COOL CLASSES: “Advanced Chinese: Musical Traditions and Practices in China”

This advanced language course enhances students’ competence in the four skills in Chinese—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—by exploring music concepts and practices in China from Confucius writing on the topic to Peking Opera.

Course Title: “Advanced Chinese: Musical Traditions and Practices in China”

Taught By: C.V. Starr Professor of Asian Studies and Associate Professor of Chinese and Linguistics Shi-Zhe Huang (黄师哲)

Says Huang:

This course is about the musical concepts and practices one can find in China. Given the long history in China and the wide regional variations in musical traditions and practices one has to narrow the topics to a manageable scope—after all, this is a language class where the primary goal is to enhance students’ competence in the four skills in Chinese (speaking, listening, reading and writing, particularly intensive reading and formal writing). With that in mind, we started by reading ancient thinkers—Confucius, Mozi and Xunzi, each of whom took strong positions on the role of music in society. We went on to read about Buddhist music, Daoist music, influences from Western music, and instrumental music. In the second half of the semester, we focus on Peking Opera for two reasons. It is one of the most developed art forms that has achieved the status of “National Opera” with arguably the largest repertoire of operas and performed in all major and minor cities and locales throughout the country where the population is mainly Han. Secondly, it is an art form whose performers suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), a topic for “Advanced Chinese” last fall. I also have a personal reason to choose Peking Opera as the main focus: I am a fan and an amateur practitioner of this art form, particularly favoring the male arias (unusual in multiple dimensions for someone like me).

As I said, part of the reason for teaching this course this semester has to do with what I taught last semester when we concentrated on the Cultural Revolution. I was looking for a course for the spring that could connect with the fate of people who went through that tumultuous period, where there was a great deal of suffering, but also a course light enough to offer students a respite from the readings and documentaries which could take a toll on one’s psyche. The classical texts we read in the first half of the semester are dense but also profound and thought provoking. The accounts of the fate of several famous Peking Opera stars my students will read in the second semester might bring back some of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, but hopefully my students have developed a sense of history and sufficient artistic appreciation of the art form so that they can take pleasure in some of the most beautiful writings published by Zhang Yihe (章诒和) over the last couple of decades, while letting the stories themselves take their sobering effect.

This course is also in a cluster of courses with Richard Freedman’s “Musical Voices of Asia” and Hank Glassman’s “Advanced Topics in Buddhist Studies” that allowed the faculty to organize musical events with a shared theme for the spring. All together, we have Music from China, an ensemble group based in New York who offered a stunning concert in the Michael Jaharis Recital Hall last month, and two more concerts to go.

Learn more about other courses offered by the Bi-Co Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.