From the Natural to the Instrumental: Theories of the Sounding Voice in China

Talk by Judith T. Zeitlin, University of Chicago

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How was the human voice conceptualized and theorized in China before the advent of the modern era? This talk posits that the default manoeuver in Chinese traditional discourse was to situate the human voice on a continuum with other sounds, rather than isolating it as a separate phenomenon in its own right. This may be one reason why “voice” was seldom deployed as a key metaphor or trope in Chinese thought. At various historical moments, however, the physical, material voice was singled out and valorized above other kinds of sounds. My strategy in this talk, therefore, is to trace the emergence of different models of the voice over time. I begin with two diametrically opposed approaches to the voice in the canonical writings from early China (5th c. BCE to 1st c. CE): an expressive model found in Confucian statements on music and poetry and a physiological model found in the volume on acupuncture in the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon. I locate the major turning point in court literature of the Six Dynasties (3rd to 5th centuries CE), where a model of voice as a natural musical instrument is developed. The final section examines what is arguably the fullest emergence of the autonomous human voice as an analytical category in Chinese discourse: a mid-eighteenth-century work entitled A Pedagogical Treatise for the Operatic Voice (Yuefu chuansheng). Written by the Qing dynasty physician Xu Dachun to promote his method for the singing of Kun opera, the treatise advocates a modern, technical approach to training the voice as an idealized vehicle for repairing a fatal rupture between the musics of the past and present.

Judith T. Zeitlin is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages & Civilizations and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago. She received her PhD from Harvard in 1988 and taught on the faculty of Cornell and Harvard before moving to Chicago in 1994. Her work combines literary history of the Ming-Qing period with other disciplines, particularly visual and material culture, music and performance, as well as gender studies, medicine and film. Her many publications on Chinese fiction and drama include The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature (2007), and several co-edited works, including a special issue for The Opera Quarterly on “Chinese Opera Film” (2010), Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture (2014), and The Voice as Something More: Essays Toward Materiality (under review). She is the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).

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Duration: 00:38:34


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Published: Thursday, February 8, 2018