What China Sounded Like

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…


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