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What Is Chinese Drumming?

Marlene Garcia
Marlene Garcia

Chinese drumming is an ancient form of music often accompanied by chants and choreographed movements designed to tell a story. Two basic forms of Chinese drumming exist, with one used for celebrations and another appealing to the gods for favorable weather and abundant crops. Yuchi, a combination of drums and wind instruments, is typically performed at weddings and funerals to bring good luck, fortune, or peace. Saishe usually consists of an agricultural theme, with 24 drums in an ensemble.

Saishe Chinese drumming represents the 24 seasons depicted in the Chinese calendar, which includes the main four seasons broken down into more precise descriptions of rain, temperature, and snow. Drumming troupes decked out in traditional costumes typically set the rhythm for dancers. Choreographed dances recreate common chores and tasks of farmers tending to crops.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Different styles of drums are used in various ceremonies and for certain performances. A conductor typically plays a bangu, which is a circular drum with a wooden frame secured by metal bands. Tanggu represents a barrel drum played with wooden sticks, usually made from bamboo, and animal hide. The lion drum, crafted from wood and goatskin, is the traditional instrument played during the popular lion dance to celebrate Chinese New Year. This performance aims to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck.

Chinese drumming groups use one or two hands to set the tempo with these simple instruments. Some performances incorporate gongs and cymbals into the celebration. Many drums are painted red to symbolize power and strength and are decorated with Chinese characters. Performers typically dress in brightly colored costumes and may chant and dance while drumming.

The first known documented use of drums in China goes back to the Shang Dynasty between the sixth and 11th centuries. The symbol for drum was found etched into a tortoise shell discovered near an old riverbank. Ancient drums were also constructed from hollowed tree trunks and clay, with animal skins attached to produce sound.

Chinese drumming represented an important function during wartime. Drums formed a marching rhythm for troops to help boost morale. They also created a form of communication and may have scared off enemies.

Modern Chinese drumming performances might be loud and raucous, incorporating war chants to tell a story of past battles. Performances might also center on mythical themes with theatrical synchronized movements. Intricate footwork and body movement performed with Chinese drumming symbolize the many aspects of Chinese life and history.

Discussion Comments


I went to a Chinese cultural festival with my wife and kids last year and it featured a Chinese drum performance. It was incredible, intense and rhythmic like nothing I've ever seen before.

There were about 10 different drummers and most of them had different kinds of drums. The piece started slowly and quietly but by the end it was a real cacophony. My kids loved it and we will definitely be going back this year hoping to see the drummers.

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