America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat

Author: Wu Tingfang

Chapter 15. Opera and Musical Entertainments

Opera is a form of entertainment which, though very popular in America and England, does not appeal to me. I know that those who are fond of music love to attend it, and that the boxes in an opera house are generally engaged by the fashionable set for the whole season beforehand. I have seen members of the "four hundred" in their boxes in a New York opera house; they have been distinguished by their magnificent toilettes and brilliant jewelry; but I have been thinking of the Chinese drama, which, like the old Greek play, is also based on music, and Chinese music with its soft and plaintive airs is a very different thing from the music of grand opera. Chinese music could not be represented on Western instruments, the intervals between the notes being different. Chinese singing is generally "recitative" accompanied by long notes, broken, or sudden chords from the orchestra. It differs widely from Western music, but its effects are wonderful. One of our writers has thus described music he once heard: "Softly, as the murmur of whispered words; now loud and soft together, like the patter of pearls and pearlets dropping upon a marble dish. Or liquid, like the warbling of the mango-bird in the bush; trickling like the streamlet on its downward course. And then like the torrent, stilled by the grip of frost, so for a moment was the music lulled, in a passion too deep for words." That this famous description of the effects of music which I have borrowed from Mr. Dyer Ball’s "Things Chinese" is not exaggerated, anyone who knows China may confirm by personal observation of the keen enjoyment an unlearned, common day laborer will find in playing a single lute all by himself for hours beneath the moon on a warm summer evening, with no one listening but the trees and the flitting insects; but it requires a practised ear to appreciate singing and a good voice. On one occasion I went to an opera house in London to hear the world-renowned Madame Patti. The place was so crowded, and the atmosphere so close, that I felt very uncomfortable and I am ashamed to acknowledge that I had to leave before she had finished. If I had been educated to appreciate that sort of music no doubt I would have comprehended her singing better, and, however uncomfortable, I should no doubt have remained to the end of the entertainment.

While writing this chapter it happened that the following news from New York was published in the local papers in Shanghai. It should be interesting to my readers, especially to those who are lovers of music.

"`Yellow music’ will be the next novelty to startle and lure this blase town; amusement forecasters already see in the offing a Fall invasion of the mysterious Chinese airs which are now having such a vogue in London under the general term of `yellow music’.

"The time was when Americans and occidentals in general laughed at Chinese music, but this was due to their own ignorance of its full import and to the fact that they heard only the dirges of a Chinese funeral procession or the brassy noises that feature a celestial festival. They did not have opportunity to be enthralled by the throaty, vibrant melodies — at once so lovingly seductive and harshly compelling — by which Chinese poets and lovers have revealed their thoughts and won their quest for centuries. The stirring tom-tom, if not the ragtime which sets the occidental capering to-day, was common to the Chinese three or four hundred years ago. They heard it from the wild Tartars and Mongols — heard it and rejected it, because it was primitive, untamed, and not to be compared with their own carefully controlled melodies. Mr. Emerson Whithorne, the famous British composer, who is an authority on oriental music, made this statement to the London music lovers last week:

"`The popularity of Chinese music is still in its childhood. From now on it will grow rapidly. Chinese music has no literature, as we understand that term, but none can say that it has not most captivating melodies. To the artistic temperament, in particular, it appeals enormously, and well-known artists — musicians, painters, and so on — say that it affects them in quite an extraordinary way.’"

Chinese music from an occidental standpoint has been unjustly described as "clashing cymbals, twanging guitars, harsh flageolets, and shrill flutes, ear-splitting and headache-producing to the foreigner." Such general condemnation shows deplorable ignorance.* The writer had apparently never attended an official service in honor of Confucius, held biennially during the whole of the Ching dynasty at 3 A.M. The "stone chimes", consisting of sonorous stones varying in tone and hanging in frames, which were played on those solemn occasions, have a haunting melody such as can be heard nowhere else. China, I believe, is the only country that has produced music from stones. It is naturally gratifying to me to hear that Chinese airs are now having a vogue in London, and that they will soon be heard in New York. It will take some little time for Westerners to learn to listen intelligently to our melodies which, being always in unison, in one key and in one movement, are apt at first to sound as wearisome and monotonous as Madame Patti’s complicated notes did to me, but when they understand them they will have found a new delight in life.

— * Wu Tingfang is quite correct to deplore this statement as a description
of Chinese music. However, in all fairness, it is an accurate description
of how a Western ear first hears CERTAIN types of Chinese music.
After successive hearings this impression will fly away, but until then
CERTAIN types are reminiscent of two alley-cats fighting in a garbage can.
This is not meant as a degrading comment, any more so than Wu Tingfang’s
comments on opera. Some music is an acquired taste, and after acquirement,
its beauty becomes not only recognizable but inescapable.
Certain other types of Chinese music can easily be appreciated
on the first hearing. — A. R. L., 1996. —

Although we Chinese do not divide our plays into comedies and tragedies there is frequently a good deal of humor on the Chinese stage; yet we have nothing in China corresponding to the popular musical comedy of the West. A musical comedy is really a series of vaudeville performances strung together by the feeblest of plots. The essence seems to be catchy songs, pretty dances, and comic dialogue. The plot is apparently immaterial, its only excuse for existence being to give a certain order of sequence to the aforesaid songs, dances, and dialogues. That, indeed, is the only object for the playwright’s introducing any plot at all, hence he does not much care whether it is logical or even within the bounds of probability. The play-goers, I think, care even less. They go to hear the songs, see the dances, laugh at the dialogues, and indulge in frivolous frivolities; what do they want with a plot, much less a moral? Chinese vaudeville takes the form of clever tumbling tricks which I think are much preferable to the sensuous, curious, and self-revealing dances one sees in the West.

Although musical comedy, or, more properly speaking, musical farce, is becoming more and more popular in both Europe and America it is also becoming proportionately more farcical; although in many theaters it is staged as often as the more serious drama, in some having exclusive dominion; and although theater managers find that these plays draw bigger crowds and fill their houses better than any other, in the large cities running for over a year, I cannot help regarding this feature of theatrical life as so much theatrical chaos. It lacks culture, and is sometimes both bizarre and neurotic. I do not object to patter, smart give and take, in which the comical angles of life are exposed, if it is brilliant; neither have I anything to say against light comedy in which the ridiculous side of things is portrayed. This sort of entertainment may help men who have spent a busy day, crowded with anxious moments, and weighted with serious responsibilities, but exhibitions which make men on their way home talk not of art, or of music, or of wit, but of "the little girl who wore a little black net" are distinctly to be condemned. Even the class who think it waste of time to think, and who go to the theater only to "laugh awfully", are not helped by this sort of entertainment. Such songs as the following, which I have culled from the `Play Pictorial’, a monthly published in London, must in time pall the taste of even the shallow-minded.

"Can’t you spare a glance?
Have we got a chance?
You’ve got a knowing pair of eyes;
When it’s 2 to 1
It isn’t much fun,"
This is what she soon replies:

"Oh, won’t you buy a race-card,
And take a tip from me?
If you want to find a winner,
It’s easy as can be
When the Cupid stakes are starting,
Your heads are all awhirl,
And my tip to-day
Is a bit each way
On the race-card girl."

Yet this, apparently, is the sort of thing which appeals to the modern American who wants amusement of the lightest kind, amusement which appeals to the eye and ear with the lightest possible tax on his already over-burdened brain. He certainly cannot complain that his wishes have not been faithfully fulfilled. It may be due to my ignorance of English, but the song I have just quoted seems to me silly, and I do not think any "ragtime music" could make it worth singing. Of course many songs and plays in the music halls are such as afford innocent mirth, but it has to be confessed that there are other things of a different type which it is not wise for respectable families to take the young to see. I would not like to say all I think of this feature of Western civilization, but I may quote an Englishman without giving offense. Writing in the `Metropolitan Magazine’, Louis Sherwin says: "There is not a doubt that the so-called `high-brow dancer’ has had a lot to do with the bare-legged epidemic that rages upon the comic-opera stage to-day. Nothing could be further removed from musical comedy than the art of such women as Isadora Duncan and Maude Allen. To inform Miss Duncan that she has been the means of making nudity popular in musical farce would beyond question incur the lady’s very reasonable wrath. But it is none the less true. When the bare-legged classic dancer made her appearance in opera houses, and on concert platforms with symphony orchestras, it was the cue for every chorus girl with an ambition to undress in public. First of all we had a plague of Salomes. Then the musical comedy producers, following their usual custom of religiously avoiding anything original, began to send the pony ballets and soubrettes on the stages without their hosiery and with their knees clad in nothing but a coat of whitewash (sometimes they even forgot to put on the whitewash, and then the sight was horrible). The human form divine, with few exceptions, is a devilish spectacle unless it is properly made up. Some twenty years from now managers will discover what audiences found out months ago, that a chorus girl’s bare leg is infinitely less beautiful than the same leg when duly disguised by petticoats and things."


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Chicago: Wu Tingfang, "Chapter 15. Opera and Musical Entertainments," America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, ed. CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb and trans. Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat (New York: The Modern Library Publishers, 1918), Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2024,

MLA: Tingfang, Wu. "Chapter 15. Opera and Musical Entertainments." America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, edited by CM01B10.Txt - 149 Kb, CM01B10.Zip - 56 Kb, and translated by Maude, Louise, Maude, Aylmer, in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, New York, The Modern Library Publishers, 1918, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Tingfang, W, 'Chapter 15. Opera and Musical Entertainments' in America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, ed. and trans. . cited in 1918, America as Seen by Oriental Diplomat, The Modern Library Publishers, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2024, from