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  • Music in Ancient China: An Archaeological and Art Historical Study of Strings, Winds, and Drums during the Eastern Zhou and Han Periods (770 BCE-220 CE)
  • Ken Berthel (bio)
Ingrid Furniss . Music in Ancient China: An Archaeological and Art Historical Study of Strings, Winds, and Drums during the Eastern Zhou and Han Periods (770 BCE-220 CE). Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008. xxviii, 492 pp. Hardcover $159.95, ISBN 978-1-604975-20-8.

The majority of works that have attempted to reconstruct the musical world of ancient China have, for a variety of reasons, focused primarily on the ritual ensembles of so-called court music, with great attention to splendidly chimed sets of bronze bells and lithophones (stone chimes), such as those excavated from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng in Hubei Province in 1978. Although this research has resulted in a dramatic leap forward in our understanding of key issues in the reconstruction of Chinese musical heritage—such as the evolution of instrument fabrication, design, and use, as well as systematics and nomenclature—there has been relatively little scholarship devoted to more quotidian musical practices and artifacts from the period. Thus, in an effort that is reminiscent of the Confucian project of gathering popular songs to determine the spirit of the age, Ingrid Furniss's research distinguishes itself by seeking a reconstruction of more popular or chamber musical performance from the Eastern Zhou and Han periods to reveal what form these more pervasive musical styles of the period may have taken. By focusing on wooden instruments and their placement in period tombs, Furniss hopes to advance our understanding of a prevailing popular musical tradition that may have had very little in common with the kinds of formal music that have been studied thus far. The questions of what instruments comprised an informal ensemble, who performed in it, and in what social contexts are all worthwhile and important questions about an area of ancient Chinese culture about which we know comparatively little. Efforts to advance our understanding of it are truly welcome.

Furniss embarks on this project in an excellent first chapter that spells out her methodology with reflection on just how to approach the question of what we can ever hope to discover about the musical practices of the ancient world. In the case of the ancient Chinese, the resources at our disposal are unfortunately so far somewhat limited: there are no extant musical compositions, scarce aboveground archaeological material related to music, little relevant textual evidence that can be reliably dated to the earliest parts of the period, and an almost complete absence of wooden instruments from northeastern China dating to the Eastern Zhou period or from anywhere in China for the Han period. Nevertheless, Furniss has compiled data from well over one hundred period tombs that contain at least one musical instrument. This archaeological material serves as the main focus of her discussion and also appears in a number of tables that are presented [End Page 101] in the appendices for reference. Furniss also occasionally turns to passages culled from period literature as well as contemporary works of art that illustrate musical performances to supplement the archaeological record. Archaeology, however, is primary to this study, despite what Lothar von Falkenhausen has called "the limited amenability to quantitative analysis of the archaeological data so far reported"1 from early China. Furniss also acknowledges the limitations of extrapolating living musical practice from primarily funerary objects. The intentional and unintentional disruptions of tomb contents caused by robberies, natural elements, surrounding soil matrix and its potential for preserving different types of materials through millennia (preservation bias), and research bias—which involves concentration on certain areas to the exclusion of other potentially rich locations—all temper the usefulness of the archaeological record in answering questions about social practice.

Despite the thoroughness of Furniss's data, which were gleaned mostly from tomb excavation reports, there are unfortunately a number of disappointments in the presentation and synthesis of the material. After an extremely brief second chapter that outlines the musical history "from Neolithic to Western Zhou" (a span of not less than 1,500 years), seven chapters (3 through 9) make...