Musical cultures of imperial north China

Navigational aid for fans of late imperial Chinese history: here’s a roundup of posts on musicking in the Qing—not only at the Beijing court but further afield, looking beneath the tip of the iceberg.

But of course, we shouldn’t focus narrowly on defunct genres, or cling to simplistic notions of  “art” and “court” cultures. Notwithstanding social change, all the living local ritual traditions I study have been transmitted virtually continuously since the Ming and Qing among folk groups (“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“). This doesn’t mean that we can neatly relegate them to “history”: the study of all kinds of expressive cultures also involves fieldwork on their fortunes since the collapse of the imperial system, with ethnography and oral history becoming more fruitful than library study.

Still, Like Life, one thing leads to another. More generally, early Western contacts with Chinese music are the subject of a wider range of research from scholars both in China and abroad (see comment below).

5 thoughts on “Musical cultures of imperial north China

  1. David Badagnani does well to remind me of the broader field of study. My interests remain based in living traditions, and despite these various posts on the Qing I don’t mean to venture far into this field; but now I’m here, I should at least outline some of the substantial research on the topic for those who wish to pursue it further.

    Much of this material is based on reports from merchants and diplomats, mostly at the other end of the empire in south China. These include Matthew Raper, Jr. (1742–1826), an English official of the Dutch East India Company, resident in Canton from 1767 to 1777. Indeed, he took part in a Chinese ensemble there, learning to play the erxian fiddle (see; he claimed to have learned four Chinese pieces, and played “English airs” on the instrument.

    (Just as I was about to giggle at those “four pieces”, I recall the Li family Daoists teasing me that in all my time with them I had only managed to learn the first verse of the slow hymn Diverse and Nameless are the Bitter Roots (
    “Maybe in another twenty years you’ll have learned the second verse, Steve!” )

    Raper sent Chinese instruments back to Charles Burney, as well as paintings.
    Another rich topic is the cultural clash of Macartney’s embassy to China, and Charles Burney’s 1819 article “Chinese music”: see e.g.

    Joyce Lindorff, “Burney, Macartney and the Qianlong Emperor: the role of music in the British embassy to China, 1792–1794”, Early Music 40.3 (2012),

    leading on to Berlioz’s encounter in London ( and beyond .

    Other leads, courtesy of David, include

    Patrick Conner, “Export paintings of Chinese musical instruments”, in Chinese export fine art in the Qing dynasty from Guangdong museum, pp.34–9

    And several articles by Gong Hongyu 宫宏宇, such as
    “广州洋商与中西文化交流”, Xinghai yinyuexueyuan xuebao 2012.4
    and the useful survey
    “他者审视”: 明末至民国来华西人眼中的中国音乐, Yinyue yanjiu 2014.4.

    I look forward to the forthcoming book
    Thomas Irvine, Listening to China: sonic modernity and Sino–Western encounter 1770–1839.

    While such research is valuable, the theme has perhaps contributed to creating a lasting image based on urban entertainment genres. And I would be churlish to note that silent archives seem a more popular subject among Western (and to some extent Chinese) scholars than fieldwork on living genres within changing local cultures throughout inland China. There I go again…


  2. Pingback: The Confucian ritual in Hunan | Stephen Jones: a blog

  3. Pingback: A Tang mélange | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: A Tang mélange | Stephen Jones: a blog

  5. Pingback: Precious recordings from imperial China | Stephen Jones: a blog

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