If I had been alive during the Bronze Age (2000 - 700 BCE), I seriously doubt that it would have occurred to me to use the skin of an alligator to make a drum. In fact, I believe I would have avoided going anywhere near alligators altogether. Fortunately for the Chinese culture, the ancient Chinese obviously did not share my fears. The earliest known drums in China date from four to six thousand years ago, around the time of the Shang Dynasty (c.1600 - c.1100 BCE) and they were made of clay and (you guessed it) alligator skin. Thanks to those very early innovators, China has a long and proud tradition of utilizing drums and other percussion instruments in its native music.
Chinese drums have come a long way since those first instruments of the Shang Dynasty. They have been incorporated into a variety of societal facets over the centuries, including religion, farming, warfare and of course, entertainment. In China, the color red has always been associated with power and luck, and accordingly red drums have been used as both a symbol and bringer of power to rulers and armies. Such instruments are still used in ceremonies such as weddings and other festivities.
China is generally credited with bringing drums to the nations of Korea and Japan. The famous Japanese taiko drums, for example, are thought to be the result of very early Chinese influence. The same can be said of the Korean galgo and the Japanese kakko, both of which are hourglass-shaped drums thought to be descended from the Chinese jiegu. Interestingly, although this drum is no longer used in China, its relatives can still be seen and heard in both Korea and Japan.
In modern China, drums are commonly used in more secular performances, often to striking effect. At no time has this been more apparent than at the recent Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, which featured countless synchronized drummers in an amazing feat of percussion and artistic performance. No one who watched that ceremony could doubt the importance of drums in Chinese culture.
If one attends the performance of a modern Chinese orchestra, drums are bound to be in evidence. The paigu is a set of seven small, tuned drums, and it is often used in professional musical groups. Other percussion instruments, including drums of all pitches and sizes, are also common. Another place to see and hear traditional drums in China is at a lion dance, a form of traditional dance during which performers dress as lions and mimic the animals’ movements. Such dances can be performed in the northern or southern fashion, the former being the traditional imperial style, the latter purely for entertainment. Both types, however, utilize drum music during the performance. The lion dance also has close associations with the martial art of kung fu, which means that drums are also often used during martial arts performances as well. The drum music at any of these performances is powerful and vital, in accordance with the dancers’ and artists’ movements.
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