Minority Exoticism in Chinese Music

Project: Research project

Project Details


Musical exoticism refers broadly to the evocation of foreign peoples and places in musical works and performances, often with recognizable stylistic devices or contextual tropes that invite exotic imaginations. China’s extensive musical encounters with its neighboring peoples and cultures in the modern time have resulted in a sizable oeuvre of exotic-styled compositions that begs questions of power and representation against circuits of majority-minority relations. The current project proposes to conduct a thorough examination of minority exoticism in Chinese music in the twentieth century and beyond. Research will be conducted through archival and ethnographic approaches to consult manuscripts, written records, audiovisual materials, as well as composers and musicians involve in the emergence of minority exotic styles in modern Chinese music. A major hypothesis is that the emergence of contemporary techniques and styles in Chinese music is intimately linked to the aestheticizing of foreign musical elements appropriated from minority music traditions as Chinese musicians work to represent their exotic minority subjects. Such adaptation of real or imagined minority styles has not only enriched the expressive capacity of Chinese instruments; it has also expanded the musical vocabularies and the range of compositional options for modern Chinese music. This research seeks not to approach exoticism as a mere act of representation (although I propose, as a part of the project, to construct a small-scale database of Chinese musical works with exotic and/or minority themes composed since the early twentieth century inside and outside China). Rather, it suggests that the exotic attributes of minority-themed musical works are contingent, acquired contextually rather than reflective of any intrinsic exotic quality. One major theme of the research is to examine how the European musical languages borrowed from nineteenth-century Romanticism have allowed for a new conception of minority otherness, on which the modern Chinese self is predicated and simultaneously constructed. As such, I suggest that minority exoticism should be approached as one about how a modernizing Chinese nation has sought to domesticate its neighboring peoples and cultures on its way to becoming modern. The broader contribution of this project lies in the fresh framework it offers to look at exoticism, while tied to Eurocentrism in origin, not as a unilateral procedure but one that is both reciprocal and generative, acquired simultaneously by peoples and cultures that have long been cast as exotic in Orientalist Euro-American representations to fashion their own forms of cultural modernity.
Effective start/end date1/11/1630/04/19


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