A Brief Introduction to Tradition Teochew Music

Music expresses the soul of a people. Since the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Teochew people have had our own music tradition that is distinct from other  Chinese regional music. Shaped by Teochew folk sensibilities, it is characterised by an intense concern with melodic variation. 

新春樂 - Joy of the New Year, a masterful demonstration of the sounds of Teochew music

There are seven main genres of traditional Teochew music, namely:

  1. Xianshi music (弦詩樂- literally “string-poem music”) – string-ensemble music that has its origin from the melodies of poems recited during the height of the Chinese literary culture in the Song period;
  1. Xiyue music (细樂 – “fine music”) – also a form of string-ensemble music, usually performed by a small ensemble composed of the pipa lute (琵琶), zheng zither (筝) and sanxian (三弦 – “three-strings lute”);
  1. Solo zheng zither music (古箏樂) – one of two main schools of zither music in southern China;
  1. Flute music (笛套古樂) – performed mainly in Teoyor (潮陽) region, which has its origin from the late Song era;
  1. Waijiang music (外江音樂 - literally “beyond the river music”) – instrumental music that developed as the result of external Hakka influences in the late Qing dynasty that briefly enjoyed popularity with the Teochew middle and upper classes;
  1. Temple music (廟堂音樂) – wind and string instrumental music that followed the spread of Buddhism into the Teochew region during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE); and
  1. Gongs and drums (鑼鼓樂) – performed by an ensemble of a set of gongs and drums that is dominated by the “Big Drum” (大鑼鼓) and usually accompanied by the suona (嗩吶) double reed instrument.

The first five genres are normally performed for indoor entertainment. On the other hand the temple music is played as accompaniment to the conduct of Buddhist rites, ceremonies and scripture chanting, while the gongs and drums are ever-present at outdoor folk festivities and religious occasions. Despite their variety, these genres are unified by overlapping repertoires and similar tuning, modal scheme and melodic structure of varying extents that are borne from mutual influences.

The most important genre is arguably xianshi music, from which the others borrow heavily in terms of materials and stylistics. It is considered a category of sizhu music (丝竹乐, literally "silk-bamboo music"), or strings and woodwind chamber music, and is most often performed by an ensemble of plucked or bowed string instruments, numbering anywhere from three to five instruments, to more than ten.

Performance of a Teochew xianshi piece "Waves washing the Sand" 浪淘沙

The erxian (二弦, “two-strings”) is usually the lead instrument and other core instruments include the touxian (頭弦, “head-lute”), zhuxian (竹弦, “bamboo-lute”), tihu (提胡, popularly known as erhu [二胡, “two-stringed fiddle”]), yehu (椰胡, “coconut-shell fiddle”), pipa lute, sanxian and yangqin (洋琴, a hammered metal-string zither). It is sometimes completed by percussions such as muban (木板, hand-held wooden clapper), daban (大板, hollow wooden blocks), muyu (木魚, woodblock), zhegu (哲鼓, small drum), and tongling (銅鈴, copper bell), as well as a wind instrument like the suona, di (笛, transverse bamboo flute) or xiao (簫, end-blown flute).

Historically the scores of Teochew xianshi and opera music were written using the "two-four system tablature" (二四譜) (example shown on right), which was an archaic notation system unique to the Teochew and neighbouring Fujian-Zhangzhou areas. Owing to external influences during the Ming and Qing dynasties, this system was sidelined by the Gongche (工尺) that used Chinese characters to represent musical notes. Though widely used in China since in the Tang dynasty, the Gongche was also limited in its capacity to conveyed details of music that still had to be transmitted by oral tradition and it has since the 1950s been replaced by the Jianpu (簡譜) numerical notation, which is more accurate and easier to read.


The Teochew opera stage is an arena where traditional Teochew music can still be heard publicly. Alongside text lyric books that enable actors to learn their lines and memorise the lyrics, both Teochew opera amateur groups and professional troupes also have scores for their music performers who are typically stationed at stage-side. Teochew opera scores tend to have the following characteristics:

  1. The notation records only the vocal melody and intro/bridges. The background music accompaniment when actors say their lines are often abbreviated and not written in full. In most cases, it might be a section from an often played xianshi In some cases, the score will just state “play [title of xianshi]” next to the lines;
  1. Certain commonly-performed musical bridges and introductory phrases are often abbreviated. For example, the often used “percussion scores” (鑼經) would not be written in full;
  1. Percussion music is not normally recorded as seasoned musicians/actors would be able to “enter” by ear; and
  1. Up till the 1980s, many scores from China were produced by hand or printed using the out-of-date stencil duplicator. Furthermore, it was not uncommon for copiers (especially in the 1970s) to use obsolete simplified characters. E.g. the use of the character 刈 to represent the word 割.

Especially during the peak of the Teochew opera’s popularity in around the 1960s, great rivalry entailed much effort by performing troupes to differentiate themselves by modifying and improving the background music, bridges and even vocal parts of many old opera titles. Because of jealous guarding of opera scores by both amateur and professional groups, it is rare for full opera scores (libretto) to be available to the public.


Through avid collector Clement Tan, The Teochew Store has available for sale copies (in PDF format) of a wide collection of Teochew opera music scores and lyrics, ranging from ever-popular Sou Lak Nie (苏六娘) and Tan Sa  Ngou Nie (陈三五娘), to the hard-to-find Ge Hu Li Hung (拒父离婚). Click here to browseTeochew Opera Lyrics & Scores 潮州戲(潮劇)唱簡與譜本.



You may be interested in:

 "Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.


The Teochew Store also recommends the following albums by The Chaozhou Ensemble

Leave a comment