Remembering the Past through Music The Transmission of Chinese Qin Songs in Seventeenth- to Nineteenth-Century Japan

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Zeyuan Wu



In the late seventeenth century, a Chinese Buddhist priest named Donggao Xinyue 東皋心越 (1639–1695) introduced a selection of qin 琴 songs (songs accompanied on the qin zither) to Japan. Over the following centuries, Japanese qin players continued to sing these songs in Chinese. This paper looks into this cross-cultural interaction from both Donggao’s and the Japanese perspectives, against the historical background of the Ming-Qing dynastic transition and the breakdown of the Sinocentric world order in East Asia. I argue that Donggao and Japanese literati understood the significance of these songs differently as they both connected the songs to their own cultural past. Nonetheless, they were brought together by the shared belief that the performance of qin songs would bridge the past and the present and hence realize their vision of the ideal civilization. Meanwhile, neither Donggao nor the Japanese literati regarded the qin—as well as the ideal society it symbolized—to be exclusively Chinese or Japanese. My analysis shows how the idea of being Chinese/Japanese was intertwined with the changing understandings of the hua–yi/ka-i 華夷 worldview during this period, and how it was negotiated through the cultural memories that shaped and reshaped the past. This particular case also explains how qin songs as a medium for cultural memory differed from other musical and non-musical forms.

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