Fragments of a silk painting from the Astana Tombs, Xinjiang, China, circa 200–800

Pictures from History/Bridgeman Images

Fragments of a silk painting from the Astana Tombs, Xinjiang, China, circa 200–800

On September 14, 1793, a British envoy, George Macartney, appeared for the first time before the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China from 1735 to 1796. The audience took place in a ceremonial yurt at the mountain summer palace of the Qing emperors at Chengde (or Jehol), close to their Manchu homeland north of the Great Wall, and Qianlong’s arrival was heralded by gongs and Chinese musicians. The mission failed to obtain its principal objectives—new trade concessions and permanent British diplomatic representation in China—but it could at least claim a moral triumph: Macartney insisted upon only kneeling rather than prostrating himself in the kowtow position, as was customary in the emperor’s presence.

For some members of Macartney’s entourage, however, the most striking aspect of the audience was musical. Johann Christian Hüttner described the music that accompanied the enthronement of Qianlong: “The simple melody, the clear succession of tones, the solemn procession of a slow hymn gave my soul, at least, the kind of élan that propels the sensitive enthusiast into unknown regions.” It made Hüttner think of Handel and “put all of us, not expecting anything of the kind, into a state of pleasant astonishment.” What was unexpected was not simply the beauty of the music but the ways in which it recalled European classical music. There was so much that felt unfamiliar in China, but music seemed to bridge the gap, to connect cultures and sensibilities.

In his new book, Listening to China, the musicologist Thomas Irvine examines how Europeans encountered and responded to Chinese music from the age of Enlightenment to the outbreak of the First Opium War between China and Britain in 1839. Irvine, however, goes beyond music and, following what scholars have called the “sonic turn,” has attempted to conjure an auditory world of “soundscapes” as reported by “earwitnesses.” The historical past, as discovered in the documentary sources, has been more readily seen than heard, and the field of “sound studies” seeks to remedy that imbalance.

For Irvine the crucial task is to dissolve, in part, the distinction between performed music and quotidian noise, both of them registering on the human ear but not always clearly distinguished. One of the points he persuasively makes is that for some Western listeners, Chinese music was considered just noise. In a striking chapter on the sounds of Canton—one of very few places where foreigners could reside and trade with China until the First Opium War—he notes the sounds of gongs and firecrackers, and quotes accounts of “screeching” Chinese beggars and “screeching” Chinese opera singers. He further observes the incomprehensible mixing of languages that could make Canton sound like “Babel”—not just Cantonese and Mandarin, with their elusive tones that Westerners could not even distinguish, but also Malay, Bengali, European languages, and “pidgin” English.

Local music could be so distressing to foreigners that at one musical evening in a Chinese residence in the 1830s the European guests brought cotton earplugs “to protect themselves” from the noise. This was far from Hüttner’s experience of Handelian elevation at the imperial audience in 1793, and Irvine notes the very different inclinations of Europeans who wanted to shut out the sounds of China (which he attributes in part to a “proto-colonial” sense of superiority) and those who recorded their aural impressions with interest or avidly sought to know more about Chinese music from far away in Europe.

Matthew Raper, for example, a British Canton trader of the 1770s, learned to play the erhu, a Chinese folk fiddle with two strings and no frets or fretboard. Trimmed with a piece of python skin, played with a horsehair bow, its strings tuned at an interval of a musical fifth, the erhu produces a plaintive, eerie, throbbing sound that you could still hear today from a street musician in a public park in China—or even in Central Park in New York. Raper observed that “on account of having no finger board you must press the strings very hard…. I have performed 4 of their tunes as well as many English airs on it.” His engagement with Chinese music—playing Chinese repertory, even performing sometimes with a Chinese band—is suggestive of the level of commitment to cultural dialogue that existed within the world of the Enlightenment.

One of the important figures in Irvine’s book is the leading British music historian of the age, Charles Burney, who never went to China but did correspond with Raper. Burney prepared a questionnaire about Chinese music for the members of Macartney’s mission to take with them. He even helped choose a group of five wind players, two of whom could also play string instruments, to accompany the mission. Qianlong was interested in copying the wind instruments, and, according to Macartney, an official


sent for a couple of painters, who spread the floor with a few sheets of large papers, placed the clarinets, flutes, bassoons and French horns upon them, and then traced with their pencils the figures of the instruments, measuring all the apertures.

Qianlong conceived of himself as a universal ruler and entertained accordingly vast cultural aspirations; he was an accomplished poet, a collector of jade and paintings, and the sponsor of a vast edition of Chinese literary classics in more than 30,000 volumes. We have no reason to suppose that he was impressed by hearing the wind band play “God Save the King,” and no reason to suppose that anyone in Macartney’s group understood that a Chinese opera composed just for them, about an epic struggle against a giant sea turtle to allow the English envoys to return home across the ocean, was being performed in their honor.

The historian James Hevia, in his influential study Cherishing Men from Afar (1995), described the Macartney mission as the encounter between two mutually incompatible and incomprehensible imperial perspectives. Macartney was the man who first said that “the sun never sets” on the British Empire, while Qianlong, in response to the mission, sent a letter to George III that declared, “Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea.” Irvine suggests that the musical encounter at Chengde in 1793 reflected some of that imperial incompatibility, but also some possibilities for accommodation. The wind band did not return to England with Macartney; its five members stayed behind in Canton and disappeared from British history to become part of the musical soundscape of China. At almost the same time, in 1791, the Chinese gong, or tam-tam, made its first recorded appearance in a European orchestra, in François-Joseph Gossec’s funeral march for the comte de Mirabeau, a hero of the French Revolution.

Wind bands were newly important for classical music in late-eighteenth-century Europe. Haydn and Mozart created stunning works for bands of six to eight wind instruments harmonizing in parts, culminating in Mozart’s seven-movement Gran Partita Serenade in B-flat. The Hungarian Esterházy princes, Haydn’s patrons, and Emperor Joseph II, Mozart’s Viennese sovereign, kept wind bands in attendance, and at that time the clarinet was utterly modern, only just beginning to achieve its orchestral importance.

The presence of a clarinet in China among the harmonizing of the wind instruments was meant to demonstrate the progress of European classical music. Yet Burney, based on his very incomplete knowledge of Chinese music, did understand the traditional importance of the monophonic single musical line, and therefore concluded that Chinese ears could not properly appreciate principles of harmony. He made this observation in a condescending footnote in 1789:

The Chinese, allowed to be the most ancient and longest civilised people existing, are displeased with harmony, or Music in parts; it is too confused and complicated for ears accustomed, after repeated trials, to simplicity.

Burney was deeply curious about Chinese music and interested in questions of cultural difference, but implicitly believed in the superior standard of European classical music.

The burning musical question about China during the age of Enlightenment was whether Chinese and European music converged in some universal appreciation of the principles of harmony, pleasing to all human ears—as, for instance, when Hüttner admired the Handelian qualities of Qianlong’s musicians. The leading advocate of a universal music was the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who in a musical treatise of 1760 insisted that Chinese music measured the mathematical vibrations of musical sound in exactly the same intervals as the European harmonic scale. As with so many Enlightenment insights into China, this one could be traced—in Rameau’s footnote—to a brilliant Jesuit. Father Jean-Joseph Amiot had been living in China since 1750, translated European languages for Qianlong, composed a French–Manchu dictionary, discovered the Chinese yo-yo or diabolo, and sent back to Europe Chinese musical instruments, including a wind instrument called the sheng. Burney tried to play the sheng himself and found its tone “more sweet and delicate” than European woodwinds.

Rameau’s conviction of universal harmony received its most spectacular demonstration in his opera-ballet Les Indes galantes, whose settings ranged from Turkey and Persia to the imagined domains of “savage” America. It was performed in Paris in 1735—the same year that Qianlong ascended the throne in Beijing—and was one of the most celebrated works of the century. It returned to the Bastille Opera in Paris in the fall season of 2019, with the French-Senegalese choreographer Bintou Dembélé bringing elements of hip-hop and voguing to her interpretation of Rameau’s spectacle of Enlightenment anthropology. “I chose various dances like these that have come from the street to the stage,” explained Dembélé, who found Rameau, the quintessential composer of the ancien régime, fully adaptable to the operatic sensibilities of the twenty-first century.


The Enlightenment coined the word “civilization,” and philosophers of the time believed that it could be applied as a universal standard. The island peoples of the South Pacific encountered on the voyages of Captain Cook were often seen as primitive and remote from civilization, but China, though undeniably remote from Europe, was also undeniably civilized. For Burney it was a troubling paradox that the Chinese—“the most ancient and longest civilised people existing”—did not appreciate European musical harmony. When he inspected a Chinese instrument in Paris, a sort of dulcimer (probably sent by Amiot), he scrupulously noted, “There are but 17 notes on it—It has no semitones that I could find, and but five sounds from a note to its octave.”

Charles Burney; portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1781

National Portrait Gallery, London

Charles Burney; portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1781

While there were Enlightenment philosophers who wondered if the Chinese had no God, that question was posed with less fervor and interest than the musical question of whether Chinese music had semitones—that is, the black keys as well as the white keys on the European piano for a total of twelve semitones in a musical octave, rather than a five-tone “pentatonic” scale. Hüttner concluded, following the Macartney mission, “that the Chinese, in playing on instruments, discovered no knowledge of semi-tones, nor did they seem to have any idea of counterpoint, or parts in music.” Yet Burney was certain that the sheng was quite capable of playing semitones, and therefore the urgent question about the Chinese was: If they were capable of playing semitones and achieving classical harmony, why didn’t they? Irvine shows that in the early nineteenth century, this question was shaped by German music historians into a narrative of stagnation in which the Chinese were stigmatized for being stuck in an earlier stage of musical development, unable to attain the complexities of classical style exemplified by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who radically doubted the value of all civilization and believed that “savages” were happier in the “state of nature” than modern men and women in civilized cities, also affirmed that simple music might be more beautiful than complex harmony. In his Dictionnaire de musique (1768) he published two lines of an “Air Chinois” on the musical staff—basically pentatonic in its simplicity—which became immediately hummable for thinkers of the Enlightenment. Burney wondered whether Rousseau’s melody resembled the music of the Highland Scots, reflecting a common primitivism, and Johann Gottfried Herder promoted the idea of the uncomplicated folk song as an ancient and admirable form of music, different from culture to culture but globally omnipresent. “Noble simplicity” became the slogan of the musical revolution introduced by Christoph Willibald Gluck in the 1760s and 1770s, with operas like Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste.

Rousseau’s “Air Chinois” was considered an authentic document of ancient Chinese folk music, and it was taken up forty years later by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber as the theme for an overture and incidental music to Friedrich Schiller’s translation of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot, performed in Stuttgart in 1809. Weber begins in all simplicity by introducing Rousseau’s five-note melody on the flute, and then enriches it with the different timbres of the orchestra.

Turandot was destined for a very different operatic incarnation in the 1920s as Giacomo Puccini’s final and incomplete opera. Representing a fictional Chinese imperial court even more intimidating than the one that confronted Macartney in 1793, Puccini’s Turandot made use of pentatonic scales, Chinese folk tunes, and Chinese percussion effects produced by gongs and xylophones, deploying supposed authenticity to create a masterpiece of operatic Orientalism. In March 2020, as the epicenter of the Covid pandemic moved from China to Italy, a group of young Chinese opera singers, trained in Italian conservatories, created a musical affirmation of solidarity with Italy, singing from their isolation an online collective performance of the tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. The Sino-Western musical encounter, as Irvine rightly observes, belongs to a global music history, and it remains complex and entangled right up to the present.

Irvine concludes his study with the First Opium War (1839–1842), which completely altered relations between China and the West, not only permitting the British to continue peddling opium but also compelling the establishment of treaty ports and expanding beyond Canton (as the Macartney mission had wished) the European diplomatic and economic prerogatives in China. If Irvine’s book had been extended just a bit beyond the Opium War, it would have had to include the most celebrated European literary work on Chinese musical sensibility: Hans Christian Andersen’s Danish fairy tale “The Nightingale” (1843). Children across late-nineteenth-century Europe knew the tale of the almighty emperor who made the almost fatal musical mistake of favoring a bejeweled mechanical bird over the living nightingale that dwelled in his imperial gardens. The Macartney mission had had the idea of presenting Qianlong with a mechanical barrel organ, but soon discovered that he already possessed an astonishing collection of musical automata, including marvelous musical clocks that are still on view today in the Forbidden City. In the fairy tale the imperial Chinese sensibility is profoundly susceptible to music but is compromised by a failure to appreciate musical authenticity.

In 1910, in an extraordinary enterprise of soundscape engineering, thirty Chinese nightingales were released in the Stadtpark of Vienna—“to make their home there, and teach the native birds some of the bird-songs of the Celestial Empire.” The “earwitness” was the Moravian soprano Maria Jeritza, who imagined the cross-cultural encounter from the perspective of the birds:

To see the small olive-green birds hesitate on the threshold of their cage-door when it was opened, and take a preliminary peep into this new world…the instinct which told them they were very, very far from home, in a strange land and among strange people…. Soon all were fluttering about the trees and some of them, courageous little souls, actually began to celebrate their release in song.

Like the wind band members left behind in China by the Macartney mission in 1793, the nightingales would learn to make music within an alien soundscape—or so Jeritza imagined. She would go on to make a spectacular impression when she introduced the title role of Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1926.

When the nightingales were released in the imperial city in 1910, they could still be imagined as envoys of the Chinese emperor, in the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen, but the Qing emperors, the descendants of Qianlong, were about to be toppled by the Chinese Revolution of 1911, soon to be followed by the dethroning of the Viennese Habsburg emperors in 1918. Half a century later, during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976, Maoists denounced and banned Western music as a lingering symptom of past foreign domination. Before Lu Hongen, the conductor of the Shanghai Symphony, was put to death in 1968, he supposedly asked his cellmate someday to “go to Vienna, go to Beethoven’s grave…and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa solemnis as he went to his execution.”

Beethoven is regularly and enthusiastically performed today in post-Maoist China, and the Cultural Revolution is rarely discussed, but one musical relic of that decade may still be heard every hour from the clocktower bells of the former British Customs House on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. Instead of the Westminster Chimes, the bells play “Dong Fang Hong” (“The East Is Red”), the Maoist anthem, based on a pentatonic folk tune. The musicologist Barbara Mittler, in A Continuous Revolution (2012), has written about the pervasive significance of “Dong Fang Hong” for the Cultural Revolution; the song even gave its name in 1970 to China’s first satellite, which was able to broadcast the tune from outer space. In its simplicity it would have been immediately recognized as “Chinese” by Rousseau and Burney in the eighteenth century.

The Aurora Museum in contemporary Shanghai—on the modern Pudong side of the river, facing the Customs House on the other side—contains one of China’s great private art collections; it includes a marvelous series of sculptured musical bands from the Tang dynasty, already a thousand years old when Burney was studying Chinese music. In one grouping, a band of six terracotta female musicians are captured in the act of music-making, and we can appreciate the range of their instruments, the poses of their playing, and the intensity of their focus from across more than a millennium. Yet as our eyes appreciate the beauty of the Tang sculptures, our ears strain to hear the harmonies or dissonances, the rhythms and dynamics, that remain tantalizingly elusive, a music forever mute to us. The sonic turn in monographs like Irvine’s helps us begin to recover some of the sound world we have lost.