Buddhist Music from Zhihua Temple

Hear Buddhist music from seventeenth-century China as the Zhihua Buddhist Temple Ensemble performs on traditional ritual instruments. This six-person group features two members of the twenty-seventh generation of Zhihua musicians, a long-time artist with the Shanghai Peking Opera House Orchestra, and a former member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble.


Zhihua Buddhist Temple Ensemble

Chen Tao, dizi (flute)
Hu Jian-Bing, sheng (mouth organ)
Bao Jian, guanzi (double-reed)
Xia Wen-Jie, dagu (drum)
Cai Zhenqi, yunluo (gong-chime)
Xu Yu-Yuan, bo (cymbals)

Song Track
Zhong-Tang Qu (中堂曲) 00:00-40:35
     Overture 0:00-16:05
            Zhou Jing Tang (昼锦堂) “Beautiful and brilliant hall”
    Main Section 16:05-27:30
           Xiao Hua Tan (小华严) “The Avatamsaka Sutra”
    Closing 27:30-40:31
           Jin Wu Shan (金五山) “Five gold mountains”
Liao Qiao (料峭) 40:53-1:18:05
     Overture 40:53-48:41
            San Bao Zan (三宝赞) “Praise the Buddhist treasure”
    Main Section
         Hao Shi Jin (好事近) “Good things will come soon” 48:41-1:01:18
         Qian Qiu Shui (千秋岁) “Living thousands of years” 1:01:18-1:07:36
    Closing 1:07:36-1:18:05
           Si Ji (四季) “Four seasons”

This performance was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia, on view through 2019. This project received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Lead Sponsor

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation logo





The Zhihua Temple was established in Beijing in 1446 after the imperial court dismissed three thousand musicians in 1436 and 1440. Many of the musicians may have converted to Buddhism and joined nearby temples, including Zhihua, thus contributing to its rich musical heritage. For centuries, the Zhihua Temple provided written music, instruction, and professional performers to enrich village “music associations” (yinyue hui) throughout the region. These amateur local ensembles performed on important religious and secular occasions. To this day, their music remains closely related to that of major Buddhist temples and is thought to resemble the sound of court and temple music in imperial times.

The Zhihua Temple received its name from Emperor Yingzhong to invoke the idea of “Buddha imparting wisdom upon mankind.” It served as a private temple for the family of Wang Zheng (a powerful eunuch in the early Ming court) and as a house for former court musicians.

The temple’s ensemble specializes in liturgical music preserved in some of the oldest written scores in China, including a manuscript version of the piece “Golden-Character Scripture” dating to 1694. A 1403 manuscript compendium of Buddhist songs, set to popular melodies and used in the early Ming court of Emperor Yongle, refers to the melody of this widely played piece. It is one of hundreds of melodies performed in rural areas and considered “standards” of the local repertoire in China. The score of “Golden-Character Scripture” is written in kongchi, a traditional music notation stemming from the Song dynasty and with phrase marks similar to those of the Tang dynasty. Of the more than three hundred compositions formerly within the Zhihua repertoire, only forty-eight still exist. Strands of Han folk music, interlaced with resplendent imperial court styles and Buddhist elements, are evident in the music.

The temple’s existing repertoire draws mainly from a document called Purifying Music, copied in 1694 by Yong Gan, a member of the fifteenth generation of Zhihua musicians. The surviving notation appears to retain traces of Tang and Song music. The origins of the pieces are multifarious. Some reflect Tang religious music, while others are more akin to Yuan dynasty melodies. The most numerous pieces are compositions for religious services.

Traditionally Zhihua music was passed only to male monks, who were often required to perform for eight or nine hours. The melodies were taught mainly via oral tradition, with the written score usually serving as a reference. During the Qing dynasty, Zhihua music gradually spread from the monastery to the surrounding environs of Beijing. It came to represent northern Buddhist music, also known as Beijing music. Zhihua music has a distinctive notation, instruments, and structure (called qu pai or ci pai) transmitted from generation to generation by monks trained in music. It is thought to represent one of the oldest surviving forms of Han ethnic music.

The music of the Zhihua Buddhist Temple is categorized as zhi-qu (single compositions played individually) or tao-qu (multi-movement works of several pieces). Of the longer tao-qu pieces, those for daytime services are called zhong-tang qu, while those for evening liturgies and funerary rites are called liao qiao. The tao-qu pieces consist of a single-movement overture, a multi-movement main body, and a closing section.

Ritual ceremonies traditionally require nine chanting monks accompanied by two guanzi (double-reed), two sheng (mouth organ), two dizi (flute), two double gongs, one large drum, one pair of castanets, one dangzi, and a pair of small hand cymbals. According to the Book of Music, compiled by Chen Chang of the Northern Song dynasty, the nine-holed guanzi and the sheng with seventeen pipes came into use during the late Tang dynasty.

Zhihua music is characterized by its solemn, august style. Guanzi (double-reed) is the leading instrument and plays the main melody, with the dizi (flute) adding ornamentation. The guanzi establishes the meditative, pensive atmosphere, while the other instruments improvise upon the main melody, showcasing their attributes while avoiding monotony or cacophony. Some say the dizi symbolizes the chaotic society of man, weaving in and out of the melody, embellishing and ornamenting it. The sheng can be seen as the harmonizer that fuses the god/Buddha (guanzi) and human (dizi). Even though the music sounds superficially chaotic and raucous, it is intended to reflect the boundless realities of the universe and the guiding ray of truth found in Buddhism. Within Chinese aesthetics is the long-held principle that “using sorrow to portray happiness amplifies the happiness; using happiness to depict sorrow amplifies the sorrow.”

Two primary mechanisms have nurtured the preservation of Zhihua Temple’s musical legacy: village amateurs who were brought to Beijing to perform their repertoire, and professional musicians who were taught the instrumental music by the twenty-sixth generation of temple monks in the 1980s and 1990s. This group of musicians, named the twenty-seventh generation, learned the instrumental repertoire but not the chants reserved for monks. In 2006, Zhihua Temple music was named among the first set of National Intangible Cultural Heritages approved by the State Council of China.

—Adapted by Michael Wilpers in 2017 from notes by Chen Tao and articles by Stephen Jones, Xue Yibing, Li Wei, and Tian Qing


Chen Tao, dizi (flute), is a flutist, music educator, composer, and conductor of Chinese orchestral music. He is the founder and director of the Melody of Dragon, the cofounder and director of the Melody of Dragon and the Youth, the artistic director and conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York, and conductor of New Jersey Buddha’s Light Youth Chinese Orchestra. He was named a twenty-seventh-generation musician of Zhihua Temple Buddhist music. His playing is heard on the soundtracks of Seven Years in Tibet and Corrupter (with the New York Philharmonic) and in the PBS documentary Under the Red Flag.

Xu Yu-Yuan, dizi (flute), graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1969. He was a member of the Shanghai Peking Opera House Orchestra for twenty-seven years and a resident artist and dizi teacher with the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York and the Kunqu Society of America (New York). Currently he is the dizi teacher for the New Jersey Youth Chinese Orchestra.

Hu Jian-Bing, sheng (mouth organ), graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1989 and joined the Central Orchestra of Ethnic Music. He founded the North America Chinese Music Ensemble in 1999 and later joined Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. An active composer, he wrote Autumn Melody (for guzheng, Chinese zither) and Fragrant as Ever (for guzheng and guanzi), and he has performed throughout the United States.

Bao Jian, guanzi (double-reed), graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. His awards include the 1998 Pro Musicis International Award and first prize at the 1995 International Chinese Ethnic Instrumental Competition in Beijing. In addition to his expertise in Chinese classical and folk music, Bao is an innovator of contemporary works, a recitalist, and a frequent guest performer at international festivals. A twenty-seventh-generation musician of Zhihua Temple Buddhist music, he is currently artistic director of the Chinese Performing Arts of North America.

Xia Wen-Jie, dagu (drum), is the banhu (fiddle) soloist with the Melody of Dragon ensemble. He graduated from the school of the Shanghai Traditional Music Orchestra in 1962 and later joined the Shanghai Opera House as principal soloist on the banhu, erhu, and gaohu. He also became concertmaster of its National Instruments Orchestra. Currently he serves as concertmaster and artistic director of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York.

Cai Zhenqi, yunluo (gong-chime), is a soloist on daruan (Chinese lute) and Western double bass. Born into a family of professional musicians, he participated in military performing troupes in his childhood. He graduated from Tianjing Conservatory of Music and majored in double bass. Since joining the Chinese Performing Arts of North America, he performed at New York’s Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. He is also a professional sound engineer.

Liu Li, bo (cymbals), is a specialist in the ancient Chinese zither called guqin, and she is director of New York Guqin Association. Since moving to the United States in 1994, Liu Li has performed and lectured widely. She collaborated with the New Music Consort of the Manhattan School of Music's Chamber Orchestra. She has also performed at Lincoln Center, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Japan Society, La Mama Theater, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1996, she was invited by Taiwan’s National Music Ensemble to give a concerto performance in the National Hall of Music and to lecture on guqin music. In 2002, she collaborated on the soundtrack for the film Hero, composed by Oscar winner Tan Dun and also featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Notes on the Ensemble

As part of a delegation from the Central Conservatory of Music aiming to preserve Zhihua music, I remember stepping inside the Zhihua Temple in 1985 and being swept up by the solemn, elegant music emanating from within it. A year later, with the blessing and support of Banchan Lama and Zhao Puchu, president of the Chinese Buddhist Association, the Beijing Buddhist Music Ensemble was formed. The twenty-sixth generation of the temple’s music masters, with support from teachers in the Folk Music Department of the Central Conservatory of Music, led the ensemble. Later, the teachers who studied under the monks during that time were regarded as the twenty-seventh generation.

As a recently graduated music teacher (and the project’s youngest participant), I felt lucky to join in this unprecedented endeavor to document and safeguard Chinese Buddhist music. After moving to the United States many years later, my early immersion in Buddhist music led me to establish the New Jersey Buddha Lights Youth Orchestra, under the auspices of the New Jersey Buddhist Association, itself an extension of Hsing Yun Master’s Buddha’s Light International Association.

In 2013 the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts invited us to present a concert at Jordan Hall in Boston with music from the Beijing Zhihua Buddhist Temple. As a twenty-seventh-generation Zhihua musician, I was honored to introduce this music to Western audiences, together with Bao Jian, Hu Jianbing, and others. Before the concert, I gave an overview of the history and main characteristics of Zhihua music for those unfamiliar with its repertoire. Deeply moved by the enthusiastic reception, I felt a strong impetus to organize a detailed overview of Zhihua music. Over time, the project fell by the wayside. Later, I chanced upon a documentary on Zhihua music airing on Beijing television, and I learned Master Benxing was the only surviving monk trained in the tradition. A sense of urgency energized me to expand upon my original research, to share my personal experience in performing Buddhist ritual music, and to honor the masters who carried on the tradition.

Years before, in 1987, the European Folk Art Association had invited the Zhihua Temple Ensemble to tour Germany, France, and Switzerland. This may have marked the first time Chinese Buddhist music was performed in Europe. In 1989 the Singapore Buddhist Association and the Singapore Lay Buddhists Society invited the ensemble to perform several times in Singapore. That same year, JVC released a CD with recordings from our European tour. The heirs of the twenty-sixth generation of Zhihua music, together with conservatory teachers, thus brought the music tradition from the brink of extinction to a new zenith.

It is now lamentable that, with the passing of the older generation of musician monks, Zhihua music is once again verging on the edge of demise. Although the music was taught to and recorded by teachers from the conservatory, it is only one part of the intangible heritage surrounding the Buddhist music tradition. Chanting and details of rituals can only be passed down to the temple’s monks. Yet, due to the backgrounds and musical inexperience of disciples entering the temple today, as well as the realities of maintaining a living, the monks have largely given up on Zhihua music to pursue other trades and skills. Despite this, we musicians who reside in the United States have taken it upon ourselves to share what we have learned with Western audiences. We aim to keep alive the embers of Zhihua music and to carry forward this aspect of Buddhist practice.

Lastly, it is also our desire to propel the Chinese government to place more value and respect on our ancestral heritage and to invest more monetary and human resources to safeguard this inimitable blossom of Eastern religious art for future generations.

—Adapted from an unpublished article by Chen Tao


The podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham. Photography by Colleen Dugan.  Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer and Galleries.

This performance was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia. This project received Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Lead Sponsor

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation logo




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