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Roving Exhibition – Music of Inner Mongolia

Untitled Document


Text / Videos / Pictures: Chan Chi-chun (Executive Director, Centre for Chinese Music Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)


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The Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region is situated in northern China, bordering Mongolia and Russia. With Hohhot as its provincial capital city, the autonomous region has nine prefecture-level cities and three leagues with more than ten ethnic groups, including Mongol, Han Chinese, Hui, Manchu and Korean, living on this expansive piece of land.
Inner Mongolian Music
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Inner Mongolian Music
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Inner Mongolian Music
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Inner Mongolian Music
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Inner Mongolian Musicn
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Mongolian Music

The music of the Mongols, the nomads, conjures up images of the vast and verdant grasslands. Their folk songs are an integral part of life and form the foundation of their musical culture.
Folk Song
Generally, Mongolian folk music is categorized into two genres:
  1. 1. Long Song (Urtiin Duu):
    • With lyrics that are closely related to the pastoral way of life of the Mongolian nomads, the Long Songs are performed at important festivities, such as weddings and celebrations of newborns.
    • In terms of musical form, the lyrics usually consist of two sentences.
    • The lyrical chant has no fixed tempo and is characterized by an abundance of ornamentation, falsetto, and a wide melodic range imitating the vast grassland and the sounds of animals grazing.
    • The Long Song adopts a unique vocal technique called “nugalaa”, a modulated vibrato produced by complex guttural movements, with two to three modulations for each note.
    • Representative songs include The Vast Grasslands, The Pacing Horse and Little Yellow Horse.
    • In 2005, the Mongolian Long Song was proclaimed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO (i.e. the present Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity)
[Video 1]
The Vast Grasslands
  1. 2. Short Song (Bogino Duu):
    • It is called the “Short Song” so as to contrast with the Long Song.
    • Compared to the Long Song, it has fixed beats and a faster tempo.
    • It also has a more regular structure, usually with two or four phrases. The structure and setting between the phrases and the lyrics are in a more coordinated and symmetrical manner.
    • There is a wide range of Short Songs, such as love songs, songs of praise, drinking songs, wedding songs, ballads, and political songs, among others.
[Video 2]
White Wormwood Hill
Folk Operetta
Errentai (two-person operetta)
  • Errentai is a genre of Chinese folk operetta popular in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Hebei, Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. It features two people singing and dancing to each other.
  • There are about 120 traditional errentai plays, many of which are based on mythical and historical tales. Other themes include labor production, liberalization from feudalism, and love stories.
  • The musical genres of errentai can be classified into instrumental music and vocal music. Both of them were developed on the basis of singing with string accompaniment and narrative singing during the reign of Guangxu, Qing Dynasty with influences from folk dances.
  • Glissando and staccato are frequently used to create a coarse and bold style. Combining elements of folk opera and singing with wind accompaniment, the melody embraces indigenous specialties.
  • Its major accompanying instruments are the dizi (bamboo flute), sihu (four-stringed fiddle) and yangqin (hammered dulcimer), complemented by percussion instruments like the bangzi (wood claves) and the sikuaiwa (four bamboo clappers) to strengthen the rhythm.
  • There are two styles of errentai, namely Eastern and Western. The Eastern-style is popular in the east of Wulanchabu (Ulanqab) in the middle of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, it is thus also called “Zhangjiakou errentai” and “Hebei errentai”. The Western-style is commonly found in the region west of Hohhot, the provincial capital, and Shanxi and Shaanxi Provinces. The dialects and singing tones of these two styles are different.
  • In 2006, the art of errentai was inscribed onto the First National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.
[Video 3]
The Fifth Elder Brother Tends Sheep


  • Khoomei is the most distinctive style of Mongolian singing popular in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Mongolia, and Altay in Xinjiang. Traditionally performed at rites and rituals, Khoomei is also sung at group activities such as wrestling tournaments and horse races to cheer on the contestants.
  • Performer of knoomei needs to press the tongue against the roof of the mouth, and then produces a range of overtones by moving the tongue, vibrating the upper jaw, modulating the size and shape of the mouth cavity, and controlling the pressure on the voice. Two “voices” are produced by the biphonic singing, one from the mouth, and an overtone from the ears, nose and head.
  • Khoomei was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in 2009.
[Video 4]
Pray Song for Khubilai Khaan

Significant musical instruments

Morin khuur (Horsehead fiddle)
Morin khuur
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  • It is the most distinctive traditional musical instrument of the Mongols developed from the huqin (two-stringed fiddle) in the Tang and Song Dynasties.
  • The trapezoid-shaped body of the instrument is mainly made of wood, usually fir wood or mahogany. The front of the soundboard is covered with leather, the back and the sides with wooden plates. The very top part of the instrument is adorned with a carved horse head.
  • The two strings are usually tuned to an interval of a fourth.
  • It makes a distinct and singable sonorous, undulating, and penetrative sound with rich timbre. By using vibrato with an interval of a third or a fourth to imitate singing, the instrument is suitable for accompanying Long Songs in a rather free rhythm.
  • During the performance, the left bottom of the soundbox is placed between the knees, while the bow is held by the right hand. Unlike other Chinese bowed string instruments, the bow of the morin khuur does not go between the strings.
  • Positioning of the left fingers are special:
    • Index finger/middle finger: Put the finger under the string and then use the root of fingernail to press the string from left to right.
    • Ring finger/little finger: Place the finger on/above the string and then use the fingertip to press the string.
Morin khuur
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  • The modern morin khuur has been developed into different sizes and ranges: soprano, alto, tenor, bass and double bass.
  • Chi Bulag is an important figure of the morin khuur. Born in 1944, he joined the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Nationalities Experimental Troupe in 1958. He published the Book of Morin Khuur: How to Teach Yourself in both Mongolian and Chinese editions. To enhance the sound quality of the morin khuur, Chi Bulag modified the instrument by replacing cowhide on the soundbox with python skin and Firmiana simplex wood, resulting in a much wider range, a louder volume, and a solid timbre. As a National Class One musician, he has also written over 30 solo and concerto pieces, including Galloping of Ten Thousand Horses, Memories and The Grassland Links to Beijing. In 2005, he led his morin khuur troop to perform in the Golden Hall, Vienna, and brought the most representative traditional musical instrument of the Mongols to the world.

Morin khuur
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Galloping Horses
China·Wushen Morin Khuur Symphony Orchestra (a modernized morin khuur orchestra)
Khuurchir (or Dörbön chikhtei khuur)
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  • In The Sequel to the Imperially Commissioned Proper Meaning of the Pitch Pipes, a comprehensive treatise on music of the Qing Court commissioned by the Qing Emperor in the 18th century, this 4-string instrument was called “tiqin” (fiddle).
  • It is derived from the antiquated string instrument xiqin, an instrument used by both the Mongols and the Han Chinese. This instrument is used for accompanying errentai, shadow play, the Jingyun dagu (Peking drum song, or musical narrative in Beijing dialect accompanied by drum and clappers), etc.
  • The four strings are tuned in pairs: the first and the third strings have the same tuning, while the second and the fourth have another tuning.
  • The 75cm-long bow with two bunches of horsetail hair wedged between the first and the second strings, and the third and the fourth strings respectively. Two strings are thus stroked at the same time when playing.
  • Representative pieces include Hurrying, Eight Tunes, and Modeliema.
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Dating at Aobao
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  • It is a traditional Mongolian plucked string instrument with four strings.
  • The performer usually holds the fretboard with his left hand and plays on the strings with his index finger, middle finger, ring finger, and little finger. Meanwhile, the right fingers pluck the strings with a plectrum or fake nails on the thumb and index fingers.
  • It can be played in both solos and ensembles, or accompany singing and dancing.
  • It appeared in the northwest of China as early as the Tang and Song dynasties, and became a national instrument during the Yuan Dynasty.
  • During the Ming and Qing dynasties, it played not only Mongolian music but was also other ethnic art forms, such as singing with self-accompaniment.
  • Famous solo pieces include Asier, Senjidema, and Little Yellow Horse.
[Video 7]
Loving Kindness.Aqitu
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  • Known as the Mongolian zheng (zither), it has a similar structure and playing techniques as the guzheng of the Han Chinese, but it is laid on the performer's leg with one end touching the ground.
  • The traditional yatga had 12 or 10 strings. The former was performed in the royal courts or temples, while the latter usually accompanied folk songs and pastoral songs.
  • It is popular in the Xillingol League and Ordos, which are respectively in the middle and at the southwest of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
[Video 8]
Yatga (The instruments in the video are modenized ones which have virtually the same structure as the modern guzheng)

Mongolian folk songs and Chinese music


Mongolian music went through different phases of internal development. It also gave inspiration to the Han Chinese. Elements of Mongolian music can be found in some of the recently composed Chinese music. Horse Racing is one of the prominent examples.


Horse Racing
Composed by Huang Haihuai in 1959, Horse Racing, as its name suggests, depicts a Mongolian horse racing scene on the grassland. Its cantabile passages were adapted from Mongolian folk songs. The tremolo technique in the cadenza imitates the Mongolian Long Songs and the morin khuur. The brisk music brings the horse race of the herdsmen to life.


[Video 9]
Horse Racing
Huqin: Wong On-yuen, Wong Sun-tat
Orchestra: Hsinghai Art Association Chinese Orchestra, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chinese Chamber Ensemble
Conductor: Shen Guo-qin




The traditional Long Songs, khoomei, errentai and morin khuur are cultural treasures that have been preserved and passed along in Inner Mongolia. These forms of art have become the intangible cultural heritage of China, representing the unique culture of the nomadic people. The Long Songs and khoomei transport one to the borderless grasslands, far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While the Mongols live on the edge of China, their music is intricately linked with the music of the Han Chinese. Elements of Mongolian music have been adopted in modern Chinese music, in which traditional Mongolian musical instruments are brought in to increase the diversification of timbre. The cultural exchanges between different ethnicities have enriched and expanded the contents of Chinese music.

Supplementary information on images and videos