By Louise Bevan | The BL

Drums are traditional musical instruments in China, which play many roles in various rituals such as sacrificial offerings, exorcising evil spirits, and dance ceremonies. In addition, they have always been vital instruments during wartime. Drums penetrated into all aspects of ancient Chinese social life, with a far-reaching influence that continues today.

History of the Drum

The drum (腰鼓 yāo gǔ in Chinese) has a hollow, cylindrical body that can be opened at one or two ends. These ends are covered with different types of animal skin. They are played both with hands and sticks.

According to legend, in ancient times, people used the distinctive sound of drums to transmit signals across long distances. The sound could allegedly chase away evil spirits and welcome the gods.

Legend has it that the Huangdi (known as the Yellow Emperor, 2711-2598 BCE), the ancestor of all Chinese people, defeated his enemies by using drums.

An illustration of an ancient drum. (Wikipedia Commons)

Chiyou was the leader of Jiuli tribes who were a warlike people and fierce in combat. Once, Chiyou attacked the Yan Emperor’s tribe and gained the upper hand. The Yan Emperor then resorted to Huangdi for help, which triggered an all-out war between the tribes.

Legend tells that Chiyou’s forces were strengthened with the help of the God of rain and the God of wind, who darkened the skies with a violent storm.

The Yellow Emperor then called upon the drought demon Nüba (女魃), who blew away the storm clouds and cleared the battlefield.

Huangdi’s troops then carried out their attack accompanied by blowing horns and pounding drums. The powerful and vibrating sound of his drums frightened the enemy soldiers and Chiyou was defeated. After the victory, the Yellow Emperor composed a drum song to celebrate the battle.

The Waist Drum. (Shen Yun)

In ancient times, drums were honored as a means of connecting with Heaven. Beyond speech or song, they were considered a way to connect with the gods. They also signified the connection of humankind with nature. Drums were highly respected in the past, widely used in poetry, music, and dance.

There are many types of drums such as ceramic, leather, bronze, grain, and of course, the waist drum. During the Tang Dynasty, the waist drum began to prevail over other forms.

With a length of about 40cm to 45cm, the drums make a medium-toned sound. The drum is worn on the waist of the player, held on by brilliantly- colored silk strips, allowing the player to move freely when performing.

Left: Gongs and drums in Dunhuang mural ; Right: An anonymous mural depicting musical instruments (from left to right): waist drum, flute, pipa, and guqin. (Wikipedia Commons)

Functions of the drum

Musical performance

Drums were an integral part of ancient rituals and music. In the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE), a set of rules for drum music was established. The drum sound initiated the octave and kept the musicians together.

The Drum is an instrument of ancient Chinese. (Wikipedia Commons)

Drums and dances are closely related. Dance is an art form taking rhythmic movement as the main means of expression. As such, the beauty of the dance firstly lies in the rhythmic movement of the human body, and the drum is the main expression of that rhythm.

Woodblock illustration of drum playing. (Wikipedia Commons)

This common feature is exactly the root cause of the relationship between drums and dance, which are inseparable in most cultures.

Drums as an alarm

On the upper floor of ancient cities, a large drum was usually placed. For example, a drum was placed on the Drum Tower in Beijing along with the Bell Tower, which were found in the most central locations in cities during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. Drum sounds were said to ensure social order in the capital. On the second floor of the Drum Tower, there were 25 drums, including a large drum and 24 small drums (representing the 24 annual festivals).

Drum Tower, Beijing. (Wikipedia Commons)

There were certain rules when playing drums, for example at around 8 p.m. the pounding of two beats signaled nightfall. The diameter of the drums could be up to 1.5 meters. Every time the drum was beaten at night, the signal spread throughout the city, informing citizens of the time.

The structure of Chinese Drum Towers are standardized. The bell tower is located in the east and the drum tower in the west. When bells and drums are played, they produce loud, vibrating sounds that touch people’s hearts and encourage the population to turn toward good and away from evil.

Drums in Buddhist and Taoist temples are the most iconic worshiping instrument with functions of giving an alarm, gathering people, and celebrating festivals.

Artistic characteristics of drums

The artistic expression of the Chinese drum consists of the combined effects of rhythm, tone, force, and speed. In terms of timbre, due to different drum shapes and different playing skills, there can be many significant tonal changes.

Using variable force when hitting drums of the same rhythm and timbre allows for a wide range of sounds. When added to speed control, this can express a more colorful sound.

(Shen Yun Performing Arts)

The center of drums can make low and deep sounds, whereas the sound made at the edges is higher and stronger. These changes can be used to enrich expressiveness while performing.

Musical instruments and choreography are inseparable from the drum because it has exceptional resonance and its sound and power are incomparable.

Drumming also wields a spiritual power that inspires people, so that as they are awed by a sense of beauty, they are also enlightened.

The drum ultimately orients toward truth and virtue.

(The cover photo: “War Drum” –