An interview with Xiaobing Tang, the author of “Radio, Sound Cinema, and Community Singing: The Making of a New Sonic Culture in Modern China,” which appears in the January 2020 issue of Twentieth-Century China. Xiaobing Tang is Sin Wai Kin Professor of Chinese Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Read the article here
Before we start into the article and your research, could you tell us a bit about your academic background?
I trained as a student of literature and literary studies but have over the years developed interests in studying visual materials as well as other forms of artistic creation and expression. While researching for and writing Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement (University of California Press, 2008), I came to appreciate both the value and the pleasure of studying the history of a literary or artistic movement. Narrating such a history inevitably reveals many connections. It is almost like following a novel, with main characters, plots, and subplots. I enjoyed the same excitement while working on this essay about the community singing movement.
Your article focuses on Liu Liangmo, Lü Ji, and Nie Er as well as the promotion of mass singing in prewar Republican China. How did you choose to focus on these composers and their work?
I did not choose to work on Liu Liangmo or Nie Er. Rather it was the practice of choral singing, or community singing, which emerged in the mid-1930s as a new form of public culture, that I set out to understand and examine. My research then took me to key historic figures such as Liu Liangmo, Lü Ji, and Nie Er and to a consideration of modern sound technologies such as radio and sound cinema.
Existing cultural histories of interwar Shanghai often focus on cosmopolitan and Westernized urban culture. Does your research fit into or complicate the existing narrative?
There is indeed a tendency in recent scholarship to foreground visual culture embodied in materials such as film, posters, or even architecture when it comes to the study of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Another related topic or notion is the urban spectacle. This tendency to focus on urban and visual culture reflects a broader theoretical interest in asserting visuality as a central value and norm of modern society, on the one hand, and a desire to appreciate interwar Shanghai as an exciting, if also glamorously hybridizing, extension of Western urban culture, on the other hand. Such appreciation—or, we may say, rediscovery—of urban culture in Shanghai expresses an effort to go beyond and move away from a political history or a different historiographical tradition. It seeks to write the modern history of Shanghai as part of a global, urban, and consumerist modernity. My study of a new sonic culture definitely complicates this narrative, as it examines the political functions and ramifications of a cultural movement that began in the city and yet later exerted an impact far beyond Shanghai.
In this article, you explore the idea of China as a singing nation. What are the markers of a singing nation? Are these still relevant in the information age?
The key point here is that through the community singing movement of the mid-1930s, Chinese society developed a vocal and public form of expression. Mass singing was an integral part of a new political culture and national identity. It both contributed to and stood for the profound transformation of Chinese society in the twentieth century. Public and group singing is still a vibrant and widespread cultural practice in China today.
Another point, which I make at the end of my essay, is that I think how to fully grasp the meaning of the sonorous China that emerged in the 1930s remains a conceptual challenge. Our understanding of Chinese society and culture in much of the twentieth century would be enriched by taking seriously the sensory implications as well as the affective power of mass singing, of hearing oneself sing either by oneself or as a member of a group.
How did your research into sound cinema change your thinking about the formation of urban nationalism in interwar China?
I am not sure I would use the term “urban nationalism” in this context, unless we wish to emphasize the role of an urban environment or modern technologies of mass communication (from newspapers to sound cinema) that aided the development of nationalism. Nationalism was precisely a discourse that would strive to suture the divides between urban and rural, between rich and poor. My research into early sound cinema helped me appreciate the affective power of a singing voice that came across the silver screen. Sound cinema in some instances provided no less than an object lesson about assuming a communal identity and finding a new self-expression.
How does your focus on sonic culture contribute to or expand the field of cultural history in the Republican period?
Much research has been done on art, film, music, literature, politics, the YMCA, the labor movement, and so on in the Republican period. My study relies heavily on existing scholarship. But I also conducted further archival research. My research on Liu Liangmo and the activities of the YMCA in Shanghai from the early 1900s to the 1930s, for instance, helped me understand why the community singing movement he started gained so much momentum so quickly. If my study helps expand the scope of cultural history of Shanghai during the Republican era, I would say it does so by underscoring the imperative of hearing that era, of imagining that period as filled with sounds. Sound was very much at the heart of politics and political imagination at the time.
Stepping beyond China, what do you think is the significance of the emergence of Chinese sound cinema in terms of world cinema culture?
This is a broad topic, and I am not sure I am ready to do justice to it. The interest of my essay lies primarily in understanding how sound cinema contributed to the rise of a new music movement specifically and to a new sonic culture in modern China more generally. There are very fruitful studies of silent films and the transition to sound cinema, but I will be pleased to see more extended discussions of sound cinema and its impact on a new sonic culture in other national contexts.
How does your research into Liu Liangmo and the Shanghai YWCA and YMCA complicate the story of leftist and nationalist movements in China?
The YWCA and the YMCA in Shanghai were both very active and played a critical role in cultural and social movements in the Republican era. These institutions and their histories certainly would make a reductive history less meaningful or explanatory.
Can you give us a bit of background on this project? Is it part of a wider research project?
I would like to write a series of essays on different moments that are significant for a history of listening and hearing in modern China. These essays will allow me to examine different art forms, different media and sound technologies. Such a group of essays may lead to a volume like my Visual Culture in Contemporary China: Paradigms and Shifts (Cambridge University Press, 2015), but they will focus on an aural turn and hopefully make a contribution to sound studies.
Jumping to the present day, sonic culture and political activism are enmeshed throughout the world. How does your historical research contribute to interdisciplinary understandings of political sonic cultures?
I think the most valuable takeaway for me is that interdisciplinary research is instrumental to our effort to understand a complex movement. Sonic culture does not necessarily lead to political activism, but successful politics cannot afford not to have its own signature sound, or specifically its own music and songs.
In what ways would you like your research to change the field of Chinese history as a whole?
I don’t think a research paper like this can or will change a field. I see it as making a modest contribution to our understanding of the richness and dynamics of modern Chinese culture.
Where do you see your research going in the future?
My goal now is to write a series of essays that have to do with sound and aurality. I will see where this series of adventures will take me.
What historiography shaped this project? For further reading, what historiography would you recommend?
I read relevant primary and secondary materials in order to understand a historical movement. I think it is always more productive to read and do research in order to comprehend as fully as possible a question or a historical phenomenon.
Do you have any closing comments for our readers?
I will be very happy if readers find themselves listening to the Chinese national anthem—“March of the Volunteers” (“Yiyongjun jinxingqu”)—differently after reading my essay. I myself find it inspiring to listen to the 1941 recording of Paul Robeson singing “Chee Lai” in Chinese, which, by the way, is available on YouTube. [Robeson’s recordings of “March of the Volunteers,” in both Chinese and English, were issued under the title “Chee Lai!” (Qilai!).]