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From the Natural to the Instrumental: Chinese Theories of the Sounding Voice before the Modern Era

From the Natural to the Instrumental: Chinese Theories of the Sounding Voice before the Modern Era

Chapter:
(p.54) 2 From the Natural to the Instrumental: Chinese Theories of the Sounding Voice before the Modern Era
Source:
The Voice as Something More
Author(s):
Judith T. Zeitlin
Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226656427.003.0003

This chapter examines how the human voice was theorized in Chinese thought before the modern era, in a system where voice was not overladen with figurative meanings like those suggested by “identity,” “agency,” “subjectivity,” or “style.” The author argues that linguistically and conceptually, the default in Chinese discourse has been to situate the voice on a continuum with other sounds rather than isolating it as a separate category. Only at key moments and for specific reasons was the human voice distinguished as something different and valorized. The chapter traces the emergence of different models of the sounding voice from antiquity to the eighteenth century, and identifies two pivotal changes. The first occurs in court literature of the Six Dynasties (third–fifth century CE), where the voice was championed as superior to other musical instruments because more “natural.” The second is found in an eighteenth-century pedagogical treatise for the voice in Kun opera by the physician Xu Dachun, who developed a modern techné for instrumentalizing the singer’s body.

Keywords:   Chinese voice, Chinese poetics, Kun opera (kunqu), Xu Dachun, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, whistling, Wenxin diaolong, Liu Hsieh

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