Music is inspired by everyday life, born from its socioeconomic context and embodying the ideas and values of its time. It plays significant roles in facilitating the progress of civilization, promoting exchanges and mutual learning, as well as enriching intellectual and cultural activities. As musical instruments are the medium through which music is played and performed, charting their historical development can reveal the history of music.
In the Chinese cultural tradition, music functions as an integral part of good governance and a way for individuals to achieve self-cultivation. Throughout history, music has borne witness to the continuous development of Chinese civilization and its exchanges with foreign civilizations. The dawn of Chinese civilization saw the emergence of wind instruments like the flute and whistle and percussion instruments like the bell and drum, as revealed by discoveries at archaeological sites. From the earliest dynasties until the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220), the established system of rituals and music led to the creation of sophisticated musical instruments, which are exemplified by sets of grand chimes (zhong) and chime stones (qing). Meanwhile, plucked string instruments like the qin and se zithers were popular among the literati of refined taste. The period (AD 265-960) that followed, from the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties to the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties, was a time of growing communications between the Central Plains dynasty and the neighboring ethnic peoples and countries, when musical instruments coming from other cultures were widely used in performances. Poems and mural paintings have recorded scenes of exotic fiddles, lutes and flutes being played together. During the Song and Yuan dynasties (AD 960-1368), as Chinese opera (xiqu) reached maturity and further developed, the use and reform of musical instruments reached new heights, particularly for bowed string instruments, as marked by the wide spread of the "horsetail huqin," a fiddle with a horsehair bow. The Ming and Qing dynasties (AD 1368-1911) saw a flowering of folk performing arts such as Chinese opera, song and dance, and speaking and singing, which were set to music or accompanied with melodies. Great achievements were made in this period.
The current exhibition showcases more than 200 precious musical instruments from the National Museum of China collection or on loan from different cultural heritage institutions. Highlights include a bone flute excavated at a Neolithic site at Jiahu in Henan Province, a set of bronze chime bells from the tomb of Chai Hou (late Spring and Autumn Period), a "JiuxiaoHuanpei" zither (Tang Dynasty) and a set of 12-pitch pipes (Qing Dynasty). All these treasures on display reveal a picture of the evolution of ancient Chinese musical instruments and convey the cultural values of traditional Chinese music in promoting moral well-being, cultivating individual taste and entertaining the people.