On Monday we opened class with a discussion of Chairman Mao’s Talk to Music Workers from August 1956 and its historical context in the history of Sino-Soviet alliance in the years following Stalin’s death and the denunciation of his cult of personality. We reflected on the ambiguity within Mao’s speech, particularly the opening line, and his deep emphasis on the importance of studying foreign cultures for the betterment of Chinese culture.
We covered this history of Modern China from the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911) through the Opium Wars, the end of dynastic rule and the establishment of the Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet split and the end of World War II, moving into the Great Leap Forward under Chairman Mao and the Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. We considered the map presented by Lao within his first chapter and placed Henan, which is considered the cradle of the Communist Movement in China, where the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) moved in the 1930s in order to mobilize farmers in rural areas.
In our considerations of Frederick Lau’s Music in China, we touched on his bias against the presence of Western classical tradition and his dissatisfaction with the academic discourse surrounding folk music culture in China. Maria took us through his explanations of organology within the Chinese orchestra, and the categorization of instruments into aerophones (instruments that produce sounds through the vibration of air), chordophones (instruments that use strings to produce sound), membranophones (instruments that have a stretched membrane through which sound is produced), and idiophones (instruments that are solid and produces sound through being struck). We listened to the accompanying tracks, provided on the CD, in order to identify the sounds of the erhu, zhonghu, pipa, sanxian, yueqin, yangqin, dizi, xiao, sheng, and suona within Lao’s field recording of the jiangnan sizhu (silk and bamboo music) performance at the teahouse.
We opened class on Wednesday by outlining the problems with developing a national Chinese music and addressing the presence of a multitude of cultures and types of music making, with 56 different ethnic groups identified and recognized as existing within the PRC. Our discussion of the beginnings of a classical canon in China and the establishment of the Central Broadcasting Radio Orchestra in 1953 brought us to look more closely at the technique of cipher notation and the development and standardization of equal temperament in orchestral instruments for piano accompaniment.
The development of compositions for solo performance and the integration of other Western styles and techniques into Chinese musical culture was covered in Lao’s second chapter in the examination of the Erhu, Dizi, Pipa, and Gushing and leading figures such as Liu Tianhua, who established exercises for the erhu and composed ten solo pieces for performance. We also watched a clip of a woman performing Ambush from All Directions, which we heard during the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra performance when they visited Bard- canonical composition for pipa solo performance, though it is only recorded as having first been notated in the 19th century, the pipa has an older history of being a solo instrument than the erhu, dizi, and guzheng.
We ended our discussion by reflecting on Yang Mu’s article on “Academic Ignorance or Political Taboo? Some Issues in China’s Study of Its Folk Song Culture” and how it addressed the question, what does it mean for music to be authentic? Most of our discussion of the article centered on the inherent bias present within the writing and binary valuing and dis-valuing of folk song compositions and performances based on their respective “authenticity” or “inauthenticity.” We did not have much time to reflect on the rest of this reading and barely touched on the nature of the Chinese government’s political censorship and intervention into Chinese traditional and folk music, which include everything from folk song, regional opera, narrative singing, instrumental music, and dance music (Mu, 310). In my considerations of both the Mu and Lao readings, I would like to raise the question of how this national Chinese music and the creation of new aesthetics of instrumental sound, and practices of ensemble structure and composition, actually came to produce a “music for the people?” (Lao, 58) How can we balance the confluence of ancient tradition, regional folk styles, and contemporary Westernization with the government intervention in composition and the censorship of discourse?
guzheng* not gushing
This week we began our introduction into China. We started with Lau’s Music In China: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. We started by looking at the map on pg. 3 to look at the areas where Lau focuses on musically (e.g. Chaozhou). We got to study and talk about the various instruments that were mentioned throughout the book. We listened to a sound clip of each of them in order to understand how they sound like and what the difference between each one is. During this week, we learned that Bard actually has a collection of most of the instruments and are open to lend them out to students.
We also looked at Chairman Mao’s Talk to Music Workers article. One of the things about this that made me understand it more was the constant reusing of the term dogmatic. Being refreshed on what that meant helped reinforce why Mao felt how he felt about the study of Western music. In conclusion, he wanted to point across how music should be studied from foreign and Western backgrounds as well as Chinese but neither should be given priority. The main reason for this was to lower the risk of “Complete Westernization” (Mao 1) that he witnessed people starting to advocate for.
Next we started getting into the process of actually reading the music that these Chinese instruments would play by. It turns out that they go by a number system that shares a similarity to that of solfege. (Do-Re-Mi) We got to have a first hand glimpse of this by singing out Amazing Grace using the “sheet music” that they would read. We also got to see a diagram of how the Chinese orchestra looks like from pg. 37 of Lau’s book.
We also talked about Yang Mu’s article that dealt with the problems that the study of Chinese folk songs has. He mentions the flaws of how these anthologies that collect folk songs are, “The proportion and significance of “revolutionary folk songs” will be exaggerated and that of other categories will be diminished.” (Mu 311) Ultimately it was determined that the reasons that there are inconsistent biases is due to political interference and the fear that the government imposes on Chinese scholars. In class Mu was critiqued about how it looked as if he was oblivious to these circumstances and was putting too much emphasis and blame on these scholars. Utilizing his own personal story about how he was silenced because of a criticism he had about the National Minorities Performing Arts Festival, we get a clear glimpse into a country whose grasp on the media shares similarities to those of Stalin.
My favorite part of the reading for this week was when Chairman Mao clarified that “removing the appendix and taking aspirin have no national form”- just so that the listener understands that their appendix at least retains some autonomy from government control. The same does not apply for music, however, because Mao believes in the cultural power of the arts “because art..bears a very close relationship to a nation’s customs and language.. artistic heritage has grown up within the framework of the nation”. However, the most interesting part of the reading was where Mao acknowledges that Marxism is a Western construct. Of course, given that we have just concluded the section on the USSR, I was surprised by Mao’s statement that Chinese modernity was less advanced than Western modernity. The Soviets never seemed to want to admit any inferiority to the West, and conducted a policy of isolation from Western culture. It seems that the Chinese government had a different approach, and a much more pragmatic one in my opinion, given their openness to adaptability. Still, however, there is the same sense that preserving the core of Chinese culture is of paramount importance, and so Western culture must be engaged with critically. This approach seems more realistic than the USSR’s, if only because maintaining a closed society is nearly impossible and can become very inhibiting insofar as it hurts innovation. The imposition of cultural unity seems similar to the USSR’s, however, as Mao mandates that the peasant class be educated so as to possess the same knowledge as the bourgeois. I imagine this plays out differently in Chinese society than in the USSR with the “friendship of the people’s society”, considering the different demographics in China. Mu mentions a similar policy to the USSR in that folk music was standardized by the government so as to reflect a unified Chinese culture. This included the translation of original dialects into Mandarin and the modification of melodies into a uniform style. All Mao really says in the speech is to unify and preserve Chinese culture in the process of advancing China’s modernity in accord with socialist ideals. I was amazed by the simplicity of his language and policy- do this, he tells the music workers, and “your work will have a great future.”
We began the week with Chairman Mao’s talk to the music workers and a brief history of the Sino-Soviet alliance. An alliance that lead to the Chinese Communist Party splitting from the Soviet Union at the end of WWII. Unlike the Soviet Union the Chinese Communist party began gaining power with the peasants and after twenty years it gained power in the cities as well. This seems like a better plan than the Soviets because the peasants are less likely to disagree because of their low levels of education. The Great Leap Forward lead to millions of deaths because of the push for industrialization and the emergence of the Chinese orchestras and the conservatories (presently there are around eight in China and they are very hard to get into) started training their performers with Western music on traditional instruments. The conservatory training enabled the musicians to become well known in China and globally. The idea of playing Western classical music on the traditional Chinese instruments reminded me of when the countertenor performed lascia ch’io pianga by Handel in the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra’s performance and they used traditional Chinese instruments for his accompaniment.
I was particularly interested this week in the figure of Blind Abing and the necessity to create new “folklore” to go along with emerging solo repertoires. I find a figure like this, whose personal story is considered dubious, to be an interesting example of the issues with authenticity in new Chinese musical traditions. On the one hand, it seemed as if Abing learned his mastery of the pipa and erhu through traditional/oral means, rather than in the new Westernized conservatory setting. However, on the other hand, the very focus on a lower income musical performer is “new” within China. The status of amateur and professional musicians had just recently flipped. Abing had, early on in his career, supposedly performed with those very ensembles of professional musicians who were sneered at by the upper class. Who can claim Abing within the shifting perspectives of authenticity and traditional folk music?
More information can be found about him here:
One thing that I paid attention to in ‘Chairman Mao’s Talk to the Music Workers’ was his humble tone. For example, he says, “We must acknowledge that in respect of modern culture the standards of the West are higher than ours. We have fallen behind.” Stalin would never have said this, and yet, both leaders sought to uphold the tenants of socialism. Mao also mentions how the Chinese people must not close their ears to foreign art and not reject the progression of Western music. I wonder how or if we will see this directive pan out as we continue our study.
One point that caught my interest in class discussion was when we brought up authenticity in music. What is it that compels us to preserve something in its original form even though we can reason that an ‘original form’ doesn’t really exist? Also in what ways is this discussion of authenticity limited to folk music and how does it compare to our obsession with progressiveness in institutionalized musics such as classical and now jazz music. Writing and playing ‘authentic’ (or older) classical and jazz music is often dismissed as reactionary. Is there an irony in our simultaneous obsessions with ‘authentic’ folk music and ‘new’ institutional music. Both seem illegitimate for the same reason that no music is without influence.
The idea of equal temperament reminds me of the folk orchestra. Although they are not the same thing, the concept and intention are similar. The reason for creating or implementing both of them is to “Westernize” the music and to uphold the “Western Standard.” Equal temperament allowed for accompaniment and helped to match the tones of the traditional Chinese instruments with the piano (or orchestra). However, was that necessary? This question of necessity was also a question of the folk orchestra. Although, it helped to internationalize and expose the Eastern world to the Western world (and vice versa), it also diluted the rich culture of these Soviet countries.
I think Chairman Mao’s 1956 Talk was brilliant in terms of uniting and inspiring the masses. He looks at the Soviet example and expands on it. Mao talks about the necessity to learn from foreign examples and foreign things. He is not only a proponent for Chinese arts and customs. Mao acknowledges the west and says, “in respect to modern culture the standards of the West are higher than ours.” He persuades the people to look at things critically and that by looking at foreigners and foreign customs this way, China will benefit. The speech is realistic yet hopeful for the future of China and the future of the workers and musicians. Mao’s implementation of Communism differed greatly from the Soviet Union in this regard. The Soviet leaders tried to prevent Western Influences, and by doing so, only weakened itself. I think Mao realized that the Soviet Union had to accept western influences into his culture, that it was inevitable, and so he used it as a ground to make himself seem stronger – possibly he wanted to seem accepting of the influences that would be prevalent in his country anyways.
Particularly striking, as others have mentioned, was Chairman Mao’s inclusivity of other cultural forces in the formation of the ideal Chinese socialist state. And yet, most similarly, Mao advocates for the elevation of all cultures (“The Chinese workers and peasants, owing to their having been oppressed for a long time, still do not have much cultural knowledge.”) is strikingly reminiscent to the Soviet state’s insistence on a uniform, national culture rooted in a kind of authentic Russian-ness. This debate between authentic and inauthentic national cultures is one aspect of our studies that seems to continuously thread through our case studies of different socialist states.
I was interested in the changing of Chinese traditional musical instruments to equal temperament. In trying to make everything work in a western influenced system, there is surely something lost from the traditional culture. I think this says a lot about colonialism and (often) communism in general, and for me speaks to the modern day issues of cultures who move into a country – how much must they adapt without losing valuable language, music, and other aspects of their culture? This is a difficult balance to achieve.
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