Singing morality – poetry as songs in traditional Chinese narrative singing : a case study and an analytical framework




Li, Mai, Ph. D.

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Narrative singing, often based on oral literature and known as “ballad singing” in the West, is commonly practiced in many traditional cultures. However, in the context of Chinese traditions, it is a richer and much more complicated concept and takes on meanings that the term “ballad singing” does not necessarily convey. Chinese narrative singing, a tradition dating back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC-263) and still being practiced in today’s China, has been researched only from the perspective of Chinese literature, rather than music. The crucial factor of the philosophy of music in shaping the practice of traditional Chinese storytelling, has not been revealed in extant literature. A major reason for the lack of a musicological perspective in the study of traditional Chinese narrative singing is negligence of the fundamental link between poetry, music, and ritual in ancient Chinese philosophy. This fundamental link is conditioned upon the inherent musical nature of the Chinese language, an issue which is touched upon by extant literature but not yet articulated or analyzed in a systematic way. This dissertation identifies and elaborates the intricate relationship between music, poetry, and ritual as witnessed during a year-long ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Lanzhou (northwest China) focused on a genre of local narrative singing called Lanzhou gŭzi 兰州鼓子. By combining ethnographic experience with historical examination, this dissertation problematizes the extant methods of categorizing and analyzing traditional Chinese narrative singing and provides a comprehensive analytical framework as a solution. The proposed analytical framework also helps diagnose the current condition of the practice of a certain genre of traditional Chinese narrative singing as a means to provide advisory assistance for developing policies on preserving music heritage



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