Polyphonic Thinking: Music and Authority in Early China
Rom, Avital Hedva
University of Cambridge
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Rom, A. H. (2020). Polyphonic Thinking: Music and Authority in Early China (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.47576
What are the socio-political roles of music? Why do people write about music? These are the essential questions underpinning this dissertation. The study interrogates early Chinese thinkers’ engagement with music in political, philosophical, and military treatises of the Warring States (戰國, 453-221 BCE) and Western Han (西漢 206 BCE-9 AD) periods. In a few words, it can be defined as ‘a socio-political analysis of musical references in Warring States and Han China.’ This study traces and analyses musico-political links in texts dating to these periods. In doing so, it demonstrates how textual references to music may be used as rhetorical tools, attesting to ideological conflicts raging within early Chinese society. In the first chapter I argue for a new understanding pertaining to perceptions of sound in early China. By re-examining language and contents of passages relating to sound from some of the most widely-read musical discussions of the period (in particular Xunzi’s 荀子 ca. 340-ca.245 BCE ‘Discourse on Music’ 樂論), I substantiate that sounds were, in fact, perceived by early Chinese thinkers not only as joyful and educating – as previously emphasised by critics – but also emotionally compelling and, moreover, potentially dangerous. In this quality of sounds lies the key to understanding the power of music in early Chinese texts, which is examined in detail throughout the four remaining chapters of my work. Chapter two discusses the terms and terminology used by critics in deeming music ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in early China. It argues that music critics tended to ground their musical arguments in ethical rather than aesthetical reasonings, and used music criticism to establish and maintain the sense of local or social identities. Chapter three examines the role music and sound played in the military, and argues that within the context of warfare, drums were perceived as sonic communication devices rather than musical instruments per se. Finally, chapter Four explores conceptualisations of silence and soundlessness, claiming that silence was perceived both positively – as the ancestor of sound, and negatively – as an indicator of ignorance. The thesis as a whole aims to explore the boundaries of the musical in early China and reveal how both the musical and the boundaries between the musical and the non-musical served intellectuals rhetorically and ideologically. Ultimately, I suggest, it is through the lens of music (albeit music that does not itself survive to us in sound) that one can unveil multiple aspects of early Chinese social, political, and intellectual life that have not, up to this point, been examined in scholarly literature.
Early China, Music, Western Han, Warring States, Chinese music, Ritual and Music, Music criticism, Military music, Ancient China, Silence, Deafness, China, Word and Music, Literary music
Louis Cha Scholarship, St John's College. Chiang Ching Kuo Foundation.
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This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.47576
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