In 1984 the filmmaker Chen Kaige released his directorial debut, Yellow Earth, generally credited with changing the face of Chinese cinema.
Set in the northwestern province of Shaanxi in
the spring of 1939, the film depicts a soldier from
the Communist Party’s propaganda department
tasked with collecting peasant folk songs. The
opening scene follows him trekking through a
dry, barren plain, where at first all that can be
heard are the whistling of wind and the cawing
of a bird. A human voice begins singing in the
distance; the soldier quickly takes out a small
notebook and starts scribbling. The voice sud-
denly vanishes, leaving only the wind to be heard
still blowing through the empty fields. Sounds of
nature yield to human sound, which recedes back
into sounds of nature.
This CCP soldier is no folklorist; he’s not
undertaking academic study. He is engaged with
a Chinese tradition whose political significance
stretches back millennia. In premodern China,
every student was required to read a core set of
Confucian classics. One of these was the Classic
of Poetry, a collection of 305 poems dating from
the eleventh through seventh century bc. During
the Han dynasty, no later than the first century, a
preface to the work was formulated that gained
enormous stature; called the “Great Preface,”
this text discusses how music could provide insight about the society in which it was produced.
by Xiaofei Tian
Xiaofei Tian is a professor of Chinese literature and the chair of the Regional Studies East Asia
program at Harvard University.
Pair of clappers, Egypt, c. 1350 BC.