The term refers to a kind of classical music in China. Noble and pure, it was the music used by kings in ancient times when worshipping heaven, earth, and ancestors, receiving congratulations from other quarters of the world, or holding feasts and major ceremonial activities. Chinese classical music often eulogized the royal court’s accomplishments; its melodies were tranquil and stately, its wording elegant and tasteful, and its performance of song and dance followed explicit codes of etiquette. Rulers of all dynasties used this kind of music as an effective means to instruct their people and promote civic virtue. As a courtly tradition, the music was necessarily conservative. However, throughout history the assimilation of elements of folk song and dance, as well as the music and dance of foreign lands, inevitably led to innovation. Thus, it maintained throughout the ages the highest levels of musical excellence. After the Tang Dynasty, this kind of music spread to other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, becoming a constituent part of their musical culture.
Confucius said, “I detest replacing red with purple and interfering refined classical music with the music of the State of Zheng. I loathe those who overthrow the state with their glib tongues.” (The Analects)
At the time, Liu De, Prince Xian of Hejian, was an exceptionally talented man, and he believed that music and ceremony were essential to the proper governing of the state. As a result he donated all the documents of classical music he had collected to the court. (The History of the Han Dynasty)
Xun Xu had a sensitive ear for musical tones. Some, recognizing his musical gift, recommended him for a position overseeing musical rules and revising classical music. (Liu Yiqing: A New Account of Tales of the World)