Sounds of Tumultuous Times

Listening to Wartime and Cold-War China (1935–1958)
4:00 pm – 5:45 pm
Room 1

  • Jonathan Stock, Chair
  • Odila Schroeder: “Disconcerting Assets: Musical Institutions and Concert Repertoire in Japanese-Occupied Beijing”
  • Andreas Steen, “Shifting Soundscapes: Records, Technology, and the Politics of Sound in China (1935–­1955)”
  • Dayton Lekner, “Echolocating the Social: Listening and Being Heard in the Hundred-Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns, 1956–1958”
  • Laura De Giorgi, Discussant

This panel brings together scholars from Europe and Canada, whose work focuses on the politics of music, sound, and listening in mid-twentieth century China. The three papers are deeply rooted in archival research and the analysis of auditory culture, but bridge conventional disciplinary boundaries to achieve a better understanding of the role of sound and listening in the context of violent conflict and political campaigns.
Focusing on wartime Beijing, Odila Schroeder introduces musical institutions and repertoires built and appropriated under Japanese occupation, argues for the agency of the collaboration regimes, and lifts the veil of moral judgement to achieve a more nuanced understanding of wartime musicking. Andreas Steen reviews the contentious politics of international record production in late Republican Period Shanghai and its transformation into a national propaganda enterprise during the early PRC. By introducing selected records, he highlights the materiality of sound and the difficulties to create a new national soundscape. Shifting our perspective to the perception of sound, Dayton Lekner traces the effect of mass campaigns of the 1950s on hearing and listening practices. He calls us to recognise listening as a performative practice and to notice the affective and social dynamics of sonic propaganda. Jonathan Stock (University College Cork) and Laura De Giorgi (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia), serving as chair and discussant, will share their expertise on musical performance, records, and radio in late republican China and the early PRC, and contribute to our discussion of sound and violence, and historical sound studies in the Chinese context.

Odila Schroeder, “Disconcerting Assets: Musical Institutions and Concert Repertoire in Japanese-Occupied Beijing

While resistance songs are recognized as an integral part of the Communist propaganda effort and Chongqing as the home of the Chinese wartime musical elite, Japanese-occupied territories are still reduced to the “seductive” voices of Li Xianglan and Zhou Xuan. This paper is part of a larger project focusing on the auditory culture of the occupation-regimes in wartime Beijing, specifically concert life organized by the collaborationist New Citizen’s Society (xinmin hui). It focuses on the Beijing Symphony Orchestra (1940–1944) and Beijing City Music Hall. The significance of both institutions as propaganda assets and manifestations of transnational cultural politics has hitherto not been recognized in scholarship on music in the Republican Period. The paper traces the history of these institutions and their activities based on a collection of concert programs kept at the Beijing Capital Normal University Museum, documents found at the Beijing Municipal Archives, and concert reviews published in the occupation regime’s main news outlets, including the Xinminbao, Huabei xinbao, and Guomin zazhi. Analysis of the repertoires performed by the orchestra throughout its brief existence and for the opening of the Music Hall in November 1942 reveals how the occupation regimes not only co-opted and built musical institutions to serve their propagandistic aims but generated new repertoires and distinct forms of auditory propaganda. I argue that the occupation regimes leveraged private concert life, carefully designed concert programs, and attempted to attach new meaning to both new and pre-existing repertoire.

Andreas Steen, “Shifting Soundscapes: Records, Technology, and the Politics of Sound in China (1935–1955)

In the Republican Period, Shanghai was China’s centre of record production, which by the early 1930s was dominated by British EMI-China and American RCA-Victor. Largely controlled by Japan during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), attempts to revitalise this industry after the war had to cope with the unstable situation during the Civil War and finally came to a halt when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949. Record production had changed from international to national, and the foreign factories laid the foundation for the newly established People’s Record Factory.
The presentation covers twenty years of recording history in China. Based on archival documents, record catalogues, and other historical sources, it first outlines the struggle over record production in times of war and nation-building. The year 1949 divides two production periods and marks the beginning of radical initiatives to create a new socialist soundscape. In a second step, the paper highlights specific records and engages with larger questions regarding the materiality of sound as well as sonic continuities and discontinuities.
The cultural and political importance of music records during those decades can hardly be overestimated and, although heavily discussed at its time, has been mostly neglected in scholarly research. Integrated into a larger research project, this paper fills the gap, while also engaging with the fact that sound and music, once recorded, do not easily disappear but may return at any time.

Dayton Lekner, “Echolocating the Social: Listening and Being Heard in the Hundred-Flowers and Anti-Rightist Campaigns, 1956–1958”

What role did sound and listening play in the mass campaigns of the Mao era? Recent research has shed light on the material and aspirational aspects of the CCP sonic propaganda effort, but how did such propaganda interact with pre-existing attitudes toward sound, silence, and noise? Were loudspeakers a direct line to the consciousness of the masses or a sonic intrusion into daily life? This research explores the reception of CCP sonic propaganda through a case study of the Hundred-Flowers and Anti-Rightist campaigns of 1956 to 1958. Analysing contemporary diaries and letters, as well as memoirs of the period, I explore how attitudes towards hearing as well as making sound shifted through the mass campaigns. I argue that the most effective form of sonic propaganda (defined here as the reshaping of society through sonic impulse and reception) took place not through the elaborate network of wired and wireless broadcast and amplification, but at the social level as peers, colleagues, and classmates, collectively reshaped society through acute auditory perception and the performance of both sound and silence.

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Room 1
Listening to Wartime and Cold-War China (1935–1958)