THE SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934) which dramatized the cause of Yangtse boatmen.

The rise of Communism in China that followed the end of World War II had its own resulting influence on the country’s motion pictures, not the least of which was the nationalization of film production under the Ministry of Culture. Many of the films produced in the ensuing years where characterized by propaganda and indoctrination, elements which diminished with the fall of Mao Tse-tung and the opening of China to Western influences. The rise of martial arts movies during the 1970’s gave the Chinese film industry a solid commercial foundation as well as a strong international identity, as these films were cranked out by the dozens.

As in many other Oriental countries, much Chinese cinema is derived from traditional legend and literature, and these tend to be among the most interesting of the country’s films in that they are more purely reflective of Chinese culture and history than the more manipulative propagandistic cinematic tracts.

Unlike Western music, Chinese music gives utmost priority to the melody. In contrast, much melody in Western music derives from harmony, an element not so pronounced in Chinese music, which takes its harmony from words and, additionally, derives impressions of harmony produced by the octave doublings of instruments in unison, accompaniment figures, imitation of voices and synchronized tremoloes. The rich texture of Chinese music complements its lean harmony.

As with many countries enjoying a vast cultural history, music in China is enriched by numerous regional styles or dialects. Various regions within the country developed their own particular style of music; for example, the northeastern province of Shantung developed a festive style of music derived from the need to perform music for outdoor festivals. Shantung music is characterized by featured ensemble instruments of strong volume and carrying power (gongs, drums, reeds) as its performance required.

Chinese music also maintains a strong historical heritage. Music which was written as far back as the 5th Century A.D. is still performed. In a country with a strong reverence toward ancestry and forebears, it is not surprising to find music of this vintage still extent and known. Music in Chinese films has, of course, its roots in the traditions of Chinese music. As with most countries, the earliest films usually utilized existing motifs and excerpts of traditional pieces, original composition emerging as cinema grew into its own.

Red Detachment of Women by Du Mingxin, Shi Wanchun, Wu Zuqiang, arr. by Gordon Lee

Contemporary Chinese film music has been varied. Serious dramas are often scored with serious music, while more popular films receive a more popular approach to their scoring. Much of the recent spate of martial arts movies utilize pre-recorded music in lieu of original scores, and these exploitation filmmakers are not always careful where the music for their films comes from. In many kung-fu movies, music is simply lifted from soundtrack records from Europe and the USA with little regard to copyright, and more than one film music buff has been taken aback by hearing familiar music by John Barry or Ennio Morricone accompanying some whack-slapping martial arts battle (In fact, John Barry, perhaps in response, agreed to score a Chinese martial arts film, Bruce Lee’s GAME OF DEATH in 1978 – one rare example of a Western composer providing an original score for a Chinese film. Lalo Schifrin is another example with his score for ENTER THE DRAGON and GOLDEN NEEDLES, though these were American co-productions).

The music of contemporary Chinese and Hong Kong films are increasingly drawing away from China’s own musical tradition, and taking on a more eclectic approach. Much traditional Chinese music has shared traditions and mutual influence from, and upon, music in India, Tibet, Korea, Japan and the Philippines, even though each country has developed its own unique culture in both music and film scoring – and all are also becoming increasingly more influenced by Western styles of music. More and more of the musicians and composers in China and other hitherto very musically traditional countries are Western-trained, and as a result tend to readily adopt Western styles of instrumentation and style and merge it with the music of their own backgrounds.

Nevertheless, traditional ensembles are frequently heard in Chinese films, and these unique instruments and modes add a rich ethnic flavor to the film scores. Instruments such as the pipa (four-stringed lute), cheng (seven-stringed zither), erhu (two-stringed violin) and cheng (17-reed bamboo mouth organ) lend their particular character to Chinese film scores. The more than three hundred types of Chinese opera have influenced the country’s film scoring greatly, opera’s integration of movement, music, philosophy, poetry, costuming, sets and martial arts translating effectively into contemporary Chinese cinema.

The Film Music of Du Mingxin

Du MingxinDu MingxinChinese composer Du Mingxin was born in 1928 in the province of Hubei, studying music first in Chongqing, and then primarily in Shanghai, a center of musical influence in China. During the 1950’s, Mingxin studied further in Russia and has since become well recognized as a composer of classical music in China. He currently is a professor at the Central Conservatory in Beijing (Peking).

Du Mingxin’s classical compositions include The Mermaid, a collaboration with Wu Zuqiang, a Violin Concerto, and The Goddess of River Luo, a symphonic fantasia based on the famous work of the poet Cao Zhi.

In addition to composing concert works, Du Mingxin has also written the music for Chinese films, two of the most notable and recent being THE SAVAGE LAND and SHE DIED ALONE. The former, based on a play by the Chinese writer Tsao Yu, takes place in a remote village in northern China during the turbulent fuedal years of the 1920’s. A peasant escapes prison and seeks revenge against a cruel landlord for forcing his betrothed to marry another, and the story is given many character and plot twists.

Mingxin has scored the film for Western-styled instrumentation. The score is highly romantic, featuring a lilting main theme for strings and woodwind, carrying a frequently menacing undertone which reflects the unpleasant circumstances which follows the protagonist. This music is first heard during the film’s opening, set against a panorama of the vast Northern China plains. After several variations within the film, the music recurs in the same arrangement, at the film’s epilogue, after most of the characters have met their deaths, and we are left only with another panorama of the countryside, implacable and unchanging. The score, in this sense, refers more to the land of the film’s title than to the film’s characters, even though it serves their romances and tragedies superbly.

Mingxin includes several songs in THE SAVAGE LAND, sung by the famous Chinese actress, Lau Xiao-hing, who stars in the film. Her songs take on a passionate poetry, and cry out from the soul of her character, and retain that peculiar beauty of Chinese opera.

SHE DIED ALONE, based on the story of the same name by Lu Xing, told the contemporary story of a bureacrat who, disillusioned with the ruling class, enters into an affair with a young woman of modern ideals. When the illicit affair becomes known to his employers, the man loses his job and, after some time, becomes restless. Saddened by his change of heart, the woman leaves him and dies, leading him to regret his selfishness. Mingxin’s music is characterized by a love theme for Chinese fiddle, lute and flute, and is drawn more from traditional Chinese styles than was THE SAVAGE LAND. The score remains soft and melancholy, only rarely emerging fully into its lyrical melody, as if reflecting the protagonist’s disillusionment and ultimate despair.

The Red Detachment of Women (1970). A filmed performance of the Chinese ballet of the same name, written as a collaboration, with music by Du Mingxin, Wu Zuqiang, Wang Yanqiao, Shi Wanchun and Dai Hongcheng, and choreography by Li Chengxiang, Jiang Zuhui and Wang Xixian.

Both of these film scores were recorded and issued on record in 1982 (Hong Kong Records 6.340104) in a series of lp’s and CD’s which made much of China’s classical, popular and traditional music available to an international audience, and both are notable examples of foremost Chinese film music, if not contemporary Chinese music as well.


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