Chinese Music

by Meredith Schweig

The missionaries, philosophers, music theorists, and composers whose works and writings we explore in this exhibition often make reference to that which they considered paradigmatically "Chinese." There is the ubiquitous "Chinese Air," traced to Jesuit missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot, which emerges and reemerges in later works as a representative example of music from China; Jean-Baptiste du Halde's descriptions of "Chinese music" as performed at the Kangxi Emperor's court; and Rameau's discussions of the "Chinese pentatonic scale" that led him to theorize a common origin for Chinese and Greek music. In the European imagination, "Chinese music" music became a unified concept that belied the many regional, historical, and functional differences among the various musical traditions practiced in China.

It is easy to understand why this reification was a likely effect of the modes of transmission. In the case of early chroniclers like Du Halde, the notion of something as circumscribed as "Chinese music" arose partly as a consequence of his sustained presence at the imperial court, where the music on offer was limited to that which was deemed appropriate for performance in the presence of elites and the Kangxi Emperor himself. Likewise, Amiot spent most of his time in China at the court of the Qianlong Emperor. Later on, musician-intellectuals such as Rameau and Roussier turned to missionaries' writings in order to buttress their own theories of musical universalism. Their aims in this endeavor were served by reference to "Chinese music" as monolithic and bounded, something easily grasped and readily quantified.

Viewed from a contemporary perspective, the efforts of these earlier individuals seem hopelessly essentializing. In the last fifty or so years scholars have come to consider musical cultures, even those ostensibly hemmed in by the borders of nation-states, as fluid, dynamic, and multivalent. In place of "Chinese music," we direct our attentions to a multitude of genres and styles that taken together comprise the "musics of China." This is more than a semantic sleight of hand, as the notions of "Chinese music" and "musics of China" are indeed quite conceptually distinct: while "Chinese music" implies the singular and essential, the "musics of China" are multiple and diverse. Had either Du Halde or Amiot been able to move about more freely, they might have borne witness to a vast array of folk, ritual, and operatic musics in various languages, performed by peoples from various ethnic groups. We cannot say for certain how this would have impacted the way they represented their findings to other Europeans, and whether the exposure might have complicated their understanding of "Chinese music." To be sure, the powerful systematizing and universalizing tendencies of the European Enlightenment provided a strong intellectual counterincentive to any greater cultural sensitivity. The voices contesting the predominant cultural universalism at the time were few and far between. Perhaps the best way for us to think about Du Halde and Amiot's accounts of musical activities observed on their missions is as invaluable documentation of a small slice of sonic life in China during the eighteenth century, but it is important to keep in mind that they do not represent the full richness of music at that time present throughout the expanding territories of the Qing Empire.


Meredith Schweig completed her PhD in ethnomusicology at Harvard University. Her research explores twentieth- and twenty-first-century musics of East Asia, with a particular emphasis on popular song, narrativity, and cultural politics in Taiwan and China. Currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at MIT, she is working on a book about Taiwan's hip-hop scene. A second project in development refracts questions about music, memory, and mediation through a study of pop icon Teresa Teng. Other academic interests include sound studies, historiography, translation studies, kinetic sound sculpture, and the museology/musicology nexus. Meredith has received fellowships and grants from the Asian Cultural Council, Whiting Foundation, Fulbright-Hays, and the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University.


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