CHINESE MUSICAL CUSTOMS by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Introduction by Fredric Lieberman

Some Chinese musicians as depicted by the Jesuit Pere Amoit in the monumental work Memoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences, les arts, les moeurs, les usages, &c. des Chinois, par les missionaires de Pe-kin. Paris: Nyon, 1780 (Vol. 6).

This short article, nominally on the subject of Chinese music, manages to convey with brilliance the world of upper-class European romanticism of the mid-nineteenth century.

Hector Berlioz was the greatest French composer of the Romantic movement, and perhaps the greatest French composer of all time. He was quick to express an opinion, and his mordant pen struck terror into the hearts of countless drawing-room dilletante musicians.

Ever since the reports of the ambitious Jesuit fathers who travelled to China began to be published and bruited about the intellectual circles of Europe, Chinese customs and Chinese ideas held the anomalous position of being highly respected in intellectual and philosophical circles while being laughed at as crude exoticism in drawing-room society.

Though his sinological facts are not always accurate, the satire is sharp. The Swiftian darts are not aimed at China, but at Europe, using China as a foil. This paper is thus a valuable document in the history of Western response to China.

by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

An English translation by Nguyen Kim-Oanh and Fredric Lieberman of the Chapter "Moeurs musicales de la Chine" from A travers chants. Paris: Michel Levy Freres, 1852, pp. 252-258.

For some time now, the Chinese have been the object of much attention, and in such a way that it is never very flattering to them. We are not satisfied with beating them, putting their shops into disorder, routing their Emperor, taking his Celestial Majesty's palace, sharing among ourselves his ingots, diamonds, precious stones and fabrics: we must also laugh at this great people, call them a nation of old men, maniacs, fools and imbeciles, a people in love with the absurd, the horrible, and the grotesque. We laugh at the Chinaman's beliefs, customs, arts, science, even his daily life because he eats rice grain by grain with little sticks, a process as difficult to learn as his way of writing (which he never knows completely); naively, we think it simpler to eat rice with a spoon. We laugh at his weapons, armies, flags (with painted dragons to scare the enemy), and cannons which shoot their projectiles to the moon! We laugh at his musical instruments, his women with deformed feet, and everything else! However the Chinese have much that is good, and it is not completely without reason that they call us red devils, barbarians. For example: sixty thousand Chinese were thoroughly routed by four or five thousand Anglo-french, it is true; but their General, seeing the battle lost, neatly severed his neck with a sword--without having recourse to his servants, as did the Romans--and was satisfied only when his head had fallen off. This is courageous; try to do as much yourself.

He crushes his womens' feet to keep them from walking, but also prevents them from attending the ball, dancing the polka, waltzing and hence remaining whole nights held tightly in the arms of young men who inhale their breath, talk in their ears--under the very eyes of fathers, mothers, husbands, and lovers.

He has a music which we find abominable, atrocious; he sings like yawning dogs, like cats vomiting after having swallowed a fishbone; the instruments accompanying the singing seem to us true instruments of torture. But he respects his music, and protects the outstanding works of his culture; while we spend more time disliking our monstrosities than protecting our masterpieces. In France the beautiful and the abominable are equally abandoned to public indifference.

In China everything must follow a rigid code, even the instrumentation of the operas. The size of the drums and gongs depends on the subject and musical style of the work. In a comic opera one cannot employ drums as large as those for serious opera. In France, on the contrary, the most inconsequential lyric operetta calls for drums as grandiose as those for Grand Opera. It was not like this twenty-five years ago; this is a proof of the advantages of the rigid Chinese musical code.

According to mandarin choir-directors, Chinese singers often miss notes (how inferior to ours, who sing so often correctly!). But they know almost all of their language; observing prosody, they never violate the accentuation; in spite of the disastrous results of our changeable and unregulated customs, and in consequence of our mania of overthrowing everything at the individual's caprice, it appears that most European singers sing Chinese!

Most beautiful and admirable are the regulations in force in China from time immemorial to protect the composer's masterpieces. It is illegal to deform them, to interpret them unfaithfully, to alter the text, feeling, or spirit. Such laws are not preventive: no one is barred from performing a consecrated work, but the individual convicted of disfiguring it is punished with a severity in direct proportion to the composer's importance. Thus the hardships suffered by those who desecrate Confucius' works will appear cruel to us barbarians who are accustomed to outrage everything with impunity.

Confucius is called in Chinese Koang-fu-tsée; we have a pleasant habit of arranging proper names, as if arranging works differently when translating, or transferring dramatic material from one scene to another. We cannot conserve with integrity names of great men or great towns if they are foreign. The German' s Regensburg we call Ratisbonne, and our Paris is called Parigi by the Italians. This added syllable, "gi" pleases them infinitely, and it would shock their ear to simply say "Paris" in the French way. Thus it is not surprising that we say Confucius instead of Koang-futsée, first because the Latin termination 'us' is honorable philosophical language, second because our principle is not to bother with a name difficult to pronounce. Thence comes that precaution of the German artist who, fearing a displeasing transmogrification of his teutonic name, put on his carte-de-visite: "Schneitzoeffer, pronounced Bertrand. "

Thus Koang-fu-tsée, or Confucius, or Bertrand, was a great philosopher, as we all know, and his philosophy often draws upon musicology; having composed variations on the famous tune of Li Po, he played them on a guitar decorated with ivory as he travelled throughout China, thus moralizing the immense population: from this the Chinese people acquired their deep morality. But Koang-fu-tsée's work is not limited to these famous variations for ivory-decorated guitar; no, this great musical philosopher wrote many moral cantatas and moral operas whose main merit, according to the literati and musicians of China, is a simplicity and beauty of melodic style united with the deepest expression of passions and feelings.

There is a remarkable story of a Chinese woman who, attending an opera in which Confucius painted movingly the joys of maternal love, started to cry bitterly at the beginning of the seventh act. Her neighbors asked the reason: "Alas!," she replied, "I have given birth to nine children and drowned them all--now I regret not having kept at least one, it would be such joy!" The Chinese legislators have therefore with great reason, I believe, pronounced severe punishments not only against theater managers who would produce poor versions of the wonderful works of Koang-fu-tsée, but also against singers who sing excerpts badly. Each week the Music Police report to the mandarin Arts Director; and if a singer is proved guilty of profanation, the left ear is removed as a warning. On another conviction, the right ear is cut off as a second warning; after which, on a third conviction, comes the full punishment: the nose is cut off. This is very rare, nevertheless the law is a little severe, for one cannot expect an irreprochable performance from a singer with no ears.

The penalties of certain nations have a humorousness which often surprises us. I recall having seen a large lady of the Russian aristocracy clean a Moscow street in daytime, when the snow was melting. "It's the custom," a Russian told me, "she is condemned to clean the street for two hours to punish her for stealing from the five-and-ten." In Tahiti, that charming French province, the lovely ladies convicted for having smiled at too many French or Tahitian men are condemned to construct with their hands part of a large road, to the great advantage of the island's highway system. Many good-for-nothing Parisian women would, in that country be road-builders!

It may appear strange to apply the title Arts Director to a mandarin. One cannot even conceive the usefulness of such a post in our country, where art is free to go astray, to become a beggar, thief, murderer, pander; where art can starve to death, or reel drunkenly in the streets of our cities; where singers all have their noses and ears, and the first requirement for Concert Managers is not to know music; where the literati are arbiters of the musician's lot; where prizes for musical composition are awarded by painters, those for painting by architects, those for sculpture by engravers. If only the Chinese could benefit from our situation! Poor Chinese! Good Grief!

Yet, as I said before, they have much that is good. They have Art Directors who know what they direct; there are whole colleges of Mandarin Artists, whose influence could be immense throughout the Empire to the great advantage of the arts.

No Chinese book about music, painting, architecture, et cetera, is published whose author does not submit it to the Mandarin Artists so that on their approval the second edition will carry the endorsement: "Approved by the College. " Though this institution has the right to impose sentence of torture upon authors who misrepresent or otherwise fail to win their approval, the respected Mandarin Artists, unlike their colleague Art Directors in charge of music, have unfortunately been animated by such benevolence that they approve generally everything presented to them. Today they will praise an author for publishing a certain doctrine, or advocating a certain method of gong-beating, and tomorrow they will praise another for publishing the contrary doctrine, or extolling the opposite method. They have become so good-natured and indulgent that most authors simply have the first-edition engraved with the formula "Approved by the College" even before presenting it to them.

Oh! Poor Chinese! One must not be surprised to see art remain obstinately static in their country.

But I forgive them by grace of their regulation on the size of gongs and drums, and their laws against desecrators.

You may ask, if they cut off the noses and ears of singers who profane the masterworks, how do they treat those who interpret with faithfulness, grandeur, inspiration?--What do they do? They overflow them with honorific distinctions of all sorts, they give them little sticks of silver for eating rice, they award yellow buttons to some, blue buttons to others; to this one the crystal button to the other three buttons, one sees in China virtuosi who are completely covered with buttons. It is different in France, where the Cross is awarded to a singer only if he has retired, lost his voice, or is totally decrepit.

Chinese and Western customs differ in all aspects of the arts, particularly music, and are close at only one point: to admiral the fleets, they choose sailors. If this trend continues, we will truly end up by being perfectly alike.

UCSC | Arts Division