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Listening to ChinaSound and the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839$
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Thomas Irvine

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780226667126

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226667263.001.0001

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Soundscapes in the Contact Zone

Soundscapes in the Contact Zone

Listening in Canton, 1770–1839

(p.53) Two Soundscapes in the Contact Zone
Listening to China

Thomas Irvine

University of Chicago Press

This chapter travels to the port city of Canton, the main source of direct European knowledge about Chinese sounds around 1800. From about 1700 until the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842—a period Western historians call the era of “the Canton System” or “Old Canton”—China’s maritime interaction with the world outside its bor­ders took place mostly here. This chapter investigates Western listening in the context of such con­flict and compromise, against the background of a long­ term collapse of Sino­-Western relations. The vast majority of its earwitnesses were British (and later American) professional men: traders, naval officers, naturalists, diplomats, missionaries, and doctors. All were products of the upper classes or used their travel to China to gain a higher station back home. Some took a sympathetic interest in what they heard in Canton, especially Chi­nese music. Many celebrated the vastness of the Canton soundscape, in which millions of people made noise together at once; they were awestruck by the sheer difference of Canton’s sound worlds. Most, however, found Chi­nese sounds off­-putting, even threatening. They wrote about them with ab­solute confidence in Western superiority, hearing the world with imperial ears.

Keywords:   Canton, Chinese sounds, Western listening, First Opium War, Sino-Western relations, earwitnesses, sound worlds, Western superiority, imperial ears, labor

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