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The Lyrical in Epic Time: Jiang Wenye's Music and Poetry

A talk by Professor David Der-wei Wang about Jiang Wenye's literary works and music.

April 30, 2008 12:00am

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall

Jiang Wenye (1910-1983) was one of the most talented composers in modern China and Japan. He was also known for his poetic works in both Chinese and Japanese. Born in Taiwan and educated in China and Japan, Jiang belonged to the generation of Taiwanese artists who struggled to negotiate their identities and respond to multiple challenges from colonialism to imperialism, and from nationalism to cosmopolitanism. Although inspired by such modernists as Debussy, Bartok, and Stravinsky, Jiang found in the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) a kindred spirit, and when the latter called for sonic representations of national style, he began a lifelong endeavor to modernize Chinese music.

Jiang moved from Japan to China in 1938 and his career reached its peak in the early 1940s. With his symphony Confucian Rites and poetic pieces, Jiang sought to redefine modern Chinese musicality in light of the ancient melodies that he believed were crystallized in the Confucian practice of ritual and music. As such, Jiang's project appears to be an intriguing mixture of the past and the present, a bold invention in a mode of  imaginary nostalgia. But Jiang's experiment took place at a time of war, revolution, and atrocity. This trumpeting of his lyrical reconstruction of Chinese civilization was so out of tune with the contemporary "call to arms" that he was doomed to pay an enormous price for his beliefs.

Jaroslav Prušek describes the cultural dynamics of modern China in terms of "the lyrical versus the epic."  Inspired by Prušek's notion, this talk deals with the artistic choices Jiang Wenye made and the political objections he had to cope with. Using select musical pieces, poetic works, and theoretical treatises as examples, the talk explores the following issues: how Jiang's modernist sensibility demonstrated his colonial and cosmopolitan bearings; how his engagement with Confucian musicology brought about an unlikely dialogue between Chinese cultural essentialism and Japanese pan-Asianism; and most important, how his lyrical vision was occasioned by, and confined to, historical contingencies. Because of the contested forces his works and life brought into play, the talk concludes, Jiang Wenye dramatizes the composition of Chinese modernity at its most treacherous.

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David Der-wei Wang is Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature and Director of CCK Foundation Inter-University Center for Sinological Studies. His specialties are modern and contemporary Chinese literature, late Qing fiction and drama, and comparative literary theory. Wang received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from thge University of Wisconsin at Madison, and he has taught at National Taiwan University and Columbia University.

Wang's English books include Fictional Realism in 20th Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen (1992), Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Mondernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (1997), The Monster That Is History: Violence, History, and Fictional Writing in 20th Century China (2004). His Chinese books include From Liu E to Wang Zhenhe: Modern Chinese Realist Fiction (1986), Heteroglossia: Chinese Fiction of the 30's and the 80's (1988); Reading Contemporary Chinese Fiction (1991); Narrating China (1993); Methods of Imagining China (1998); After Heteroglossia: Reviews of Contemporary Chinese Fiction (2001); Into the Millennium: Twenty Contemporary Chinese Fiction Writers (2002); The Monster That Is History (2005).

Wang is the Chinese translator of Michel Foucault's The Archeology of Knowledge (1993). He has also edited or coedited more than ten other books in English or Chinese. His recent projects include Late Ming and Late Qing: Dynastic Decline and Cultural Innovation (2006), Representing Taiwan (2006), and Taiwan under Japanese Colonial Rule (2007).  Wang is currently working on a book concerning Chinese artists and intellectuals in the mid-20th century crisis.