Research Q&A: Andrew Jones, East Asian Languages and Cultures

November 29, 2023

Andrew F. Jones(link is external), Louis B. Agassiz Professor in Chinese, teaches modern Chinese literature and media culture. Among other works, he is the author of a trio of books on modern Chinese music: Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music (Cornell East Asia Series, 1992), Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Duke University Press, 2001), and Circuit Listening: Chinese Popular Music in the Global 1960s (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). He was co-editor of a special issue of positions: east asia cultures critique entitled The Afro-Asian Century, and translator of literary fiction by Yu Hua as well as Eileen Chang's Written on Water (Columbia University Press, 2005; New York Review of Books 2023). Professor Jones also leads the Asian Studies MA program at Berkeley.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does music offer a lens into 20th century Chinese culture and politics? And how does the examination of Chinese music broaden the conversation about global cross-pollination, both culturally and musically?

Especially in the 20th century, music was really inseparable from larger social movements and political movements as well as technological change in China. My book Yellow Music traces the origins of modern popular music in China back to the emergence of modern media culture. 

That happened largely in Shanghai, which was a crossroads for people from the world over, including White Russians who fled the Revolution as well as a fairly sizable population of Jewish refugees. Some of the early composers and band leaders at Pathé EMI — which was the major record company in China at that time — were Russian Jewish refugees. In the course of doing the research, I came across something that I don't think had been written about previously: that there was a pretty sizable community of African American jazz musicians in Shanghai at that time. Buck Clayton, the main trumpet player for Count Basie’s orchestra, got his start as a bandleader in Shanghai. I hadn't expected to find a story about early collaborations and influences of black American jazz music on Chinese pop music, but there it was. 

It also tells the story of one of the fathers of modern Chinese popular music, Li Jinhui. Li’s first goal was to promote Mandarin as a national language. (Mandarin only goes back about 120 years as a modern national standard, although colloquial vernacular Chinese is of course older.) Li Jinhui’s older brother wrote the first grammar of modern standard Chinese, and Li started to write songs in hopes of teaching schoolkids how to speak this new invented standard language. He was gradually drawn into the modern media industry because he began to sell records and publish children's operas. 

So Yellow Music brings together a very distinctive story about Chinese nation-building and building a new language with the emergence of modern media culture, including transnational companies like Pathé.