Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease, and Shzr Ee Tan, eds. Gender in Chinese Music. Eastman/Rochester Studies in Ethnomusicology. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2013. 308 pp. ISBN: 978-1-58046-443-7 (hardcover).

Gender in Chinese Music is interdisciplinary and broad in scope. The “conception of ‘Chinese music’ in this volume is wide-ranging and inclusive” (p. 2), going beyond the nation state and paying attention to global trends, in particular with reference to the production, construction and representation of Chinese music. This collection is also “not just about women” (ibid.), it includes men as well and explores the complex relationship between gender and music, tradition and modernity, sexuality, the mass media, forms of censorship and the state.

The volume consists of an introduction, twelve scholarly contributions and seven rather personal interviews with individuals whose experiences and agency clearly add to our understanding of China’s music field. Both the interviews and all the articles (except one) concentrate on contemporary China, yet all of them go back in time, referring at least to the twentieth century, to traditions and continuities as well as to the transformation of musical practices, habits and trends.

The introduction is a highly informative and critical reflection upon the state of research on gender and (Chinese) music, reconfirming the “role of musical performance in constructing and maintaining a whole range of gendered identities” (p. 6). In China, men have long controlled the field of Chinese music – from rural song to musical performance and content to modern ethnomusicology and urban karaoke bars. Confucian hierarchies help to explain much of this organization and dominance as well as the content of Chinese musical production. This notwithstanding, women have always fulfilled important roles in the musical arena, and this volume uncovers their contributions and representation as well as their agency and negotiations. The authors are less concerned with the familiar Chinese concept of yin and yang than with the distinction between “civil” (wen) and “martial” (wu) qualities that affect both male and female musicians, the repertoire and performance styles. Another area of common ground is music’s close relationship to (or association with) sexual pleasures. However, the field of gender in Chinese music has never been static and the editors highlight as “perhaps most striking … the fluidity, adaptability, and ceaseless transformations in the performance of gender across so many musical genres, periods, and social contexts” (p. 13). These dynamics of gender are captured in the texts which are often the result of extensive fieldwork, combining personal observations with theory and a keen eye for actual musical practices.

The volume begins with an eye-opening text about ritual, music, class and gender in the countryside (Stephen Jones), reminding us that “if pop music and stage concert repertoires now dominate the media, they are only the tip of the iceberg” (p. 30). Judith T. Zeitlin explores the late Ming courtesan world and looks into the verbal and pictorial representations of a genre called sanqu in order to understand conceptions of erotic love and music as well as the relationship between literati and courtesans. Tiantian Zheng, then, takes this topic into the present by linking the courtesan world to that of the modern hostess in karaoke bars. The Kun opera (kunqu) is an appropriate field for studying the refined male performance of wen/wu qualities, contrasted with the female performance of Chinese manhood (Joseph Lam). From here the reader moves to rough Northern China and follows Stephen Jones’ experience into the “real” world of male dominated shawm bands (suona and percussion), opium, violence and power. It is also the story of the transformation of “by far the most common form of Chinese instrumental music for several centuries” (p. 112), a genre that today includes young female pop singers. Shzr Ee Tan takes the wu/wen approach to analyze and contrast style, performance and media presentation of China’s two renowned pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi.

The next six articles take the reader into the world of China’s rural and minority areas, revealing music as a gendered, negotiated and important space for individual expressions and emotions of all sorts. Frank Kouwenhoven and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck look into the controversial genre of shan’ge (mountain songs) in the provinces of Jiangsu, Qinghai and Gansu. Other topics include the vocal qualities of women’s songs in the Yanbian Korean autonomous prefecture in Jilin province (Rowan Pease) and traditional and contemporary music forms of Nuoso-Yi women, centering around the mouth-harp hxohxo in the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi (Olivia Kraef). The last section is devoted to gendered concepts of music, ritual and religion, with fascinating papers on female singing in rural Xinjiang (Rachel Harris), on the cooperation between spirit mediums (me-mot) of the Zhuang minority in the southwestern part of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (Xiao Mei) and Daoism, and on ritual singing and the performances of “vegetarian sisters” (caigu), a type of female lay Buddhist in the Minnan region of southern Fujian province (Hwee-San Tan).

Between the scholarly contributions the editors placed interviews of Shanghai jazz singer Coco Zhao, the composer, singer and artist Liu Sola, the producer and songwriter Li Sisong, ethnomusicologist Xiao Mei, as well as Karaoke bar host Zhang Han, amateur opera singer Zinnia Kwok and Aloysius Lee, a fan of singer Faye Wong.

In sum, Gender in Chinese Music offers an analysis of musical activism that goes beyond the above-mentioned “tip of the iceberg”. It demonstrates why and how music matters, and that rural music practices and gender relations are changing, due to migration and new forms of technology, entertainment and cultural transfer. The musical field may still be dominated by men, but the authors make clear that specific musical forms have always provided a space for women to express everything from lament to love and sexual thoughts, from happiness to frustration and even rebellion. Representations and expressions of femininities and masculinities are vital to all musical genres discussed here. The authors are careful to present them in a nuanced way and avoid generalizations, thereby successfully disclosing them within their specific cultural and social context.

Students and scholars interested in gender studies and/or the broad field of Chinese music should not be the only ones to benefit from this volume. It can also be recommended to those focusing on Chinese history, society and minority studies.


(Andreas Steen, Aarhus University)