This week we continued our discussion of revolutionary music in China beginning with the Jones article, “Mass Music and the Politics of Phonographic Realism.” Here we were introduced to Nie Er who denounced the music of his teacher, Li Jinhui and developed a lasting genre revolutionary Chinese music that spawned the Chinese National Anthem, all before his untimely death at the age of 23. In this article we also read about “phonographic realism,” a concept introduced by Guo in his essay, “The Echo of the Phonograph,” which suggests that the artist be an amplifier for the experience of the proletariat.
In class we discussed the related concept of political ventriloquism, introduced in the Lau reading, which describes the amplification of something regional into something national. Lau complicates this idea of political ventriloquism by suggesting that regional musics are just as influenced by national music as national music is influenced by regional musics.
For Wednesday we read “Model Opera as Model: From Shajiabang to Sagabong,” by Bell Yung, which essentially deals with the way that the nuances of regional opera are lost when the Model (Pe King) Opera is retrofitted with any given regional style. In class we discussed the fluctuating tightening and relaxing of the state’s control over traditional opera and the corresponding fluctuation in public attendance.
We also watched a news clip on the revival of an old revolutionary Chinese opera which toured in the United States in 2011 as well as scenes from two modern Chinese operas adapted for film. We discussed the visual and sonic differences between these scenes the scenes from Farewell My concubine.
Since we did not talk extensively about Farewell My Concubine in class, I invite you all to share your thoughts about this film on the blog and also any other lingering thoughts you might have from our class discussions this week.
On Monday we began looking at the theme of “Symbolic Localities” through Jones’ article on “Mass Music and the Politics of Phonographic Realism.” Following the concept created by Guo, Jones defines “phonography” as the process of listening to the masses, “recording” what they are saying and reflecting these ideals back to them. We then moved on to discuss Nie Er, the leading Chinese Leftist music figure, who utilized phonography in order to create revolutionary mass music. Nie Er criticized his former teacher, Li Jinhui for his “decadent” popular music compositions. Nie Er composed anthemic mass music aimed to reflect the lives of the Proletariat. Nie Er’s use of Mandarin as the national and unifying voice of China is an example of what Jones calls “Political Ventriloquism.” His compositions also showcase a shift from the use of the pronouns “you” and “I” to “we,” which strengthened the feeling of inclusivity in his music.
While Jones’ article primarily focused on the development of mass music, Lau’s chapter on “Regional Musics with the National Soundscape,” describes the interactions between regional and national musical practices in China. Similarly to Jones, Lau describes how regional practices are appropriated and consolidated into national cultural practices for the purpose of politics. While Lau describes the major differences that distinguish regional and national music from each other, he does not see the two practices as separate entities.
On Wednesday we briefly surveyed Chinese history beginning in the 1940s to the late 1960s. This span of decades highlights the extreme inconsistency of the Chinese government in communicating its standards towards official cultural policy. This two decade period is marked by constant movement between openness and closeness. We also discussed the development the Model Opera beginning with Mao and Madame Mao’s denouncement of traditional operas in 1963, leading to the existence of few model operas in 1966.
“The new woman is the vanguard in the construction of a new country/ The new woman wants to be the same as a man,” explains the changing role of the woman in society and in music. This quote comes from a song written by Nie Er called the theme for New Woman (1935). The Jones article elaborated on Nie Er and his teacher Li Jinhui and the struggle of determining an acceptable form of music for the masses. Nie Er denounced his teacher Li Jinhu’s music, as it did not focus on the sort of Socialist values that Er found crucial. The use of Sing-Song Girls in China was also common. These girls were a big part of the popular music scene, and because of the more modern, at at the time subversive messages, the Sing-Song Girls were often looked upon as prostitutes. A famous example being Mei Langfang.
In the film Farewell my Concubine the protagonist Dieyi dresses as a woman in order to perform Beijing Opera. And not only does Dieyi dress as a woman, but he also sings in a high nasally voice that mimicked the sound of a female’s. One connection that I found interesting was how the style that women used to perform the popular music of the time, or the yellow music, began to mimic the Beijing Operatic style voice. So the female voice that became well known was actually influenced by the male voice that was mimicking the original female voice.
Marion — small error: Mei Langfang wasn’t a sing-song girl; he was a star of the Peking Opera.
In the very beginning of his paper on Model Opera, Bell Yung mentions that Chinese Operas aren’t known by a composer, but instead are known by their place of origin. That thought went right by me the first time I read it until it occurred to me what a monumental difference that is between Chinese opera and the opera tradition (and others) of the west.
The concept of a piece of music coming from a specific place rather than a specific person turns the western musical mindset upside down in an interesting way – we think of music in such possessive terms (authorship, audience, copyright, buying, selling, “owning” records), yet this other tradition removes those elements (to some degree). This Chinese tradition of identifying pieces by their place of origin is also interesting in light the CCp’s government in China and brings to mind new ideas of what it means for a piece of music, even as old as the operas, to have communist values.
Nie Er’s new mass music, what Jones referred to as a kind of political ventriloquism, was a particularly interesting facet of this week’s readings. To give a voice to the voiceless seems, at first glance, to be an admirable goal to aspire to. As Jones argues with regard to the sing-song girl, however, such attempts may lead to kind of ventriloquistic appropriation; that the voices imposed upon the oppressed are ultimately ambiguous, superficial, or devoid of any real substance or meaning.
I was also interested in the attention that Jones paid to the aesthetics (the sonic qualities) of the singing voice, particularly to his analysis of the rejection of the high-pitched, nasal, and melismatic style for the more operatic, open-throated approach to vocal production in the singing practices of the day. His critique that aesthetics cannot be divorced from politics or culture and that this trend speaks to a broader discourse of Socialist ideologies and the cultural production of knowledges and realities was especially appreciated.
In the Lee article, there was some repetition of the theme that Chinese hybrid culture represents a nontraditional, perhaps “postmodern” form of modernity because it does not correspond with the theory that “industrialization, democratization and the formation of national states” is necessary for modernization. This is an idea that I’ve come across frequently in my classes on politics, and I do not find it particularly radical. It seems, in a way, just to be another manifestation of Western thinking that the way by which modernization has been “achieved”, so to speak, by Western states, must be the way in which modernizations occurs at all. But of course the Chinese state, with its complex history and resulting current political and economic contradictions, would not advance in the same way as Western states. Of course, analyzing it development through Western thinking is enlightening as a comparative model, but I wouldn’t accept that the Chinese state is entirely anomalous. The forms of popular music produced reflect the nearly ambiguous, conflicting nature of Chinese society. For some reason I am fascinated by the term “ideological labour”, as indeed the Chinese government engages in much labour in order to indoctrinate its citizens with certain cultural views. The idea seems entirely unnatural for I at least imagine ideology as a static thing, but over the course of its actualization, it becomes an unwholesome organism. What I mean is that the fixed views of Mao, once they have attained a life of their own through political imposition of cultural norms, are infused with life as they are expressed through the daily lives of the people. But in becoming lifelike, ideology seems to be malleable and morphs in every manifestation. The hybridization of the regime, as reflecting through the contradictory cultural themes embodied in popular music, seems to reveal this variability of ideology.
Also, I find it interesting that the idea of mass song is often considered abhorrent to Westerners to an extent. I think this highlights the individualism that is thought of as a tenet of Western culture. This made me think about the concept of political culture, an idea in political science that certain countries have certain political systems as a result of cultural predilections. One could easily link the use of mass song to communalism in Chinese culture and governance. However, this sort of thinking becomes quickly problematic as is any tendency to stereotype large groups of people as possessing a particular fixed trait or attitude. The factors that contributed to the formation of a hybrid communist regime in China are deeply connected to Chinese culture and musical practices but that does not make these factors easy to distinguish or define- they are far more complex.
What stuck out to me this week in our discussions was the way gender mapped onto national identity and operated as a vehicle in which to deliver national sentiment, messages and discourses that I also think can be read through the plot line of Farewell My Concubine. The denunciation of the sing-song girl and yellow music was done in an effort to uphold the four virtues of decorum, duty, honesty, and shame, and to get rid of a music that “betrays” the national ideals. This betrayal of the the Sing Song girls was basically coded as prostitution and in the first article we read, Jones even talks about the language in these political messages, that the nation did not need “soft tofu,” but something like “hard swords,” a coded and gendered language in itself. In this way, nation has been mapped onto gender, and the nation has been given a masculine code, and attacks the “feminine” nature of a nation under siege, or that is not prospering.
Gender is also complicated in Farewell my Concubine as well, the first image of a woman in the movie is Dieyi’s desperate prostitute mother, then Dieyi repeatedly messes up the line about being a boy when he is playing a girl, but once he gives into this stage identity of a woman he finds success. In fact, I was struck even by the sort of feminine nature of the actor while on stage in the movie but through the rest of the movie as well, a juxtaposition to his strong chinned co actor, Xiaolou. Then gender becomes slightly mixed with sexuality as Dieyi falls in love with his co actor, in effect embodying the role of the concubine and the king, while the only other woman in the movie, also a former prostitute, dedicates her life to Xialou and suffers unbearable wrath from a jealous Dieyi. I believe is many things to unpack just in these few examples, and related to the film as a whole.
I think these examples of a convoluted gender identity and politics in the movie, and at least the gendered language and nationalist codes of masculinity, at least what was briefly touched upon in the readings, is an interesting discourse of a part of these socialist countries and political histories we have not been called attention to in such a way thus far.
The movie had me a bit uncomfortable throughout most of it. The things that disturbed me wasn’t even the graphic scenes like the cutting off of the child’s fingers or the hanging scenes but of the other psychological aspects (e.g. Like the pedophilia scene with the main boy). It was interesting to get a glimpse into what was acceptable in that society during those days. One thing that had me thinking back to the movie was those clips on Wednesday that showed a different kind of opera. As was pointed out in class, the clothing was that of the average proletariat in comparison to the extravagant makeup that those in Peking Opera (like our main characters in Farewell My Concubine) would have.
I found Farewell My Concubine to be very disturbing and uncomfortable to watch. I was fascinated by the way that the singers were producing their voices. Cheng Dieyi was confusing to watch because I couldn’t figure out how he was producing enough sound to reach the audience. The actor hardly opened his mouth while singing. I guess they were lip-syncing but on the youtube videos I found of more recent performances, the actors open their mouths but produce a nasal tone because they are spreading their lips horizontally instead of vertically (like the Western tradition).
Here is a video of 2014 performance of Peking Opera on New Year’s Eve
The Model Opera made me uncomfortable because it seemed like the actors were not given as much artistic freedom and everything was very “realistic.” It didn’t have the mystical feel of the traditional stories and it seemed like it had lost it’s core. The videos that we watched in class made me think that all of the life was sucked out of the stories and the audience was left with an underdeveloped story and set.
Like Gemma, I was very interested in the discussion of the role of gender in determining national identity in this week’s reading. The notion of the “new woman” as a symbol for the “new China” under communism impacted my understanding of the culture and values of the CCP. While watching the film model opera in class, the first thing that stuck out to me was the presence of women on stage, an occurrence that was deemed indecorous under the traditional Chinese system of values. The promotion of gender equality in socialist realism has always interested me, though it was not until applying this to China that I truly felt as though I understood it. I feel as though the combined resonance of the reading on phonographic recording, the film Farewell My Concubine, and the model opera clips from class illuminated the fact that socialists do not believe that men and women, in general, are equal; socialists believe that men and woman who work to promote and uphold the ideals of socialism are equally heroic, capable, and valuable to the nation.
It is this that allowed me to recognize the significance of the cultural revolution within Farewell My Concubine. The purges observed throughout the film allow the viewer to observe the process of what I can only describe as imposed redemption. Both Dieyi and Junxian’s suicides came out of their inability to betray the ideological and personal alliances of their past.
It is interesting how a tune in Chinese opera is different from tunes in the Western world. For a Chinese tune, the melody and rhythm can change, but the text and cadences stay the same. Although keeping the same text would theoretically aid the audience’s understanding, it seems that the change of melody would significantly affect the comprehension. If a melody and the rhythm that people have grown accustomed to hearing are changed, it can catch the audience off guard, therefore making it difficult to keep up with the text — even if the text is the same.
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The Alphabet Song, and Baa Baa Black Sheep are all sung with the same melody but with different words. This is an opposite example in which the melody stays the same but the text changes. What is important to note here is that because the tune is so recognizable and (theoretically) not distracting, it is easier to focus on the text.
If the melody and rhythm are changing but the text remains the same in a Cantonese opera, then one cannot say that the tunes of the Peking opera and the Cantonese opera are indistinguishable. Just because the same words are being used does not make the tunes the same. The melodies and rhythms are changing, therefore the tunes are different. This is not the say that they are not very similar, but it is to say that they are not identical.
I found one of the most interesting aspect of the Bell Yung reading and Farewell My Concubine to be the idea of artistry as reinterpretation of traditional modes. Operas are not “authored” or “composed” so much as they are assembled. The musicians/singers of Farewell My Concubine find their greatness in adapting to preexisting work. Even the revolutionary operas relied heavily on older motifs. Coming out of a study of Soviet composers where the individual composer seemed so prominent it is interesting to engage with a musical tradition where the individual artistic output is less valued. Rather, the writing of the opera and the production of the opera are done by a community. I also find it is interesting that the lack of a distinct author is NOT something instituted by an anti-intelligentsia movement in Communist China but is actually inherent to the older tradition of operas as being composed from many different pieces/composers.
I found the importance of the place of origin in which a Chinese opera is produced as opposed to its “composer” (scriptwriter) striking due to the fact that the regional operas were being forced into national (Peking) molds. “This large-scale, hastily executed movement to revise or originate a great number of operas resulted in a lowering of artistic standards, while with the departure from the stage of popular traditional elements attendance fell sharply (Yung 146). As Sophie mentioned above, Yung seems to define “artistry” as relating to tradition, and ways of incorporating it into cultural production. I initially was wondering if the “lowering of artistic standards” was related to the opera’s deviation from traditional themes, or simply because that change was mandated by the government.
I’m really interested in the relationship between language and music, and this week’s discussion on Chinese opera raised interesting questions for me. I specifically was fascinated by the inherent musicality of the Chinese language and culture. What does it say about a language that changing the text makes all the difference? This is a much different way of looking at things than in western music, where we often have many different settings of poems or texts to one melody. I think this points to the inherent musicality of Mandarin, with its many codified voice inflections (even more in Cantonese). On a larger more sociological and physiological level, I wonder what this says about music’s place in society, and if people are inherently more predisposed to making music because they were exposed to so many different sounds in their mother tongue from birth.
I found Walter Benjamin’s observation about the creation of a mass culture and mass media to be at the heart of Nie Er’s project to provide a voice for the subaltern but resulting in a political ventriloquism of their voices and experience. According to Benjamin “the masses themselves may well be an aftereffect of the technological processes of mass mediation.” I hadn’t really thought about the idea that you need to have mass media before you can actually have the masses. This what we see in China it is a highly diverse are, with a plethora of traditional practices and a large mixture of ethnic groups and even though there are historical periods of Chinese unification for the most part the cultures remain distinct yet related. Not until the rise of industrialization and modernity resulting in all of these new technologies like the phonograph can a mass culture even be conceived of. Nie Er’s by creating mass media/culture is able to shape the ideology and thought of the original Chinese masses.
I found this week’s reading about the Model Operas to be reminiscent of some of the tactics that the Soviet government used in their formation of folk orchestras, and while China dealt with probably an equal number of various languages and dialects, they all technically belonged to the same nation and thus the move towards a standard dialect (mandarin) seems logical but at the same time as though it would meet with a good deal of resistance. It seems as though there was a toleration of the tweaking of mandarin produced model operas in order to fit local dialects, but it is curious as to why each region was not allowed to contribute their own opera for consideration and thus acknowledging the variety of backgrounds that were all in support of the regime. Beyond this I also found the continued mistrust of Jazz as a genre to be very interesting, and the possible color politics behind the long-held opinion of Jazz as an inherently sexual or primitive music form. While studying the Soviet case I thought it would be interesting to see if the Chinese socialists would take anything from the failures and successes of Soviet artistic policy, and I would still like to do more direct comparison, however just through the readings there are similar undercurrents of national character building and the struggle to balance popularity with political messages.
Like Henry, I was interested in Bell Yung’s article and how the songs of Chinese opera were known by their place of origin, instead of by their composer. This kind of communal authorship of a song (and of a tradition) differs greatly from the stricter Western notion of authorship, which is focused far more on an idea of possession and glorification of the creative individual. Of course, Western folk songs’ origins are better to compare to Chinese model opera than Western opera, as these folk traditions more often involve a dearth of concrete information as to whom the author of a song is, and as a result these songs are more known by their place and time of origin. Perhaps the Western idea of “opera” taints a reader’s initial reaction even to the phrase “Chinese opera” and gives one an impression that due to the use of the word “opera,” this set of different musical traditions will involve many of the same elements of Western opera, such as distinctly authored pieces. I am curious how the word “opera” affects a Western listener’s expectation of what Chinese opera will sound like, after hearing the phrase but before listening to the music.
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