Chinese-Western Musical Encounters

"Enchanting Rhythms of Chinese Music," Edmonton, Canada, August 22, 2015 | © Courtesy of IQRemix/Flickr.
"Enchanting Rhythms of Chinese Music," Edmonton, Canada, August 22, 2015 | © Courtesy of IQRemix/Flickr.

The collected volume China and the West: Music, Representation, and Reception testifies to the efficacy of cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research. As its editors, Hon-Lun Yang and Michael Saffle (2017), argue, the phrase cultural encounters often refers to actual contacts between individuals or groups of people of different origins, ethnicities, or nations. In the present volume, the term encounter refers to forms of musical representation, appropriation, and discourse.

A Blog Post by Pablo Markin.

The goal of this volume is a holistic approach to the study of Chinese-Western musical relationships. Inevitably, such an approach must be informed by notions of exoticism, orientalism, globalization, transculturation, and hybridity. In the introductory essay, Hon-Lun Yang addresses these and other closely related issues in terms of existing theoretical approaches.

Part 1 is devoted to actual encounters between Chinese and European individuals and to the artifacts, instruments, institutions, and compositions that resulted from these encounters. Part 2 examines theatricalized and mediated encounters for Chinese as well as Western audiences. Part 3 is devoted to musical encounters as manifested in musical languages, sonorities, and subject matters. Part 4 is devoted to reception studies and considers ways in which differences are articulated in musical discourse by different actors serving different purposes.

Part 1 begins with David Francis Urrows’s study of the pipe organ in China. Urrows opens a window into Sino-Western musical exchanges of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Urrows notes that China’s positive and open-minded reception of this Western instrument challenges the myth of an isolationist China intent on rejecting Western culture and technology. Hon-Lun Yang’s discussion of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, China’s first professional orchestra, offers insights into Sino-Western interactions.

Cornelia Szabó-Knotik explores the uncharted territory of Austrian-Chinese musical relations. Her essay considers «Chinese» aspects of a nineteenth-century Viennese amusement park, Prince Sou-Chong as a character in an Austrian operetta, Austria’s reception of Chinese pianist Lang Lang, and the exploitation of the Sino-Austrian television movie Mozart in China.

Part 2 considers «staged» encounters that exploited as well as repositioned Westernized images of a more or less realistically portrayed China. Michael Saffle deals with some two dozen Chinese-themed operettas and musical comedies presented during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on London and New York stages. Saffle pays attention primarily to the ways in which Chinese musical tropes—almost entirely Western products that nevertheless incorporated a few concessions to the traditional sources they purported to imitate—help today’s scholars understand a repertory now almost entirely forgotten.

James Deaville considers a work more familiar to contemporary enthusiasts of musical comedy, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song, as well as that show’s various iterations in print, on stage, and in film. By examining textual and dramaturgical aspects of Lee’s original story and its several re-presentations, Deaville casts light on different forms of stereotypical Chinese Americanness and the «Chinatown experience,» drawing attention to the complex identity negotiations that, in this case, extended across entire generations and modes of musical-dramatic expression.

Mary Ingraham examines Iron Road, a postmodern, politically conscious opera cowritten by Chinese Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin and Canadian librettist Mark Brownell. Ingraham’s discussion of its character and contents casts light on present-day Canadian interculturality, through «the immediacy and mediating properties of both Chinese cultural traditions and a Western operatic framework engaged for the work.»

Part 3 concerns intercultural compositions by both Chinese and Western composers. Nancy Yunhwa Rao’s essay deals with well-known con-temporary Chinese composers—TAN Dun, CHEN Yi, ZHOU Long, CHEN Qigang, and Bright Sheng—and some of their cross-cultural compositions. Rao points out that what characterizes these individuals in terms of Chinese-Western musical relations is fourfold in nature. Her arguments, which contradict the opinions of critics eager to valorize Western influences over Eastern ones, revisit the East-West dichotomy in terms of recent Chinese culture and its often surprising musical evolution.

John Winzenburg deals with sinification in terms of timbral mixtures in Chinese-Western fusion works, especially concertos that feature hybrid instrumental sonorities. Beginning with Western notions of timbre, Winzenburg argues that the addition of new—that is, Chinese—instrumental sounds to the Western symphony orchestra exemplifies a cultural power struggle between opposing views of cultural identity and nationhood. Emile Wennekes examines Dutch composers’ intercultural musical ef-forts within the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sino-Dutch cultural exchanges. Wennekes unpacks reception issues central to all cross-cultural musical borrowings and appropriations. His conclusions challenge binary notions of exoticism and orientalism, because the Dutch composers he examines have zealously sought to transcend existing cultural boundaries.

Part 4 opens with Eric Hung’s intertextual and intercultural reading of the Shanghai Quartet’s Chinasong CD, especially JIANG Yiwen’s arrange-ments of Chinese folk songs foregrounded in that recording. Hung sheds light on Jiang’s modes of self- representation, including music, liner notes, and reviews. For Hung, the ensemble’s Chinasong project represents a «musical memoir of exile» for American music lovers. Finally, Frederic Lau evaluates the orientalism embedded in the con-ception, reception, negotiation, contestation, and representation of cultural differences both inside and outside recent musical activities and artifacts. For Lau, «attention to multiple interdependencies between history, praxis, human agency, production, consumption, and networks of ideological constructions is a must if we are to make sense of musical and cultural production in the twenty- first century and the Sino-Western relationship».

Written by Hon-Lun Yang and Michael Saffle (2017)

Edited by Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: “Enchanting Rhythms of Chinese Music,” Edmonton, Canada, August 22, 2015 | © Courtesy of IQRemix/Flickr.


Yang, Hon-Lun, and Michael Saffle, eds. China and the West. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. Accessed February 20, 2020.

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