The Presence and Absence of Female
Musicians and Music in China
Joseph S. C. Lam
Follow the calendar of the Xia, ride in the carriage of the Yin, and wear the ceremonial cap of the Zhou, but, as for music, adopt the Shao and the Wu. Banish the tunes of Zheng and keep plausible men at a distance. The tunes of Zheng are wanton and plausible men are dangerous.
The men of Qi made a present of singing and dancing girls. Jihuanzi [of the Lu state] accepted them and stayed away from court for three days. Confucius departed.
These quotations from the Analects, a collection of Confucius's words and deeds, encapsulate the Confucian view of music: promote proper music (yayue) and banish vernacular music (suyue). 1 Represented by the “Shao” and “Wu, ” two legendary works of songs, dances, and instrumental music attributed to the mythical sageking Shun and King Wu of the Zhou dynasty (1099–256 B. C. E.), proper music is deemed essential to governance and self-cultivation alike. In contrast, vernacular music, represented by the wanton tunes of the Zheng state, corrupts men's hearts and impedes fulfillment of their social and moral obligations. Among diverse kinds of vernacular music, music made by women is singled out by Confucian scholars as particularly corruptive because it seduces not only with sound but also with the physical presence of female performers.
Given such a non grata status of female musicians and the music they made, it is no surprise that females are largely absent from the Confucian canon. And yet if one looks elsewhere in the cultural and textual records, an entirely different picture emerges. The reality is that the Chinese have valorized quite a number of female musicians: Cai Yan (177–?), a qin-zither player, and Wang Zhaojun (fl. ca. 40–30 B. C. E.), a pipa-lute player, are but two of the many examples. This gap between official disdain and popular embrace opens up many historical and historiographical questions. 2 Is the historical presence of female musicians and music knowable today? Why and how did the illusion of their absence manage to operate for so long? What does the contrast between illusion and reality tell us about gender relations? And what does it say about the history of Chinese music?