Mingaku (Ming-era Chinese music, popularized in Japan during the early 17th century) (明楽)

A lecture and concert held by the Sakata Classic Music Institution (located in Tokyo).

Mingaku is the name of the music played in mausoleum halls or the Imperial Court, and the music was brought to Japan from the Ming dynasty during the Edo period.


The introduction of Mingaku to Japan dates back to when Gishien of Ming (c.1617 - 1689) became naturalized in Japan. Came from Fuqing, Fuzhou, Fujian, he went to Annan and later reached Tonkin. There, he became the owner of a ship for trading silk with Nagasaki, and made a fortune. In 1637, he made a huge contribution to the construction of Sofuku-ji Temple (located in Nagasaki City), being listed in the Yon-dai Danotsu (the Four Danapati [donators]) or one of the Gio-nanrin. Though he was engaged in trade, he well versed himself in music played in the Imperial Court or mausoleum halls in Ming, and he played these pieces of music with his family and followers. He requested permission to visit Kyoto, where he made Mingaku widely known, for example by playing such music in the dairi (Imperial Palace) in 1673. In 1679, he became naturalized in Japan through the permission of the Nagasaki bugyo (Nagasaki magistrate) and took the name Oga after his birthplace in Fujian Province.

Giko, a fourth-generation descendent of Gishien (1728? - 1774) (Gikunzan or OGA Minbu Norisada), had an outstanding talent for music. He was reluctant to take over the position as the head of his family. Instead, in order that the Mingaku, having been inherited from generation to generation within his family, should be made known more widely, he went to Kyoto and played Mingaku in front of the feudal lords. Furthermore, he obtained a stipend from the lord of the Himeji domain Sakai Uta no kami (the Sakai clan, Director of Music), had as many as 100 followers at a time, and made Mingaku widely known by people of the nobility and the samurai class. In 1768, he recorded the scores of Mingaku in gongchepu (a method of musical notation), and published "Wei shi yue pu" (Score by the Wei Family) as a textbook for his followers. As many as 243 musical compositions had been handed down from generation to generation in the Gi clan. However, only 100 of them (slightly less than half) were handed over to his followers while Giko was still alive, and only 50 compositions (further half) were recorded in "Wei shi yue pu (Scores by the Wei family)." According to Batsubun, his leading disciple, it was likely that the publication of another textbook following the first one was planned; but regrettably, because Giko died, the publication ended with only 50 compositions. After Giko died, in 1780, "Gishi Gakki zu" (literally, drawings of musical instruments in the Gi clan) was published by his disciple.

In Japan during the Edo period, 'Mingaku in another lineage' descended in a line different from that of 'Mingaku by the Gi clan.'
For example, there is a record suggesting that the Mingaku brought by Shun-Shui CHU was descended from generation to generation in the Yanagawa Domain ("Music Journal," Vol. 25, 1892). Furthermore, simple scores of Mingaku are recorded in "Mingaku shogo" (compiler unknown), "Toon Wage" and 'Fuefu' (scores for fue flutes) attached to "Gayu manroku (Miscellaneous Records of Elegant Pastimes)."
However, Mingau of other lineages weren't widely known, since they were in the shadow of the 'Mingaku by the Gi clan.'
Therefore, when the term of 'Mingaku' is used in Japan, it usually indicates the Mingaku by the Gi clan.

After the Meiwa era (1764 - 1772), when Mingaku was most prosperous, Mingaku declined rapidly due to an increase in the popularity of Shingaku (Qing-era Chinese music, popularized in Japan during the early 19th century), which incorporated certain characteristics of Mingaku. The term Min-Shingaku is often used to collectively call Shingaku and Mingaku. However, caution is needed because the term 'Min-Shingaku' is often used to indicate Shingaku alone.

Shingaku is the light music that can be enjoyed in the form of solo or ensemble playing, and in the form of playing with instruments or singing alone. Therefore, even in the Edo period when the class system was firmly established, Shingaku could be enjoyed by persons in any class, from farmers and merchants to Daimyo (Japanese feudal lords). On the other hand, Mingaku was Gagaku (ancient Japanese court dance and music) that samurai or Confucian scholars played or sang in groups, and high-leveled group training and considerable expenses were necessary to play the music. Therefore, Mingaku was music for the upper classes that could be only maintained with a big domain such as the Himeji domain supported it as a patron. Such a constraint also caused Mingaku to give in to Shingaku.


Both Mingaku and Shingaku were brought to Japan from China, but their respective characteristics are quite different. Mingaku was stately music to be played in mausoleum halls or the Imperial Court in the Ming Dynasty or was Gagaku. Shingaku, however, was the light and popular music, so the two forms are different in their compositions as well as their instrumental configurations. As compared to Western music, the extent of their differences is like that between classical music and popular music.

In Mingaku, the song sung by males in unison constitutes its major portion, with the musical instruments accompanying the song's melody. At least ten or more persons, but ordinarily 20 or more, would sing in unison and play the instruments required for the song. Many of the lyrics to these songs are from Chinese poetry and Tang and Sung poetry, and were sung in the Tang pronunciation in Japan. Singing constituted the major portion of the music, but musical instruments were also played to accompany the songs, and also dances were performed to the music. At that time, music would not be played by such a large group of participants in Japan except for Gagaku and the like. It was powerful and stately music, something like Shomyo (the chanting of Buddhist hymns) music accompanied by instruments.

In Mingaku, 'four wind instruments, three stringed instruments and four percussion instruments' were used.

The wind instruments were the Sosho, Hitsuritsu, Ryuteki and Chosho. The stringed instruments were the Shoshitsu, Biwa and Gekkin. The percussion instruments were the Taiko, Shoko, Unra and Danban.

Sosho and Hitsuritsu correspond to Sho and Hichiriki in Japan, respectively (however, their sizes and shapes are subtly different, making their tones slightly different as well). Ryuko is the Minteki (a flute in Ming) in which thin Tekimaku (cloth for a fue flute) is placed over the holes, and Chosho is a dongxiao (a Chinese bamboo flute similar to a shakuhachi) that is longer and more slender than a Shakuhachi bamboo flute.

The Biwa was fashioned in a more slender, delicate form than the modern Chinese Biwa. The Gekkin in Mingaku is a Genkan (four- or five-string Chinese lute) with a long neck. Caution is needed, however, because this Gekkin is an instrument that differs from the Gekkin in Shingaku and that of the modern China, although the same term is used.

The stringed instruments used in Mingaku were only of the plucked type. Unlike the stringed instruments used in Shingaku, no bowed stringed instruments like Kokin (so-called Niko) were used.

The present situation

In the era from the late Edo period to the Meiji period, Mingaku was on the verge of extinction. However, it was fortunate that Ongaku Torishirabe Gakari (the predecessor of the Tokyo University of the Arts) purchased from a descendant of the Oga clan an entire set of materials and documents concerned with Mingaku, such as instruments, drawings of instruments and drawings of scores. Thanks to this, relatively good materials and documents concerned with Mingaku have been preserved today (they are now kept by the Tokyo University of the Arts).

In "Wei shi yue pu (Scores by the Wei Family)," 50 compositions, including 'Koryoraku,' 'Lovely Jasmine,' 'Kiseno,' 'Yang Guan,' 'Heshengchao,' 'Zhaojun Yuan' and 'Ru Meng Ling' were recorded.
Many of them are provided with the same names as those in the Tang and Sung poetry (for example, the words of the song titled 'Yang Guan' consist of a Shichi-zetsu style poem by Wei WANG.)
The musical score at that time was completely different as that of today.
At that time, the core parts of a score weren't written in advance, so each disciple of a master had to add those parts later (the system was employed in which, when a person wanted to learn certain musical scores it was necessary to enter the school of the master through necessary procedures and become his disciple.)
This way of teaching was also used in the study of art during the Edo period.

While in Japan a set of real music instruments and the complete scores called "Wei shi yue pu" have been preserved for Mingaku, almost nothing about Mingaku remains in Mainland China. Therefore, the scores written in "Wei shi yue pu" have become world class documents even for music researchers in Mainland China.

Today, reproduced Mingaku are played by the Sakata Classic Music Institution at Yushima Seido (Sacred Hall at Yushima) in Tokyo.