Beginning in the Western Zhou Dynasty, around 1040 BCE, the Chinese imperial court sanctioned an office to focus solely on the development and promulgation of music that was based on Confucian teachings, in particular within the sayings of the Shijing. While yayue (or, “elegant music”) became the popularized notion of Chinese court music, ceremonial and state-sanctioned musical works actually persisted before the name became codified. In an essay by Chi Fengzhi, the musicologist notes that it was not until Confucius compared the problematic nature of popular music to the sanctity of the state and the harmony of society that yayue came to prominence.[1] Yayue, then, served as a means for further aligning one’s self with Confucian ideals and to cultivate the self.

Yayue proliferated at a time following the Duke of Zhou’s original Mandate of Heaven proclamation, solidifying the Emperor’s position as a liaison between Heaven and Earth, and validating China’s religious and social climate. Elegant music functioned as a means of not only venerating both the Heaven and the Earth, but also propagating formal diplomatic interactions. Often, a yayue musical ensemble would be separated into two sections which designate the interplay of yin and yang.


While the musical style adapted as dynasties shifted in China, the genre is traditionally very strict towards its application—methodical, pensive, and wholly formal. Instruments featured range from the traditional and popular—dizi, guqin, and traditional drum—to their more contemporary metal analogs—such as a fangxiang, much like a xylophone. Yayue could be performed as an accompaniment to many events, so long as their court sanctioned; famously, Confucian court music was performed during a fox hunting expedition, and was attributed as the primary reason for success. While the original manifestation of yayue was solely comprised of a musical ensemble with accompanied dance, singing became a widespread component during the Sui Dynasty.

Due to the expanding efforts of the Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty, music—alongside political and social infrastructure—was exported to Emperor Yejong of Korea. Later, yayue became widely accepted in Goryeo Korea and became known as aak, but only two recorded melodies have survived from Korea.

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[1] “The Master said: detests the purple seizes the red, popular music disorders yayue, bad words overthrows the country”