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100 Objects

Object #5. On the ‘Chineseness’ of Chinese Contemporary Music

8 May 2017
Chee Wang Ng 108 Global Rice Bowls
Video stills from Chee Wang Ng's '108 Global Rice Bowls' [2008]

By Jerry Zhuo, MA in Composition.

When discussing Chinese contemporary music, one may recall the debate around ‘Chineseness’ that arose with the formation of modern China in the early 20th Century. This piece of history is well documented in The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture, edited by Kam Louie. Between 1900s to 1950s, reformists tried to construct complete definitions of a Chinese nationality and ethnicity. After its culmination in the Cultural Revolution (1970s), however, nationalist ideology started to be increasingly questioned. In Eline Flipse’s music documentary Broken Silence (1996), Chen Qi-Gang, who studied after Oliver Messian, commented that the nationalists are:

‘Always talking about our national style… The claim is that our culture has a longer and more interesting history and is much stronger than Western culture. But yet there is no style. That is paradoxical.’

Indeed, the question of ‘Chineseness’ has proven to be extremely difficult due to the complexities involved in the historical and political definitions of ‘China’. Within the unstable political and social environment that followed the Cultural Revolution, a group of composers known as the ‘Third Generation’ emerged. Their goal was to achieve individuality rather than nationality or ‘Chineseness’, as argued by Frederick Lau in his article ‘Fusion or Fission: The Paradox and Politics of Contemporary Chinese Avant-Garde Music’. Consequently, we can see in their works a greater imaginative freedom, also in the use of Chinese materials.

For the Third Generation, especially those living overseas, there is a fine line between gaining recognition and preserving artistic independence — or their sense of self. The idea of ‘Chineseness’ is at the centre of this dilemma. This topic is discussed by Samson Young. In her article ‘The Voicing of the Voiceless in Tan Dun’s The Map’, Young argues that ethnicity, whether consciously or unconsciously, is a pressing issue for many Chinese composers, because people — both in and out of China — expect them to express Chineseness, and often seem to ignore the individuality behind their music. Indeed, ethnicity has been a major contributor to the commercial success of many Chinese composers. Moreover, although composers have tried hard to avoid ‘Chineseness’, and they might not intend to assert their authenticity, evidence shows that this effort is often self-contradictory: in their programme notes, commentaries and interviews, there are frequent references to native cultures.

The issue becomes even more complex when one looks at distinct musical works, as the use of Chinese elements in Chinese contemporary music is often fragmentary in style. Many recent works have put multiple unrelated elements together without a convincing framework that negotiates the discrepancy between the spatial, temporal and cultural origins of the materials. Tan Dun’s The Map (2002) and Symphony 1997 are examples of such works, which have been widely criticised for their attempt to integrate, in a rather rigid fashion, local music with Western music and modern technologies. This phenomenon is well discussed in Yu Siu Wah’s article ‘Two Practices Confused in One Composition: Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997: Heave, Earth, Man’.

Image credit: Videos stills from Chee Wang Ng’s ‘108 Global Rice Bowls’ [2008]. Source.

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