Music, Emotion, and Cosmology in Ancient China

In China, from around the fourth century BCE, discourse about music moved beyond the discussion of performance to include discussions on the significance of sound in the workings of the cosmos. With the subsequent development of correlative cosmological theories, especially during the early imperial period of the Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), textual sources gave particular consideration to tones, scales, and tuning formulas in relation to the calendar. Sound came to occupy a special place in the way the ruling elite envisioned the workings of the cosmos, which was made of several cyclical mechanisms, resembling a set of interlocking gears on a mechanical watch. They perceived sound as a tangible manifestation of the synchrony of these cycles, in the form of vital energy (qi). It was not only the backbone of ritual musical performances, but also functioned independently as a distinct characteristic of the months of the year and of celestial events such as the winter solstice. Only highly cultivated individuals could also be sound connoisseurs with an aesthetic appreciation for accurate pitches, in tune with the season and the calendar. Music became an important component of astrological, astronomical, and calendrical systems. This presentation aims to show how sound was not viewed as a mere representation of the cosmos, but inherent to it and to its cyclical workings.

NOA HEGESH is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation explores the conceptualization of sound and music, and their relation to cosmology in early and medieval China. She is a graduate of Tel Aviv University, and holds a B.A. in musicology, a B.A. and M.A from the department of East Asian Studies, and has studied orchestra conducting at the Buchman Mehta academy of music there. She also holds an M.A in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania. Her other passions include theatre and film, pop music, poetry, and anything having to do with promoting all forms of art and culture to anyone willing to listen.

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