How Shen Yun Uses Traditional Chinese Music With a Classical Orchestra

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
November 21, 2019 Updated: December 12, 2019

The music accompanying Taoists is mystical with a strong sense of integrity, and Buddhist music is solemn and merciful—these are not mere abstractions. Shen Yun Performing Arts’ composers and arrangers are masters at tone painting, and every song tells a story just as vividly as the dancers on stage.

Accompanying each performance is a live ensemble of musicians, but the Chinese instruments actually make up only a fraction of the group—they play amid a backdrop of classical symphony instruments.

Blending Western classical and ancient Chinese music is a notable feat. Many have tried, with lackluster results.

“You have to know the rules,” said pipa player and composer Jing Xian. Shen Yun’s own team of composers and arrangers have their own playbook of various rules. “It’s a bit of a secret recipe.”

Why Shen Yun Uses a Classical Western Orchestra

Shen Yun is the world’s premier classical Chinese dance company, and its mission is to revive the 5,000 years of traditional Chinese culture. This is an ancient, divinely inspired culture that was nearly decimated in just the last century; through music and dance, these artists have the wish to share that lost culture with the world.

Classical music is a complex system, with consistent rules for tonality, harmony, and structure. The result is a rich and universal language that could even be called one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments.

Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra performs to a full house at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City on Sept. 21, 2019.
Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra performs to a full house at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City on Sept. 21, 2019. (Luo Ruixun/The Epoch Times)

The universality is such that classical music has an endless vocabulary, and in an expert’s hands is capable of expressing any emotion, any narrative, any idea. Its limits are not confined to words, thus even cultures, or the spirit of a people, can be conveyed through classical music.

Classical music is thought to be European, but even in its invention, it spanned many nations—the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is famous for his treatise on harmony, but it was the German composer J.S. Bach who composed the handbook on tonality. The Viennese School’s Haydn and Mozart firmly established the Classical period while Beethoven brought music into the Romantic age, but the Russians put their own stamp on Romanticism. And since the very beginning, up through the present day, this universal art of classical music has been used to give listeners a picture of other cultures. Composers have a long practice of borrowing folk songs to various effects. (Mozart’s “Turkish March” is one that everyone has heard, or even Dvorak evoking America in his “New World Symphony”).

“Classical music is a common language,” Jing Xian said. And this was an important deciding factor when the music of production is conceived.

As such, Jing Xian explained, it was important to use a musical language that is truly universal and can reach all nations.

Shen Yun
The audience applauds Shen Yun Performing Arts at the conclusion of the company’s performance on March 29, 2019, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. (Evan Ning/The Epoch Times)

The second reason for seating the few Chinese instruments among an otherwise standard Western orchestra is the symphony’s sheer power. With a Western orchestra, you can have the swell of the strings and the brassy accent of the horns, and everything melds together to a grand effect. It’s a big ensemble with a big sound.

“Our orchestra is based on the Western orchestra, and the Chinese instruments are like colors blended in colorful instruments,” Jing Xian said. “We also use the classical style; we use Western harmony and orchestration techniques as well, and don’t break from that traditional method of arranging music.”

But you have to know the rules of how to blend them together.
— Jing Xian

“But you have to know the rules of how to blend them together so that the sounds accompany each other well. You need techniques to pull it off,” she said.

Shen Yun Music: Divine Notes

Ancient Chinese scholars had much to say about the philosophy of music, enough that Jing Xian could talk about it for days. She became a professional pipa player at the young age of 15 and pursued studies in composition, music literature, and ethnomusicology. The award-winning composer later earned her master’s and a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Oxford University.

Rather than talk about how Chinese music affected traditional Chinese medicine or the different types of ensembles used in imperial courts, Jing Xian says what might be most illuminating for the novice to understand is that there is this belief that every note is alive.

“Every tone, every note is alive,” Jing Xian said. “The ancient people believed everything has life. So even the note, each single note, should have life quality—so it’s alive.”

This philosophy guided how music was written and played. The notes on the page weren’t “strict,” Jing Xian explained. They could move around, as living organisms are apt to do—meaning that a note might just be written as a single black dot on the score, but the player infused the played note with the sound of its own story, that characteristic undulation often heard in Chinese music, for example. The spaces between each note were important too because the music needed to breathe.

The name Shen Yun is translated as something like “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” Shen means divine, and Yun is something like the feeling behind a movement. Chinese music has “yun” as well, Jing Xian said.

“It’s like color,” she said. “The notes contain different meanings as well. There is meaning behind it—the cultural and philosophical background behind the notes.”

“And with Shen Yun music, we use these different great traditions because that was given by the divine; otherwise, we couldn’t call it Shen Yun,” Jing Xian said. “It’s tradition. It has the spirituality behind it to support us. That’s why we’re called Shen Yun—because we rely on the power of God. So we have this tradition, and we base our art on tradition, this meaningful tradition behind [what we do].”

Shen Yun Music: A Powerful Combination

A gong sounds, and you know immediately that someone like the emperor is about to appear. The theme announces him, and you don’t need to know anything about the musical technique to know it sounds royal.

Violins bow furiously, and even though no one has made a move on stage, you know something big is about to happen.

“It’s this kind of thing,” Jing Xian said. “You have to choose the correct mode to represent this or that feature of the music, or whatever it is you want to convey.”

Shen Yun Performing Arts' curtain call at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.
Shen Yun Performing Arts’ curtain call at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. (Dai Bing/The Epoch Times)

A Shen Yun production includes about 20 vignettes, largely classical Chinese dance pieces accompanied by the orchestra.

This means that from piece to piece, the music has to express what the Tang Dynasty imperial court sounds like in one dance and embody the spirit of the Miao people in the next dance. The production spans 5,000 years of history, and China is home to about 50 different ethnic minorities with their own cultures and customs.

The Mongolian folk dance is one audience favorite.

“They are people of the vast grasslands, and they sing under the open sky,” Jing Xian said, briefly singing a few bars of what one might hear on a friendly visit. “It’s very broad, with long lines—their environment reflects in the music like that. Inside a dense city, you wouldn’t sing like that. The tunes are shorter, smaller. So [their folk music] is related to their traditional lifestyle. You have to learn that and present that in a traditional way.”

“Folk songs all have their own styles, and we respect that and arrange the music according to the styles that they have. You have to know the differences between each group, each nation, each minority,” Jing Xian said.

“When I started, I knew very little. Then I started to learn. It has to do with the languages, the tones of their language, their religion, their traditions, and customs,” she said. “You have to know their styles, these different styles. Then you have to present it in a classical way, that’s all.”

Shen Yun Orchestra in rehearsal. (Photo by Larry Dai)
Shen Yun Orchestra in rehearsal. (Larry Dai)

Jing Xian makes it sound simple, but Shen Yun’s music is the result of tremendous research and intensive artistic work.

Shen Yun is, in fact, doing something completely different. All of the building blocks of this artistic endeavor are traditional, but the company is bringing these old traditions into the 21st century in a meaningful way.

“To do something different like this, you cannot just limit yourself to the technical,” Jing Xian said. It’s a matter of improving on various levels—artistic, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

“You have to improve all of that, all the time, in order to improve the music,” she said. “Therein lies the challenge.”

Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang