Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Sonic Expressions of Cosmological Awareness: A Comparative Study of Funeral Rituals among Han Chinese Living in the Yangzi River Valley

Academic journal article Yearbook for Traditional Music

Sonic Expressions of Cosmological Awareness: A Comparative Study of Funeral Rituals among Han Chinese Living in the Yangzi River Valley

Article excerpt

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At the eighth conference of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research (CHIME), the topic of my presentation was funeral ritual music in southern Anhui province, located just to the west of Shanghai. I played a video clip showing the sights and sounds of a typical funeral. After my presentation, Frank Kouwenhoven, the Dutch co-founder of CHIME, asked: "Why are there so many kinds of music at Chinese funerals?" It would be inconceivable, he pointed out, to have what in Chinese we term "hot and noisy" (renao-see list of Chinese characters) sounds of this type at a western funeral. Kouwenhoven did a lot of fieldwork in China and knew Chinese traditional music well. So his question not only commented on the multiformity of sounds in Chinese funerals, but also helped me to rethink the capacity of rituals for including so many sounds, and the difference between eastern and western cultures.

Even in China, there are large differences between funeral rituals in urban and rural areas. In this article, I discuss the situation in the countryside. There are two kinds of funerals in Chinese villages. The first type is called xisang (happy funeral-the long ritual with grand soundscapes for a person who had a long life). The second type is called xiongsang (inauspicious funeral-the short ritual with simple soundscapes for a person with a short life). This article will discuss the first type. In xisang, rituals have both sorrowful and festive atmospheres. For example, at certain points during a funeral, there is lamenting, crying, and wailing by bereaved family members on the one hand, and the "hot and noisy" sounds of gongs, drums, and shawms on the other. Although the funeral is a sad event, the bereaved family members ask local folk music societies to provide performances to entertain at the homes of relatives and friends attending the funeral. Asking the same question as Frank Kouwenhoven, I ponder: Why are so many kinds of sounds mixed together at a Chinese funeral?

From March 2010 to April 2012, the Research Centre for Chinese Ritual Music, based at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, carried out the project named, "Case-studies and Comparative Research on the Funeral Rituals and Soundscapes of Han Chinese Living in the Yangzi River Area." Professor Cao Benye was the project director and I was the project manager. I organized six members of the study group and conducted field research on the funeral rituals of seven Han Chinese groups who are scattered over the Yangzi River valley area-one of the most important places of origin for Han civilization, China's ethnic majority whose ancestors were the founders and transmitters of mainstream Chinese languages and cultures.

Besides those seven case studies, there were three I carried out myself and another three carried out by Cao Benye and Tan Jingde. These thirteen funerals in twelve locations were conducted in the context of three religious settings: eight were Daoist, four were Buddhist, one was Confucian, and they were all mixed with folk religions based on local customs.1 The locations were scattered over nine different provinces and municipalities from Shanghai at the eastern end to Sichuan at the western end (see figures 1 and 2).2

Returning now to my main topic, my research shows that the lively sounds at the funeral actually express and construct the structure of the ritual. For insiders, those sounds are not chaotic, but ordered. In funeral structure, the sounds-whether music, speech, noise, or something in between-play a key role in the process of shifting from sorrowful to festive atmospheres.

In this article, I will focus on three questions. First, what is the structure of Han Chinese funeral rituals? Second, within this structure, how do sounds realize the transformation of emotions from sonowful to festive? Third, in funeral rituals, what kind of cosmological awareness on the part of Han Chinese is expressed by such a transformation of sounds? …

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