The role of chinese music in chinese and thai culture

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Jintana Thunwaniwat

Assistant Professor, Chulalongkorn University


This research explores the transmitting of knowledge to succeeding generations (passing of culture) by the use of music, specifically the music of Southern China and Thailand. The music studied covers the following cultural themes: religion (morality), ceremonial, operatic (story telling), entertainment, and personal expression (learning to play the music.)

The geography of the culture observed includes most of Southern China and all of Thailand. China has used music since long before the time of Confucius as a learning tool and the Chinese immigrants into Thailand brought their music with them. The Methodology used in this study included direct observation and interviews in both China and Thailand to identify the effects on the changing music cultures in both countries.

Western influence, formal education from primary levels through Ph.D. in the school system, written music scripts, and mass media are all changing the role of music in China. This is not happening in Thailand yet.

The challenge to Thailand is to meet this changing culture by formal education at both elementary and university levels to keep the history, rituals, and music alive while understanding the evolution into modern acceptance. Chinese music is an important part of both Thai and Chinese cultures.

Culture is described by Merriam Webster’s Dictionary as “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations”. There is no better example of a tool for man’s learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations than music.

The study that I conducted between November 2004 and May 2005 investigated the role of Chinese music in shaping culture in China and Thailand. Immigration from China into what is now Thailand began in the Sukhothai period (1279-1438 A.D.) and continued slowly but gradually through trade activities until the end of the Second World War (1945) when it exploded and a mass immigration into the Bangkok area began. Today, direct descendants of Chinese make up over 14 percent of Thailand’s population.

The music that these immigrants brought with them has had a much larger impact on Thai culture than the proportionate 14% of the population would normally make and the fact that this musical culture is now changing in China will eventually have an impact on both cultures. The result of this research has analyzed the history of the cultures, the changes that are taking place and what the impact of these changes will have on the two cultures.

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