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  • Singing Ancient Piety and Modernity in "Song of Familial Bliss" (1935):Musical Translation of Huang Zi (1904-1938) in Interwar China
  • Joys H. Y. Cheung (bio)

Do you know when I began my singing career? I think I was not even four years old. When my father directed Song of China, he invited composer Huang Zi to compose music for the theme song "Song of Familial Bliss,". . . . This song was extremely popular in schools and among musical professionals, because it was not merely an inserted song in a film, but an amazing art song. I can't remember how I managed to learn the song, but I would gabble the whole day singing it. Father heard it, and decided to take me to the Chinese New Year Eve party of the United Photoplay Film Company. I had my debut performance that night . . . on a dining table . . . (Fei et al. 2008, 46; translation mine)

"Wrap up the moaning of pain, offer your pure heart instead.'Honor your own elders as befits elders, and extend this honor to all elders. Honor your own children as befits children, and extend this honor to all children.' . . .Pursue Great Unity, extend your love to others,Together, we enjoy the heavenly familial bliss."

(From "Song of Familial Bliss"1)

A soprano is singing "Song of Familial Bliss" ("Tianlun ge") on a modern proscenium stage. Accompanying her singing is a pianist playing at a grand piano to her side. The audience members, who are going to clap hands to applaud after the singing is over, are sitting at their designated seats quietly. Everyone is looking at the performers, listening to their performance attentively (see Figure 1).

Such is how "Familial Bliss," a well-known modern Chinese art song composed by Huang Zi (1904-1938), is typically performed and consumed in a modern concert hall setting. Figure 1 shows a picture of Barbara Fei (Fei Mingyi, b. 1931), an influential soprano and daughter of the acclaimed director Fei Mu (1906-1951), performing on a modern stage. The concert hall practice, developed through the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America, became part of Chinese modernity in the early 20th century. In 1935, when Huang Zi composed "Familial Bliss," concert hall practice and Western musical technology [End Page 4]

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Figure 1.

Soprano Barbara Fei singing on a modern stage in Hong Kong in 1952 (Fei et al. 2008, 71). Fei and her father, director Fei Mu, left Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong in 1949.

were still new in China. New and modern, the imported Western practice and technology contrasted with preexisting Chinese musical customs and establishments, in which comparable attentive listening in a public performance venue was rare. Despite the newness of the concert hall setting, appreciative Chinese audience members found meanings in new songs such as "Familial Bliss." Expressing Chinese poetic texts, the modern song medium effectively blends together Western and Chinese musical stylistics. Such a song genre was an important modern musical establishment in China. Different from Chinese classical songs developed in premodern time, such as ci-poem songs and Kun Opera arias,2 these modern songs embrace a vertically oriented sound structure originated from Western functional harmony—the "tonality science" that epitomizes Western musical modernity. The accompanying piano, producing chords and multiple musical parts, smoothly embodies the scientific principles with its industrially cut steel strings, contrasting with the delicate sounds of Chinese silk strings characterized by supple melodic changes and nuanced timbres. The attentive concert practice, developed by the emergent European bourgeoisie who asserted their urbane gentility through art music engagement one or two centuries earlier, silences active social interactions at public performance venues prevalent in premodern China. This series of Western imports came in tandem [End Page 5] with their underlying notion of "autonomous art," which believes in a mythical nature of art that transcends the mundane social forces and possesses intrinsic aesthetic values based on its own genius merits (Wolff 1987, 2-5).

But in Chinese modernity, the notion of music as autonomous art hardly transcends the social realm. Even though Chinese follow the attention discipline of the European bourgeoisie in the modern concert hall...


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