Working with Absence in 20th Century China: Gaps, Ellipses, Silences, and How They Shape History
2: Aural History: Re-sounding China's 20th Century
Saturday, March 26, 2022
12:30pm – 2:00pm EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 313A
University of British Columbia, United States
Recent sound-studies approaches have uncovered a new genre of materials by which we understand Chinese socialism. The materials of loudspeakers, radio transmitters and receivers, gramophone records, cassette tapes and even the human voice have become valid objects of intellectual investigation. In the process, the Chinese revolution has become one not only of ideology and ideation, but also of echo, noise, and song. Largely absent, however, has been the material of sound itself. An extremely limited number of recordings made during the Mao era, mostly of music or the political elite, have been preserved and made accessible to scholars. Even those that are extant offer no guarantee to transport the listener of today into the culturally constructed auditory perspective and experience of those in any period of place under study. This paper, therefore, drawing on global approaches to sound studies and local conditions and observations, pursues the following question: How best explore and present a sonic history of China’s 20th Century experience? The problem is explored through three events (the founding of the Republic, the Cultural Revolution, and the death of Mao). I ask what materials are available, and what are their limits? Beyond physical recordings, how does history store the sonic, and how do we retrieve it? Drawing on diaries, memoir, newspaper reports, and intraparty bulletins, I argue that the ostensible lack of the material of sound itself forces us to explore textual traces of the sonic, and to accept that such materials are anything but silent.