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Research project: Listening to China: Sound and the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839

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Listening to China, funded by the British Academy, explains changing Western views of China at a crucial turning point in the history of Sino-Western relations, and illuminates new discourses about the nature of sound, music and listening in the West emerging in this period.

 

Listening to China: Sound and the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839

Mid-Career Fellowship, British Academy, 2015-2016

 

The aim of this project is the better understanding of Western perceptions of China around 1800. At its heart is engagement with Western reports of listening in China. This exploration of ‘ear-witnesses’ of China around 1800 is integrated with and read against a survey of Western writing on Chinese sound-worlds from 1770 to 1839. The project explains changing Western views of China at a crucial turning point in the history of Sino-Western relations, and illuminates new discourses about the nature of sound, music and listening in the West that emerging in this period. Drawing on methods from music history, sound studies, the history of senses, Sinology and ethnomusicology, Listening to China contributes to debates about the nature of music and music history on either side of 1800, the era of the dawn of ‘sonic modernity’.

 

This project engages with accounts by Western listeners of what they heard in China: from music to unfamiliar or poorly understood languages and dialects, cannon salutes, bell-ringing and all forms of human-generated noise, such as the gongs and drums that were used to intimidate British officials in Canton in the months before the outbreak of the Opium War of 1839. Such hearing included cross-cultural musicking, such as Westerners’ impressions of Chinese music staged specifically for them, attempts by amateur musicians among the British traders in Canton to perform in Chinese musical ensembles and collective hymn-singing by early Protestant missionaries in China.

 

The era around 1800 was marked by significant changes to the Sino-Western relationship that helped shape this relationship in its ‘modern’ form. This project considers how Westerners began to hear China differently as the Sino-Western encounter entered this new phase. To this end it will consider, for example, official sonic interactions such as the joint Sino-British taxation ceremonies at Whampoa anchorage, which included bands, cannon salutes, bell-ringing and singing, and the musical components of the Macartney embassy to Beijing in 1792-1794. It will ask if reports of these encounters are indexes of convergence in a global ‘modernity’ or, whether they represent Western colonial desire—and thus estrangement and divergence—in an aural form. It will consider the possibility that both answers co-existed and thus contribute to a more refined understanding of the broader historical problem.

 

An important aim of the project is to trace the reciprocal relationship between European reception of Chinese sound and music and reports by Western listeners in China. Thus the project also considers, as a counterpoint, texts by Western philosophers and historians whose experience of Chinese sounds came second hand: their perceptions were shaped by ‘ear-witness’ reports such as those explored here. It traces how Rousseau and Herder used their ideas about Chinese soundscapes (in language, writing, ritual and music) to inflect concepts of the origin of language, and how Herder and Hegel used sound to articulate a ‘universal history’ that included China. It explores how Rousseau, Herder, Burney, Forkel and A.B. Marx built on ideas of ‘universal history’ and used their knowledge of Chinese sounds to place the West and China into a single global music history. The well-connected Burney is a central figure. He was personally acquainted with Rousseau, worked in parallel with Forkel and corresponded about Chinese music with British traders in Canton. Crucially he also collaborated with members of the Macartney embassy to Beijing in 1792-94 on the design of sonic experiments carried out with Chinese listeners in order to test specific theories about Chinese music, thus bringing questions raised by Western writers about the way the Chinese experience music back to China.

 

By extending its scope to sound more broadly in addition to music, Listening to China circumvents the problem of profoundly different definitions of music in the West and China. Around 1800 Chinese musical thought—which always saw music as a reflection of the sounding natural world—was hard for Westerners to distinguish from acoustics, or in eighteenth-century terms ‘natural philosophy’. In the broadest sense this project asks how such a disjunction might help explain changing Western intellectual approaches to China at a crucial turning point in modern Sino-Western relations, and how it might illuminate new discourses about the nature of music in the West by observing them when projected in Western reactions to Chinese sounds.

 

 

 

Yee-­‐yine’ [Erhu]. Anon. Canton 1770s? Martyn Gregory Gallery, London.
Yee-­‐yine’ [Erhu]. Anon. Canton 1770s? Martyn Gregory Gallery, London
William John Huggins, ‘Whampoa in China’ (1835), Peabody Essex Museum
William John Huggins, ‘Whampoa in China’ (1835), Peabody Essex Museum
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Related research groups

Music Performance Research
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