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Music and the Moon

  • By Author
  • September 24, 2018
“The moon of today did shine on the men of old. / People of past and present … look at the moon all the same.”

– Li Bai (Chinese poet, 701–762)

In ancient Chinese tradition, the moon was seen as a bridge through time and space, its seemingly eternal nature allowing people separated by centuries and seas to unite in contemplation of its celestial beauty. As such, the moon became a major source of inspiration for artists and a constant presence in Chinese music, poetry, literature, and painting.

Adjacent to this conception, Chinese thought on music deemed its purpose a unifying one, with the power to express and effect harmony—not only in the realm of sound, but within an individual, within a society, and within the greater cosmos and all it contains. In fact, the system of pitches and the linear order that are the framework of musical composition and performance were seen as a reflection of the larger social structure and the relationships this engendered.

It seems apt then that poets and musicians would have looked to the moon—a symbol of reunion and supreme happiness—to imbue their work with the same universal qualities. Scholars philosophized that in its purest form, music should be able to elevate the listener’s soul, to free it from the banalities of everyday life and transport it beyond the confines of time and space. In the presence of music, everyone listens; like the moon, it unites people of all ages and backgrounds in appreciation, creating and strengthening communal bonds.

musical performance at the garden

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden wanted to draw on this ancient and artistic connection between music and the moon in celebration of the 2018 Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. It was a truly special evening, featuring performances from the Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble, VSO School of Music’s Azalea Ensemble, and the finalists of the inaugural Music Under the Moon Contest. Visitors to the garden were treated to the exquisite, glittering strains of traditional instruments including the guzheng, erhu, and zhongruan.

Through its historical ties to moon worship and the harvest season, the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival is accordingly a time of gathering, reunion, and gratitude. One of the most important holidays in the calendar year, it appears in many cultures under various guises, including Chuseok (Korea), Sharad Purnima (India), and Thanksgiving (Canada and the United States). In contemporary Chinese culture, festivities often include playing traditional games, releasing wishing lanterns, and enjoying special meals with family and loved ones, all beneath the light of the full moon.


Resources/Recommended readings:

Lin, Shuen-fu and Owen, Stephen. The Vitality of the Lyric Voice: Shih Poetry from the Late Han to the T’ang. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Martens, Frederick H. “Music in Chinese Fairytale and Legend.” The Musical Quarterly, 8.4 (1992): 528-54.

Zehou, Li and Samei, Bell. The Chinese Aesthetic Tradition. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010.


Image credit: William Luk

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