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Nov 22: Fine-Tuning the Cosmos: Calendrical Astronomy and Tuning Theories in Late Imperial China

Date: November 22, 2023 (Wednesday) Time: 5:00PM Venue: Music Library Lecture Room, 11/F Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Co-organized by Department of Music

Details and registration: All are welcome. No registration required.


Sheryl CHOW, Fellow, Society of Fellows in the Humanities, HKU


YANG Yuanzheng, Professor, Department of Music, HKU

The historiography of Chinese music theories has seen two parallel trends: the acclamation of the scientific achievements of theorists and the dismissal of their ‘superstitious’ theories about the correlation between music and the cosmos. For instance, Yang Yinliu 楊蔭瀏hails Zhu Zaiyu's 朱載堉 (1536–1611) equal temperament as an ‘important invention’, but dismisses his cosmic view of music as ‘mystical thought’. Chinese music scholars tend to see analogical music theories as unscientific. Sinologists have codified this cognitive process of cross-domain mapping as “correlative thinking,” characterizing it as pre-logical, inconsistent, and a hinder to scientific reasoning.

This paper provides an alternative narrative by presenting two case studies. The first one examines how Zhu Zaiyu's calculation of equal temperament was inspired by the apparent movement of the sun around the earth. The second one explores the way in which the intercalary month of the lunisolar calendar was used to legitimise the ditonic comma of the Chinese circle-of-fifth tuning in the Correct Principles of Music (Lülü zhengyi 律呂正義, 1714). These two cases show that correlative thinking does not only have explanatory, but also inspirational and rhetorical significance in the formulation of Chinese music theories.

Sheryl Chow is a fellow of the Society of Fellows in Humanities at HKU. She received her PhD in Musicology from Princeton University. Her dissertation, which won the Alvin H. Johnson AMS 50 Dissertation Fellowship, concerns the relationship between music theory, scientific knowledge and East-West cultural exchange in late imperial China. A chapter of her dissertation is published as a journal article in Early Music History. To the edited volume Of Essence and Context, she contributed a chapter on the re-essentialization of microtonal tuning in twenty-first-century traditional Chinese music. Her book chapter on the music of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement is forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Protest Music.

Yang Yuanzheng specialises in East Asian musical history, with interests that extend from Bronze Age excavations to the reception of Chinese musical philosophies in Japan. He has unearthed an array of hitherto unnoticed manuscripts of the Song dynasty poet-musician Jiang Kui and published them in facsimile along with a monograph entitled Plum Blossom on the Far Side of the Stream (2019). As a qin player, Yang was entrusted by the Smithsonian Institution to investigate their collection of qin in the National Museum of Asian Art, the results of which were published as Dragon’s Roar: Chinese Literati Musical Instruments in the Freer and Sackler Collections (2020).

Society of Fellows in the Humanities


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