Emslie Horniman Award: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde

Home Past Awards Emslie Horniman Award: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde

Award Holder: Ellan A. Lincoln-Hyde
University: SOAS University of London
Title of Research: Is Western Classical Music Chinese (Yet)?: A Qualitative, Archival, and Ethnographic Study of the Spread of Western Classical Music in China

The aim of this work

The aim of this research, working as I do between the disciplines of history, music, and anthropology, has had two primary purposes. Both of these are fairly radical. Firstly, I seek to complicate and question the overarching narrative of the history of western classical music by highlighting the disseminations of this art form across the territory known today at China. Secondly, I seek to provide tools for future researchers of Chinese cultural history to uncover the vastness of voices excluded from its history, using western classical music as a catalyst. They are ambitious aims, demanding an command of qualitative research techniques including systemic literature reviews, archival research, and ethnographically informed interviews.

Musicology in China, and the conception of music in China from a non-Chinese language perspective, currently underplays the complexity of the historical and social realities of the spread and adaptation of Western musical sound. This is especially noticeable with regards to non-elite Chinese perspectives. Qualitative analysis of the formation of the cultural value of ‘classical’ and ‘new music’ (the ‘westernised music’ genre of China) in China among the broader, non-musically trained population does not exist in the English literature at this time (Liu 2010:13–14). Though several dense works on the ‘westernisation’ of Chinese music over the twentieth century have appeared in recent decades, accounts of the change from eye-witnesses among the broader population during this transition are infrequently recorded with such studies being especially rare in English. The subject has not been engaged with extensively using an anthropological perspective. Hence, it was with a framework of historical ethnomusicological analysis in mind for which I applied to the RAI for funding assistance. My use of a matrix of theories to guide my research beyond the prevailing was another unique factor in my research. The layers of my analyses draw from gender, feminist, queer, decolonised, and anti-racist critiques – which are significantly underrepresented theories within the fields of research on China; and often quite controversial.

The Emslie Horniman Grant has allowed me – despite the scale and ambition of this work combined with my personal circumstances, and the COVID-19 pandemic – to complete the various pieces of fieldwork I required. In this final report overview, I shall focus on the ethnographic portions of my research, outlining my methodology, the obstacles encountered along the way, my experience of conducting this research, and how I believe my work significantly contributes to the field of anthropology.

The methods of this research

As discussed, my research required major portions of historical archival work, which was conducted partially with the assistance of the RAI funding. This included engaging for a short while a research assistant based in Beijing, and an assistant translator working on works in scripts difficult for non-native speakers to read. However, most of the Emslie Horniman grant was spent in collecting ethnographic interview data. Methodologically, the original intention for this research had been to gather in-field interviews from persons living within mainland China. The restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic globally meant that this was not possible. I attempted to interview persons within mainland China using platforms such as WeChat, however, prevailing technical difficulties meant that securing a WeChat account while being out of the Chinese intranet was not feasible. This forced a change in the project on two fronts: the research had to be done entirely beyond China, and I had to radically reevaluate the legacy of identities I was seeking to explore. With the approval of my supervisors and the RAI, I broadened the identity of persons I was engaging with to anyone who self-identified as being ‘Chinese’. I did not specify a relationship to mainland China, and instead worked with the interviewees to examine what Chinese identity meant to them and how this interacted with their training and experiences in Western classical music.

As I was unable to travel to China in person, my first research barrier became translation. Even if I had been in China, the age of several of my participants and various safety protocols would have meant the use of face masks for all participants. As a second language Chinese speaker, this would have significantly reduced my ability to communicate with my interviewees given my personal need for whole-face communication. Additionally, several of my interviewees spoke using dialects which most Chinese translators do not understand. I therefore sought assistance for Chinese language interviews from several translators. One of my ‘gatekeeper’ interviewees, assisted with in-interview translations for a further two sessions beyond his own interview. Another freelance translator I approached to help me transcribe several Chinese-language interviews, also volunteered to be an interviewee, as she felt the questions I was asking applied to her life. Due to the restrictions of the pandemic, I could not have completed this work without their assistance, nor paid them their particularly well deserved fees with RAI funding. I was flattered that my translators thought well enough of my work to also participate as interviewees, which I think indicates the merit of my research topic for persons working beyond academia.

Finding interviewees during a global health crisis was challenging, but ultimately resulted in a diversity of candidates I could not have predicted. Several interviewees were fellow members of my post-graduate accommodation institution. Other contacts were found through fellow PhD candidates at SOAS including. Several interviewees were traced through contacts of my Emslie Horniman Field Grant mentor at the Royal Anthropological Institute (and through them I reconnected with a friend from High School – it’s a small world!). Some interviewees I met through close friends, others through conferences or guest lectures, others through ensembles I participated in or had conducted since 2019. Still other interviewees, particularly well-known performers, I contacted directly through publically available email addresses. Though less concentrated geographically, my interviewees have sprang from a far broader set of backgrounds and contacts than I could have imagined. This I now see as a strength of the research, as the parallels and experiences I have found collectively amongst this cohort connect these otherwise fairly disparate individuals. Simplistically put: if an individual identified as ‘Chinese’ and had prolonged engagement with ‘Western classical music’, then my research suggests that there will be commensurate experiences beyond geography, nationality, and direction of engagement with music.

Doing Fieldwork

Other than the ubiquitous COVID-19 pandemic disruptions to research in the UK, another set-back was the unpredictability of various lock down and restricted movement orders with the regions my interviewees were calling me from. Interviews were conducted in person as COVID-19 restrictions in England allowed, via video link using Zoom, Skype, and Jisti videoconferencing services, or mobile phone calls where necessary. While I was in London, England for every interview, my interviewees were in various locations including, Manchester, Liverpool, Berlin, Toronto, San Francisco, Beijing, Anhui Province, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. Additionally, I eventually could no longer engage my China-based assistant, as they were no longer able to move between the cities in which the desired archives were based, nor access archive building within their own location due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, as with any fieldwork experience, there was always more to learn than there was to be frustrated about. Within the first few interviews, as is so often the case, my assumptions and knowledge gaps became evident, and experiences I could not have known to ask about come to the foreground. It was an immense privilege to engage with my interviewees, with whom, as a trained classical musician, I shared many experiences. Often I found that my participants wanted to know why I, as an Anglo-Celtic heritage Australian, was interested in their experiences or the history of ‘being Chinese’ in this musical realm at all. It was incredibly productive to explain why, and establish a trust which yielded far richer and more complex responses from my interviewees. One participant, a prominent international soloist, shared that they felt ‘all the Western classical music I learned in China doesn’t belong to China.  I always have a feeling that I’m kind of outside of this door.  … I could never get inside to be friends with Mozart [or] Beethoven’, and that our interview allowed a place to both feel and express this. Others began the interview wondering why it was important, but by the end felt the conversation had given space to some significant cognitive dissonances. Of course, several felt the subject futile: ‘I’m not interested in any other music … it’s my music!’ Still others felt they had an opportunity to be quite blunt with their feelings towards their countries’ funding of western classical music training: ‘Mozart’s still dead … he’s not going to applaud you’. I look forward to combining this ethnographically informed section of my work with my historical data in my final thesis conclusions, as well as incorporating aspects of the personal process of conducting these interviews.

Contributing to Anthropology

I am confident that this historical ethnographical research has already made a contribution to the field of anthropology, and will continue to do so. My evidence for this has been in the feedback received from two conferences I have attended and presented this work to, one of which yielded several interview opportunities, the other of which secured an invitation to contribute a book chapter. More importantly, however, the anthropological aspects of my work make sense and resonate with my participants. One of my interviewees, a fellow music researcher, remarked that my work had made them consider their own research and methodologies differently. Several of my older participants felt that my emphasis on ‘normal’, ‘grassroots’ people was important, and made them feel seen. Yet others commented on the ‘relief’ they experienced during our interviews, in which they could ‘open up’ about the complexity of issues being of Chinese heritage and being convinced (or coerced) to engage so intensely with western classical music had made them feel over their lifetime. It is clear that my work has hit a nerve among my participants, and my fellow researchers, and it is a methodology which can easily be extended to other regions. For example South Asian, Pacific and Australian, South American, and African locales experience a similar lack of anthropological exploration of the colonial system of meaning which is western classical music. Additionally, there is already interest in publishing parts of my thesis as book chapters, as well as the work transforming into a monograph. It has been an honour to be recognized by the RAI, I look forward to continuing this research beyond my doctoral thesis thanks to this initial field grant support.