Yet more Chinese clichés: music


To follow Chinese art clichés, for this list of Chinese music clichés I revert to the Catechism format immortalized by the great Flann O’Brien (for my previous essays in the genre, see here and here).

Seriously Though Folks: since we need to study expressive culture in the context of changing society, it’s important to unpack the language of propaganda, in this as in other fields!

What kind of history does Chinese music have?
An ancient 悠久 one.

And how many years of history does any genre you care to mention have?
Two thousand.

And what kind of fossils are these genres?
Living ones, of course.

To what do they belong?
The glorious heritage of the Chinese peoples.

What is the folk culture of, well, anywhere you care to mention?
Unique and vibrant.

What kind of colourings did such music often have before Liberation?
Feudal superstitious ones.

How did the government treat folk music after Liberation?
They esteemed it while systematically dismantling its entire social basis.

And what novel kind of foliage did folk artists turn over then?
A new leaf.

What does folk-song express?
The sentiments of the labouring masses.

In praise of whom did folk-singers create new songs?
Um, Chairman Mao.

How did they present their art 献艺 to the Party?

So they weren’t malnourished and desperate, then?
Oh no.

What are they keen to do with what?
To preserve and develop their precious heritage.

Now (here’s an easy one) what are the ethnic minorities jolly good at?
Um, singing and dancing 能歌善舞。

And how are their relations with the Han Chinese?
Brotherly, of course.

What kind of scale does Chinese music use?
A heptatonic scale based on anhemitonic pentatonic melodies, with occasional temporary modulation up or down a fifth creating a new anhemitonic pentatonic set.

[consulting script anxiously] WHA-A-T???
Oh all right then—pentatonic.

How might we characterize southern music?

And northern music?
Rugged and angular.

Can I ask you something?
Go ahead.
Are there any other blind musicians in China apart from Master Kuang and Abing?
Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that.

For what irresistible yet cumbersome title does one scurry to get nominated, nay inscribed, these days?
The umpteenth batch of China’s National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage zzzzz

Whereupon what means of perambulation will the genre in question adopt in what ubiquitous direction?
Marching towards the world 走向世界。*

Such is the flapdoodle we have to plough through, reading between the lines… Plenty more where that came from under the heritage tag. And for illustrations of different mindsets, see here. For a veritable masterpiece of international cliché, see Away from it all.

And with what should we treat such platitudes?
The contempt they deserve.

Yangjiagou band, 1999

Yangjiagou shawm band, funeral 1999.

As to the “Golden Age” of the Tang, how about this.

* Ironically, “Marching towards the world” is the title of ch.18 of my Daoist priests of the Li family, on the foreign tours of the band—but all is explained:

You may be thinking, “Aha, so now we’re going to see how local ritual goes global and gets adapted for the concert stage!” Well, forget it—the basic context for their performance remains the local funerary business that I describe throughout the book.

For Bach marching towards the world, see here.

16 thoughts on “Yet more Chinese clichés: music

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  3. Two comments, Steve
    i) You are so gender-biased! Remember next rime that ethnic minorities enjoy brotherly AND sisterly relations with the Han 兄弟姐妹。
    ii) Your list makes me think of just what a land of living fossils China must be. The botanical world in which I ride a horse looking at flowers is also chock-a-block with living fossils. Dawn Redwood. Ginkgo. Cathaya argyrophylla and many others. Indeed, one could say that China is our planet’s treasure house of biodiversity 中国是全球的生物多样性的宝库!
    Thanks for your ever learned, ever entertaining blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha thanks Nick! I took “brotherly” from the standard sexist Chinese cliché, but indeed…

      “Treasure-house” is a good one too.

      I also note the current imbalance between the Party’s one-directional encouragement of Uyghur–Han intermarriage…


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