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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Breaking the Sound Barrier: Examining China's Sonic Cultures Across the 1949 Divide
4: One China – Two Speakers: Hearing Yourself and Your Enemy in Cold War China.
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of British Columbia, Canada
From 1953 to 1992, speaker towers located on the headlands of both China (PRC) and Taiwan (ROC) broadcast sound at high volumes across the Cold War divide. Separated by a distance of as little as 1,200 meters, for much of the Cold War these towers were one of the few channels of communication between the PRC and Taiwan. In principle, and according to the central directives, the speakers were frontline tools in the battle between “communist” and “free” China. In practice, however, they piped sounds at high intensity but inconsistent clarity across the strait with mixed results. Political messages were repeated in the hope of listeners gradually piecing together a coherent meaning. As relay of semantic content was unreliable, tone of voice became critical. Songs were deployed, the melodies of which carried better than did the semantics of CCP or KMT tenet. In both song and voice, divisions between the sides broke down as each reached out with the other’s songs, tone of voice, and dialect. Previous sonic studies of China during this era have noted the authoritarian or revolutionary goals of sonic infrastructures. This presentation explores such goals as they were put to sound and diffused: from central policy and the binaries of ideological division to the broadcast of such messages under geographical, sonic, and linguistic constraints, to the perception by their targets and those caught in the sonic crossfire. It explores how the process of speaking, making sound, and being heard breaks down under such conditions and brings the contingencies and plural modes of hearing into central consideration.