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Reviewed by:
  • Lives in Chinese Music ed. by Helen Rees
  • Chuen-Fung Wong (bio)
Helen Rees, editor. Lives in Chinese Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 232 pp. Hardcover $47.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03379-7.

This volume of collected essays represents a fresh response to the growing ethnomusicological interest in the biographical study of musicians—vis-à-vis the “cultural-average accounts” (Stock 2001, 8) that have characterized most early writings in the field. Each of the volume’s seven chapters presents a case study on one notable musician in Chinese music; most are informed by extensive ethnographic research, some of which also exist as individual monographs (Harris 2008; Shimmelpenninck 1997; Stock 2008; Yung 2008). Chinese music here is conceived broadly to include music making and scholarship in mainland China, the minority borderlands, Hong Kong, and the diaspora. The chapters, correspondingly, cover such diverse genres as folk singing, traditional operas, the [End Page 389] qin seven-string zither, Uyghur classical muqam, Mongolian popular music, and Chinese musicology. The critical introduction (pp. 1–20) itself is essential reading for anyone interested in the intersection of ethnomusicology and musical biography. The book is a nice read; the essays are marked by consistent clarity of expression and exceptional attention to detail. It will be of broad interest to students and professionals also in the fields of anthropology, historical musicology, and Chinese/Asian studies.

As Jonathan Stock writes about Shao Binsun (1919–2007), the huju (traditional Shanghai opera) performer detailed in the second chapter, “[h]is life story is clearly not that of an ordinarily successful or averagely imaginative Chinese opera singer,” and yet, “his experiences are highly representative of the times, ideas, and places through which he has moved personally and professionally” (p. 60). The same can be said for most other musical individuals studied in this volume. The subject of Frank Kouwenhoven and Antoinet Shimmelpenninck’s study in the first essay is Zhao Yongming (1919–2000), an eminent singer (yet little known to outsiders) of traditional shan’ge mountain songs in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu. The authors look at how folk singing practices and aesthetics (“loudness and good memory”) (p. 38) are at the nexus of the singer’s life, encountering China’s social and political transformations in the twentieth century. Similarly, in Bell Yung’s nimble and absorbing biography of his teacher Tsar Teh-yun (1905–2007), a master performer of the qin zither in Hong Kong, we read the familiar story of a Chinese intellectual against the turmoil of wars and exiles of the mid-century. Connecting Tsar’s upper-class upbringing in pre-1949 Shanghai and her subsequent settling in Hong Kong after the 1950s is a longstanding elitist ideal of refinement and cultivation among Chinese literati, as upheld in the amateur aesthetics of qin performance.

Not all the musicians depicted in the volume are as representative and high-profile as the respected Chinese musicologist Yang Yinliu (1899–1984), studied in chapter 4 by Peter Micic, and the neo-traditional Mongolian superstar Tengger (b. 1960), studied in chapter 7 by Nimrod Baranovitch. Indeed, it is sometimes in the unique, somewhat unbefitting lives of musical individuals that we realize the importance of incorporating biographical writings into our musical ethnographies. As Rachel Harris writes about Abdulla Mäjnun (b. 1946), a Uyghur musicologist and musician from the northwestern Chinese minority “autonomous region” of Xinjiang, “I fear that the idea of Mäjnun as representative of Uyghur music will be poorly received in Ürümchi’s professional music circles.” Harris describes Mäjnun as an “uncomfortable figure, whose ways of being do not fit easily with the dominant narrative of Uyghur music in contemporary Xinjiang” (p. 168). Her brilliant biography of Mäjnun reveals the incongruence among musical creativity, the state-promoted professionalism, and the multiple endeavors for nation building in this troubled minority borderland. Likewise, Jonathan Stock’s study on the huju musician Shao Binsun interrogates some of the commonly held [End Page 390] assumptions about this local opera tradition and the impact of grand historical events on its development. His biography of Shao tells of a creative life that is connecting and continuous. In a slightly...


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