The Chinese orchestra is a relatively new phenomenon. Its structure has been developed on the basis of a Western symphonic orchestra. Its instrumentation and repertoire have only been established during the past century. Although ensembles of mixed winds and strings have existed throughout Chinese music history, both in secular and religious contexts, the crucial boost for the creation of a standardized Chinese orchestra was given by China’s confrontation with Western powers at the turn of the twentieth-century.

Despite the strong influence of the Western models, the modern Chinese orchestra is a unique receptacle of Chinese authentic traditions. Side by side with the new instruments developed in the 1950s, equal-tempered and high in volume, ancient instruments like the xun, the xiao or the gu feature in the Chinese orchestras, their shape and sound being almost unchanged for thousands of years.

In terms of organization, a Chinese orchestra is made up of four groups of instruments: bowed strings, plucked strings, winds, and percussions. More than any other instruments, the use of plucked and hammered strings is what gives the orchestra its unique tone and color. Winds produce an incomparable nasal and piercing tone that cannot be found in Western music.

Nowadays, the Chinese orchestra has become a lively and fecund terrain for experimentations: Chinese-sounding scales are sometimes abandoned in favor of atonal music and avant-garde style, and imaginative instruments are often included in the new compositions (paper sheets, abacus, etc.). Young conservatory-trained musicians are eager to undertake new exiting challenges and composers feel free to express their creative impulse.