From thunder to battle, temple to tower: the origin and legacy of the Chinese drum

By By Du Kaili / 08-01-2013 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)
The only bronze drum from Shang Dynasty remaining in China, exhibited at the World Expo.
China Art Weekly
Simple in structure, but manifold in shape, the drum is among the most ancient Chinese musical instruments. One of the representative elements of Chinese culture, the drums had a central function in Chinese ceremonies corresponding to every facet of human life—worship, banquets, military demonstrations, etc. Their origin and development embodies the imagination and creativity of China’s forbearers.
The origin of the drum in Chinese pre-civilization is unique and demonstrative: the drum was created to simulate the sound of thunder. Some experts think that the ancients were inspired by the natural power of thunder’s rumble, shaking mountains and rivers, and consciously imitated that sound by inventing the drum. They noticed a link between thunder and seasons; they imagined the sound came from striking the belly of a cosmic beast. The drum, mimicking natural thunder, signifies vitality. Its beat was an expression of hope that th the earth continue to thrive.
Archaeologists have discovered two kinds of drums in present day China that date to the prehistoric period—clay drums and wooden drums. Wooden artifacts are more susceptible to wear and decay, so wooden drums from thousands of years ago are extremely rare. In 1980 however, both wooden and clay drums were found together with chimes and other musical instruments dating from the Longshan Cultural period (3000 – 2000 BCE) in large tombs in Taosi, present day Xiangfen county, Shanxi.
In ancient China, there were many types of drums, distinguished by material, shape, or function. Names commonly seen in literature include bass drum, jian’gu, skull drum, hanging drum, tambourine, long drum and bronze drum. While most were generated sound from a ringing membrane, that last,bronze drum is notable in that its sound came from th body ringing.
The Chinese bass drum is characterized by its bulky, protruding abdomen. Because of its size, it is often placed in a drum rack. Traditionally, it was used for imperial marching ceremonies, where their deep timbre was intended to enhance the solemnity of the atmosphere. The jian’gu is medium in size, and constructed with a pole running through the middle of the body. Often, one would be placed in each of the four corners around an orchestra or ensemble, both for as an instrument and a decoration. It was used for sacrificial ceremonies and rituals. Much smaller was the skull drum, which could be held with handles attached to the body, and it was used for musical cadences. The Copper Shek Kwu was usually large, with the drumhead, drum body and drum base cast as one. They were used for ornamentation and for a variety of rituals.
The drum also had an important role in ancient rituals and war. The ancients viewed the instrument as a medium of communication connecting man and God. The written characters representing drum, the striking of a drum and the sound of a drum are found in oracle and bronze inscriptions from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Historically, almost every dynasty had a full-time special officer and staff exclusively responsible for drums and drum related affairs.
The drum also played a substantial role in the religious life. Both Buddhism and Daoism regard the drum as a tool in religious ceremony. It was also used by religious clerics to report and release orders. For instance, Buddhists use various drums issue calls for meditation, chanting, mealtimes, bathing and as a farewell to dead. Daoists use hanging drums, Jin drums or bass drums to notify the start and the end of meditation.
In civilian life in ancient and imperial China, the bell would ring in the morning, while the drum would sound at night. In ancient city construction, bell and drum towers were built, often located at the beginning and terminal of the city’s central axis. The ancients notified timing by striking drums. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the drum was more widely used in civilian life. With the development of folk literature, folk songs with drum accompaniment became widespread. In addition, the variety of drums became more diverse---water chestnut drum, bangu, tanggu, waist drum and octagonal drum were played in bands and ensembles. New forms of singing and playing greatly enriched entertainment.
In ancient times, the drum was also commonly used in the military command. Biography of the Yellow Emperor Biography describes the tremendous power of the drums that Yellow Emperor used in a battle against Chi You. In the era of “cold weapons,” the drum, flag and gong were referred to as “three chiefs,” used in military command during battle for timekeeping, warning and boosting morale. Xunzi –Yibing included a line on drums: “Moving forward when the drum strikes; retreat when the gong strikes.”
After 30 or 40 hundred years of evolution, China’s drum culture traces deep roots to folk customs and traditions. It is a cultural element shared by all Chinese. Up until the present, many parts of our country have preserved the unique culture of the drum.
Du Kaili is from Xinxiang City Museum, Henan.
Translated by Feng Daimei
Chinese version is appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 415, February 8, 2013.