3/24 Yihui Sheng

Ph.D. Candidate, Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan

“Making a New Sound:
The Materiality of the Production of Kunshan Qiang

Time: Friday, March 24, 3:00-5:00 pm CT

Location:  Wieboldt 408

Please note the unusual location!

★Co-Sponsored by Theater and Performance Studies Workshop★

Abstract: Late-Ming China enjoyed an exuberant soundscape of southern arias: people with various levels of literacy sang arias in private studios, touring boats, urban brothels, and public gatherings. Kunshan qiang, a singing style (qiang) of southern arias that originated in the Wu region in southeast China and named after Kunshan, between Shanghai and Lake Taihu, stood out as a dominant new sound. Scholarly discussions about the development of Kunshan qiang have focused on a discourse of ya (orthodox and refined) and su (vulgar and popular), arguing that Kunshan qiang was reformed into a musical manifestation of refined taste. One assumption insinuated in these discussions is that the ya-su division can be clearly defined, so the ways in which Kunshan qiang represents the late-Ming understanding of ya-su are also decipherable. However, as Wai-yee Li has recently pointed out, the ya-su division connotes flexible and sometimes contradictory meanings (Li 2022, 93). For this reason, the representational relation between Kunshan qiang and the cultural conceptions of ya also becomes questionable.

Proposing an alternative framework to the ya-su discourse, I introduce a material perspective to analyze Kunshan qiang. I examine a series of material practices that shaped the reform of Kunshan qiang in the late Ming, including the introduction of melodic instruments, the creation of a singing language through annotating marks, and the promotion of a rhythm technique. I argue that Kunshan qiang hybridized the material practices of northern and southern arias to develop its own musical features. This hybridization is less a top-down process from the cultural elites to the less educated performers than one reflecting mutual influences among practitioners across a broad social spectrum. Such a collaborative effort rendered the reformed Kunshan qiang more accessible and attractive to a broader audience in the late Ming than had previously been the case.

Presenter: Yihui Sheng is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on early modern Chinese literature and theater. She has recently defended her dissertation, which is titled, still tentatively, “Performative Reading and Close Listening: Excavating the Media of Chuanqi Song-Drama in Early Modern China (1550s–1750s).” Apart from her academic interests, Yihui has been an amateur singer of Kunqu for almost fifteen years.

Respondents: Judith Zeitlin is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in East Asian Languages & Civilizations and Theater & Performance Studies at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is The Voice as Something More: Essays Toward Materiality, co-edited with Martha Feldman (University of Chicago, 2019).

She is the author of Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale (1993) and The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth-Century Chinese Literature (2007), and co-editor of Writing and Materiality in China (2003), Thinking with Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History (2007), Chinese Opera Film (2010), Performing Images: Opera in Chinese Visual Culture (2014). She is currently completing a book on the voice, text, and instrument in early modern Chinese entertainment culture. Her next project is to embark on a new, complete, annotated English translation of Pu Songling’s masterpiece Liaozhai’s Strange Tales (Liaozhai zhiyi).

Jacob Reed is a PhD candidate in music theory and history at the University of Chicago. His dissertation project, “Negotiating Grammars: Encounters Between Music and Text” examines domains where language and music supplement, replace, and fight with one another, drawing on examples and tools from sources including hip-hop, pop music, and Kunqu theory. He also performs widely on keyboard instruments, playing organ recitals, collaborative piano, and basso continuo throughout the Chicagoland area.

This event is co-sponsored by the University of Chicago Center for East Asian Studies with support from a U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center Grant.

Elvin Meng

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