Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 35, July 2014

Rachel Harris, Rowan Pease and Shzr Ee Tan (editors)

Gender in Chinese Music

Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-58046-443-7 (hbk); viii + 308 pp.

reviewed by Masaya Shishikura[1]

  1. Contrary to its simple and straightforward title, Gender in Chinese Music includes rich, diverse and thought-provoking content. In the book, thirteen authors/experts of Chinese musical cultures explore the world of Chinese music from traditional repertoires to contemporary practices, with special references to gender issues. Each chapter is independent, but also complements the others. For instance, while Judith T. Zeitlin (Chapter 2) describes literary/musical communications between courtesans and their clients during late Ming dynasty, Tiantian Zheng (Chapter 3) analyses singing practices between hostesses and male clients in karaoke bars in present-day China. Joseph Lam (Chapter 5) investigates wen (civil) and wu (martial) masculinities in kunqu (kun music or kun opera), a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage; on the other hand, Shzr Ee Tan (Chapter 9) reconsiders the wen-wu dyad through analysis of popular Chinese pianists, Lang Lang and Li Yundi. In these mutual and collaborative ways, the book provides unity and coherence as well as diversity.
  2. In my reading of the book, the overwhelming social norms and their pressure on Chinese music scenes, or Chinese society in general, became apparent. Various musical practices and performances in the volume often highlight the structured and stereotyped ideas/concepts about gender in Chinese music. Stephen Jones (Chapter 1) clearly indicates gender distinctions in Chinese music through his general survey of local communities, and his study of shawm bands of North Chian (Chapter 7) testifies to the established male/female binary with specific considerations of masculinities. Frank Kouwenhoven and Antoinet Schimmelpenninck (Chapter 11) consider female singing practices of popular rural songs, called shan'ge, and suggest the confined and oppressive status of women. Hwee-San Tan (Chapter 19) focuses upon Buddhist laywomen in the Minnan region, Fujian Province, and examines their changing musical roles caught between traditional liturgical doctrine and contemporary social conditions. Throughout these musical practices, the authors recognise the pragmatic politics of rebellion and liberation, although normative structures continue to be pervasive and to control local communities in China.
  3. The normative Chinese ways of thinking also exert influence on the so-called 'ethnic minorities' and their musical activities. The book dedicates four chapters to the studies of music of 'ethnic minorities' and examines strategic gendered performances within the structured social norm, stereotyped male/female roles, and enforced national policies. For instance, Rowan Pease (Chapter 13) discusses how Korean female singers modify their voices and appropriate the 'ethnic singing method' idealised by the national imaginary. In her study of Nuosu-Yi music from southeast Sichuan (Chapter 15), Olivia Kraef addresses feminine 'ethnic performances' that are utilised for mass media, national propaganda, and tourism promotion. Drawing from her own experiences in Xinjiang, Rachel Harris (Chapter 17) presents stories concerning Uyghur women's weeping in musical/ritual performances, and extends her concerns to the social and political issues of Muslim societies in China. In Zhuang people of the Jingxi region, Guangxi, Xiao Mei (Chapter 18) recognises highly gendered singing styles that result from the negotiation between indigenous polytheistic beliefs and the Daoism of Han Chinese culture. As Harris and Pease recognise, the musical performances of 'ethnic minorities' often reveal 'internal orientalism' that feminises the 'minorities' through exoticised and even eroticised imagery (p. 19). However, as suggested in these chapters, gendered performances also inform local politics, in which 'minorities' negotiate with public images and national stereotypes in seeking sustainability of their own cultures.
  4. Just as the abovementioned musical activities are inevitably involved with social conventions and restrictions, studies of Chinese music often reflect Chinese philosophy and traditional beliefs, including the yin-yan (shade-light) dichotomy. In gender studies, Harris and Pease mention that the binary yin-yan concept can be easily 'conflated with female-male genders' (p. 10) that some authors replicate and further enforce in their narratives and arguments. However the book itself is eclectic and also exemplifies musicians who actually live in complexity and multiplicity rather than perform simple binary criteria. It includes seven chapters that interrogate stereotypical 'female-male' dichotomies in the form of interviews (conducted by Ruard Absaroka and Shzr Ee Tan).
  5. The interview chapters present actual human voices and invite us to investigate transformable human life, music and gender. For instance, a professional jazz singer Coco Zhao (Chapter 8, he also appears on the cover photo) describes himself: 'I am a bit of everything' (p. 128), and overtly performs his music and his gender in-between. Under the various social pressures, he faces difficulties and discrimination, but remains transparent just like 'wearing see-through clothes' (p. 131). While realising her female voice quality, Liu Sola (Chapter 12) identifies herself in changes and multiplicity rather than within a single ethnicity or gender: 'My many and varied life experiences make my personal history richer; they make my singing and my music more interesting' (p. 180). Following her husband, Madame Zinnia Kwok (Chapter 6) began to perform Cantonese opera in an amateur club in Hong Kong. She often performs male roles due to her voice quality, while simultaneously watching out that other taitais (ladies of leisure) in the club do not seduce her attractive husband. Interviews with karaoke bar host Zhang Han, music lover Aloysius Lee, and music producer Li Sisong (Chapters 4, 10 and 14 respectively) exemplify diverse images of femaleness through the male gaze. A woman can sing with charming smiles to entertain guests, be an icon for gay boys with her glamorous performances, and act as a cute girl or androgynous handsome sister to satisfy different audiences. In the 'man's world' of Chinese academia, ethnomusicologist Xiao Mei (Chapter 16) has challenged the gender barrier and now sees more equality, opportunity and individuality for young scholars. As suggested in Diamond and Moisala (2000),[2] studies of music and gender often involve 'negotiating the categories' that these interview chapters address beyond a conventional binary discourse.
  6. As discussed above, Gender in Chinese Music is highly insightful and provides a strong basis for future studies on gender in the performing arts. Its multi-sited/dimensional approaches suggest various relevant studies within and beyond China and Chinese music. For instance, the studies of the courtesan world and karaoke bars have implications for street performances—I have observed a similar hostess/guest relationship on Temple Street, Hong Kong. The story of Madame Zinnia Kwok instantly reminded me of a Cantonese opera club in Honolulu, Hawai'i, where taitais were also actively singing and performing. The music studies of other 'minority groups' would be also possible with specific references to politics and gender that we find abundant comparative materials in other countries of Asia and the Pacific. The book presents a model for gender studies of other musical cultures.
  7. The book also foregrounds the performative aspects of gender. Harris and Pease state: 'the discipline of ethnomusicology is perhaps uniquely able to examine music and gender not only through analysis of music as text but through study of lived experience, agency, and practice' (p. 5). Certainly each chapter demonstrates people's 'lived experiences' of gender through musical performances; good examples are Chinese masculinities on the piano, ethnic Korean female singing in China, and feminine ethnic Nuosu-Yi music. In these musical activities, gender is experienced, negotiated, identified, re-evaluated, transformed and re-experienced. The body and its practices are fragmentary and often difficult to argue in academic study, but music and dance practices indeed allow the performers to acquire real and concrete gender perceptions through corporeal experiences. Echoing Judith Butler,[3] these bodily and performative aspects of gender should receive more attention in music and dance studies.
  8. Here I emphasise that ethnomusicology is not an exclusive discipline that controls music and dance studies; I recognise significant contributions from performance studies, memory discourses, decolonising theories, and Pacific Studies to the issues of music, gender and the body. Gender in Chinese Music is no exception and draws upon historical, philosophical, literary and anthropological approaches. That various scholars from different disciplines approach and explore gender issues in performing arts is to be encouraged. Again, Gender in Chinese Music is exemplary of mutual collaborations and complementary contributions. It commends us to pursue cooperative research and scholarship in future gender studies on the performing arts of Asia and the Pacific.


    [1] Many thanks to Professor Emeritus Ricardo D. Trimillos, who provided significant comments and suggestions on this review.

    [2] Beverley Diamond and Pirkko Moisala, 'Music and gender: negotiating shifting worlds, in Music and Gender, ed. Pirkko Moisala and Beverley Diamond, Champaign, University of Illinois Press, 2000, pp. 1–9.

    [3] For instance, Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 15 July 2014 1354