Enjoying the Flowers: Chinese Music & Drama

Enjoy this rarely heard tradition of Chinese music and drama called nanguan. Dating from the early seventeenth-century Ming dynasty, it has been revived by Chinese musicians and actors in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. It is performed here by vocalists and instrumentalists on Chinese fiddle, lute, gongs, flute, and percussion. The centerpiece of the performance is an excerpt from Enjoying the Flowers, a famous scene in the nanguan repertoire. In this episode, a lady’s maid conjures up imagery of bees, butterflies, birds, and flowers to convince her patron to express her frustrated love through romantic poetry. This performance was presented in cooperation with the Taipei Cultural Center and in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art. Recorded live in the Haupt Garden at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on April 22, 2007.


1. Foot Drum (0:00–6:16 )
The so-called southern drum leads the musical ensemble that accompanies nanguan opera. The drummer places one foot on the drum and produces different pitches and timbres by changing the position and pressure of his/her foot on the drum. This passage combines the southern nanguan percussion pattern, called qibang lo-zai-gu, with rhythms of the northern-style drum and gong, xiaojiao (wooden fish and small gong), and sikuai (four pieces of bamboo).

2. The Painting of One Hundred Flowers (6:17–16:59 )
In this nanguan song, the lyrics refer to flowers as a metaphor for the transience of life. The singer reminds listeners to seize the day to avoid feeling regret when they are older.

3. Pu: Plum Blossom (17:00–27:02 )
This is an excerpt from one of the four core nanguan compositions. It comprises five chapters, describing poetically how the early-blooming plum blossom tree produces lovely flowers even in severe winter. The melody follows the plum blossom from bud to full bloom, expounding on the way it represents the moral integrity of a true gentleman. The melody, as it unfolds, is thought to mimic the blooming process itself.

4. Enjoying the Flowers (27:04–38:05 )
This is a scene from the nanguan opera Chen San Wu Niang. A lady from a good family, Wu Niang is melancholy because she cannot outwardly express her feelings for her beloved, Chen San. Lin Da, a vicious young man from a rich family, has forced her parents to make her marry him instead. One day, a maid named Yichun takes Wu Niang on a stroll in the garden to enjoy the flowers. Yichun uses the imagery of bees, butterflies, flowers, and willows in song to convince Wu Niang to use love poetry to reveal her love for Chen San.

This performance was presented in cooperation with the Taipei Cultural Center and in conjunction with the Sackler exhibition East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art. Recorded live in the Haupt Garden at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on April 22, 2007.

Nanguan Music and Drama

By Nora Yeh, Library of Congress
Nanguan, literally "southern pipe," is a type of music ensemble that originated in the Quanzhou area of southern Fukien Province in southeastern coastal China. Transported overseas by Fukienese migrants, the style has been carried on by amateur clubs in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia, thus forming a nanguan diaspora.

Nanguan is unique in Chinese music for its instruments, notation, theory, and tune classification system. Some of its instruments, such as the pipa (four-string short-neck plucked lute) and erxian (two-string bowed lute), differ from other Chinese instruments but do resemble their relatives elsewhere in Asia, including the Japanese gagaku biwa and the Korean haegum. Although scholars have observed similarities between nanguan and the music of the Han, Tang, and later Chinese dynasties, the earliest extant nanguan songbooks date only to the early seventeenth century (late Ming dynasty). Examinations of these Ming-era songbooks and current versions confirms that some nanguan songs performed today have remained unchanged for at least four hundred years.

In most cases, a nanguan ensemble consists of five instruments. Pipa and sanxian (three-string plucked long-neck lute) play the skeletal melody as notated in the songbooks, while the dongxiao (vertical end-blown flute) and erxian add ornamentation to the melody, resulting in what is called a heterophonic texture. Finally the paiban (wooden clapper, similar to the Korean pak) punctuates the meter. When songs are performed, the vocalist plays the paiban while singing, using the Quanzhou dialect and carefully enunciating each word with melismatic melodies.

Nanguan music is elegant and quiet. Within a piece, the tempo starts very slowly and gradually accelerates. There is little fluctuation in dynamics, although minute nuances and dynamic changes occur throughout any piece. When a livelier atmosphere is desired, four percussion instruments and one aia (small double-reed suona) are added to form a ten-instrument ensemble. Even in this larger ensemble, the elegant, stately atmosphere is still maintained. Interestingly, it has often been observed that nanguan bears certain similarity to the music of the Japanese gagaku and Korean aak.

Nanguan’s current repertory consists of three categories: the forty-eight song suites known as zhi, the thousands of individual songs known as qu, and the sixteen instrumental suites known as pu. The song suites and songs contain lyrics that are derived from historical stories popular in the southern Fukien area. The instrumental suites often bear programmatic titles related to nature, flowers, or animals.

A nanguan concert always begins with the song suites, followed by a number of individual songs, and ends with the instrumental suite. There used to be strict rules regarding the keys and tunes used in a nanguan concert. Nowadays, with the demise of the tradition, however, these rules can no longer be observed. The program presented in this concert resembles a miniature nanguan concert, following the order of song suite, individual song, and instrumental suite.

Nanguan Opera

Nanguan opera originated in Quanzhou, the famous historic city. It has been popular among people who speak the Minnan dialect and is recognized as one of the oldest living operatic genres of the Han people.

Nanguan opera uses tunes from nanguan music. Its instrumental accompaniment consists of the string-and-bamboo section and the percussion section. The ensemble is led by the drummer who plays the southern drum (also known as the foot drum). The foot is used to control the pitches and timbre of the southern drum, making it unique among the drums used in Chinese opera.

The stage movements of nanguan opera are highly formulaic. There are the so-called "eighteen basic movements," whose hand gestures are allegedly related to the Buddhist hand gestures (mudras). There are strict regulations regarding the hand movements: when both hands are raised, they should not be higher than the eyebrows; when the hands are parted, they should not be lower than the naval; when the two hands are cupped, they should not be higher than the chin. Many basic body movements resemble the string puppet theater movements; the most obvious of these include the so-called jialingtiao (kicking both legs straight up alternately) and kueilei luoxian (falling straight onto the floor on the back, like a string puppet). Such movements are often performed by the young male and female roles. Nanguan opera thus contains a unique system of aesthetics of performance, with the soft, delicate movements sporadically interspersed with the stiff string-puppet-like movements.

Traditionally nanguan opera was performed on a stage called xipeng (hi bne in Minnan dialect). It was made up of wooden planks placed on two 1-meter-long benches, thus forming a small stage about 3 meters long on each side. One bench is placed on stage and covered with a piece of embroidered cloth. The small and simple stage is like a magnifying glass through which the beauty of the performers’ body movements can be closely watched and appreciated. It encourages imagination and symbolic enactment and provides the foundation for the development of refined and delicate stage movements.

Further Reading

Wang, Ying-fen. 2002. "Ensembles: Nanguan," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 7: East Asia: China, Japan, and Korea, ed. R. Provine, Y. Tokumaru, and J. L. Witzlelben (New York: Routledge), 205-209.

Yeh, Nora. 1988. "Nanguan Music Repertoire, Categories, Notation, and Performance Practice." Asian Music 19, no. 2: 31-70.

Gang-A-Tsui Ensemble

Gang-a-Tsui Theater was founded in 1993 by Chou Yi-chang. The company premiered its first production at the Taipei County Cultural Center in 1995 and was commissioned by the national Center for Traditional Arts to carry out the Nanguan Opera Transmission Project in 1998. The following year, they toured Mexico as part of the International Traditional Dance Festival. The ensemble next appeared in Singapore for the 1999 International Nanguan Gala. They were featured artists at the Asian Traditional Arts Festival held in South Korea in 2002. The next year saw their first American tour, with performances in New York, Washington, New Orleans, and Atlanta. Since then, they have performed in Japan, Poland, and Indonesia.

Members of the Gan-a-Tsui Ensemble

Vocalists and Actors
Lin Ya-lan
Shin Un-hsien
Wei Ei-hui

Wei Ei-hui paiban (wooden clapper), vocal, pipa (lute)
Wen Ming-I dongxiao (vertical flute), aia (double-reed)
Wang Hsueh-mei paiban (wooden clapper)/singer
Chen Chia-wen drum, erxian (fiddle)
Hsu Chih-cheng pipa (lute), xiaojia, sanxian (lute)
Lin Wei-chen erxian (fiddle), sikuai (four wood blocks)
Liao Yu-ning luo, erxian (fiddle)
Lee Cheng-yeng dongxiao (vertical flute), xiang zhan (small horizontal gong)
Tseng Chao-chih dongxiao (vertical flute), xiang zhan (small horizontal gong)

Related Artwork

Enjoying the Flowers: Chinese Music & Drama
The Gang-a-Tsui Ensemble of Taiwan

Look at related items in our online collection to learn more about the symbolism of the music, the instruments played in this recording, and the dancers in the photographs.

The plum blossoms evoked in the third piece are central to Chinese poetry and art. Two paintings show plums blossoming in winter (Magpies, Sparrows on Snowy Plum Flower Tree and Plum Blossoms), while two others show scholars in the long-standing practice of seeking out plum blossoms in the mountains (Searching for Plum Blossoms while Riding a Donkey and Two Riders Searching for Plum Blossoms). (Search our online collection under "plum" for additional Chinese paintings, ceramics, and calligraphy.) Because they appear only briefly during China's harsh winter, delicate plum blossoms came to symbolize purity of character, courage in the face of adversity, the transience of beauty, and the rebirth of hope. They gradually evolved into a metaphor for the impoverished scholar and recluse from society, and even an emblem of the nation as a whole.

The pear-shaped lute heard in this recording is a form of the pipa, an instrument adapted from central Asian lutes that arrived in China around the sixth century via the Silk Road. A sixth-century sculpture shows central Asian musicians from Silk Road cultures performing on several instruments, including a proto-pipa. A fourteenth-century hanging scroll shows musicians performing on pipa and panpipes for a Buddhist divinity. And the pipa is invoked in an eighth-century poem that commemorates a famous first century B.C. concubine who was married off by the emperor to a central Asian king, much to the emperor's later regret.

A courtesan plays an end-blown flute (xiao), similar to the one on this recording, in a seventeenth or eighteenth-century painting on silk. An eighteenth-century hanging scroll depicting the Rainbow Dance features a side-blown flute. The music for this dance is thought to have been brought from India and presented to a Tang dynasty emperor in the eighth century. A female drummer accompanies the dancer.

Our collection includes other depictions of Chinese dance, including the colorful mortuary costume; a stone sculpture of a female dancer in procession with three musicians from the tenth or eleventh century; and a fourteenth-century hanging scroll of an Indian or central Asian dancer attending a Buddhist divinity.

Related Images