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Listening to China

Sound and the Sino-Western Encounter, 1770-1839

From bell ringing to fireworks, gongs to cannon salutes, a dazzling variety of sounds and soundscapes marked the China encountered by the West around 1800. These sounds were gathered by diplomats, trade officials, missionaries, and other travelers and transmitted back to Europe, where they were reconstructed in the imaginations of writers, philosophers, and music historians such as Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, and Charles Burney. Thomas Irvine gathers these stories in Listening to China, exploring how the sonic encounter with China shaped perceptions of Europe’s own musical development.
Through these stories, Irvine not only investigates how the Sino-Western encounter sounded, but also traces the West’s shifting response to China. As the trading relationships between China and the West broke down, travelers and music theorists abandoned the vision of shared musical approaches, focusing instead on China’s noisiness and sonic disorder and finding less to like in its music. At the same time, Irvine reconsiders the idea of a specifically Western music history, revealing that it was comparison with China, the great “other,” that helped this idea emerge. Ultimately, Irvine draws attention to the ways Western ears were implicated in the colonial and imperial project in China, as well as to China’s importance to the construction of musical knowledge during and after the European Enlightenment. Timely and original, Listening to China is a must-read for music scholars and historians of China alike.

256 pages | 14 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2020

New Material Histories of Music

History: Asian History, European History

Music: General Music


“With this book Irvine makes a vital contribution to the emerging field of global music history. He demonstrates the necessity of looking beyond Europe to discover how the West reflexively re-created its own sonic identity through engagement with China. From the desks of scholars to the throne room of the Qianlong emperor, and from the noisy streets of Canton to the decks of trading ships, Listening to China takes the reader on a journey that reveals how sounds from East Asia shaped a new wave of Western musical thought.”

David R. M. Irving, ICREA Research Professor at the Institució Milà i Fontanals–CSIC, Barcelona

“Irvine has given us a brilliant study of Western sonic encounters with China around 1800. While musicologists have been interested in the history of Sino-European musical interaction for some time, Listening to China is original in the breadth of the archive Irvine has assembled and in the canny combination of postcolonial, global historical, and sound studies approaches he brings to bear on it. Writing in the tradition of Jürgen Osterhammel, Irvine is always attuned to the macrohistorical implications of the pasts he documents, yet he also brings a music historian’s ear to the nuances of sound and sense-making that he finds there. Irvine has a knack for historical narrative that makes this book a real pleasure to read, ponder, and teach.”

Olivia Bloechl, University of Pittsburgh

“The sonic turn in monographs like Irvine’s helps us begin to recover some of the sound world we have lost.”

New York Review of Books

"Critically appreciating many other theoretical borrowings from postcolonialism to new musicology, Irvine's ultimate aim is to contribute to the decolonization of musicology and its universalistic master narratives... Irvine's impressive book is a contribution to globalization as well as to the decolonization of musicology. Both are highly topical and will certainly generate further discussion."

Historische Zeitschrift (translated from German)

"Listening to China deserves merit for recording the stages of the process during which, as [Jürgen] Osterhammel aptly put it, Europe no longer compared itself to Asia but considered itself incomparable, a process that manifested itself in the musical area and also in the early stages of Sino-Western relations."

Zeitschrift der Deutschen Gesellschaft für die Erforschung des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts (translated from German)

"Listening to China has extended the scope and geography of Western music and also added to the very limited literature on Sino-Western musical encounters, and it is a fine example of global music history."

Eighteenth-Century Music

Table of Contents

Introduction: Process and Perspective

1              China and the Enlightened Ear
2              Soundscapes in the Contact Zone: Listening in Canton, 1770–1839
3              Charles Burney Discovers China
4              Sound and the Macartney Mission, 1792–1794
5              Reading Burney Listening to China
6              Listening to China with Forkel and Marx

Epilogue: Sound and the Sino-Western Encounter


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