The Ancient Chinese Arts of the Ear: Etymology, Meteorology, Musicology

Kevin Conrad Schoenberger Jr, Xiaodun Wang

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


This article draws on historical linguistic evidence, archeological finds, and written accounts of ancient practices to argue that, in the pre-Qin and Han periods of Chinese history, an important stratum of knowledge related to earthly energies, vibrations, pitch, tonality, music, memory, and recitation existed in conceptual parallel to systems of visual knowledge of heavenly bodies, light, color, and the written record. Masters of the former set of skills were frequently
blind and entrusted with a distinct set of ritual and advisory functions, including ushering in the seasons, pronouncing on elements of the calendar, predicting military fortunes, and performing official policy admonishments. Of particular importance to this group of experts was the concept of “winds” or “airs” (fēng) and a closely related verb for “sing,” “chant,” or “remonstrate” (fĕng). The etymological relationship of these words, along with words for listening, smell, sounds, and fragrance, led to a conceptual blending whereby the “energy” (qi) of wise words and “fragrant” virtue could carry on “winds” of oral transmission to correct public morality and governance. This led to an etiological hierarchy, in some ways inverted by current standards, in which the purpose of studying pitch and tonality was not, first and foremost, analysis of music qua art but, rather, the encoding, transmission, and influence of natural energies and social harmony.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)432–460
JournalJournal of Chinese Literature and Culture
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


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