Dr. Joseph Chen on Joseph Needham / The Man Who Loved China (Simon Winchester)

Remember when I read Two Books, one of which was The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester?

I read the book to take part in a book discussion. This book discussion actually followed a lecture by Dr. Joseph Chen (UCSD), an expert on Joseph Needham (the protag). These two events, joined by a pizza and salad dinner, comprised another Year of China event.

Dr. Chen’s talk was really interesting. It actually didn’t talk about Joseph Needham, the person, but actually further explored some of the topics Needham was interested in, namely astronomy and acoustics, and updated Needham’s findings with recent archaeological discoveries.

I was initially horrified that his talk was entirely his reading off his slides, word for word, mispronouncing some. It made me lament again at why Chinese men seemed to be so much worse than their female counterparts at learning English, etc. — but then I realized that this might be a characteristic of old academics, compounded by a difficult-to-learn language: I’ve certainly had professors who taught their seminars as lectures where they read off ancient typewritten pages.

Enough about the lecturing itself — the lecture, once more, was a reinvestigation of some astronomy findings. I remember no proper nouns (language hammer hits me as well), but there is an astronomical text that reports about the alignment of constellations on equinoxes. From this, scholars have been able to determine that the most plausible time for that alignment to have happened — and the document to have been written — was 2400 BC. This was evidence that the human beings in China were doing astronomy in 2400 BC.

But then, when esteem in China hit lows in 19th century Europe, people (in fact, Japanese scholars // knee-jerk prejudice check — ask me about this if you don’t know what I mean) decided to say that if you took the time of observation to be 7pm instead of 6pm, it could have been much earlier (7th century BC?) — and thus the document would no longer be evidence that Chinese civilization was around in an organized, science-performing way, and in fact, the astronomy itself could have been a Babylonian derivative.

…but then someone unearthed a bunch of bells — and a big wooden chest. These were easy to date; they were really old (2400 BC) and the chest had a carving that matched up with the first document.

Now the bells. These were bona-fide chromatic bells, man, crafted in shapes so that they would not resonate for as long, and would not require the musician to dampen it.

The chromaticism of the bells (woah, let’s sing that instead of Carol of the Bells) confused me because Chinese music is thought of as so so so firmly pentatonic. [insert kid from street who pulls up corners of eyes and, in an inplausibly in-tune way, sings “A A-A G G E E G”]

I couldn’t figure out why Chinese music was holding out on me — why hadn’t I heard this chromatic music of the motherland yet? Was there some Imperial council that decided that oh, 12 tones were not conducive to the empire’s stability and we should go back to only 5, a la Council of Trent (polyphony, piousness, Palestrina)?

Turns out; no. I asked Dr. Chen after the talk, and it was rather that the chromatic tones allowed musicians to move between various pentatonic mode/scales. [This reminds me of that footnote in Joseph Fux’s Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum that talks about the hard and soft hexachords, or whatever] In other words, chromatic tones were for modulatory purpose only, not for staying in. (how people knew, I will not ask)

Shame; I was so hoping for this big trove of late-Romantic –> 20c. works to be unearthed from China’s musical history, just waiting to be brought to light (modernity, westernity, whatnot), just as Needham …shipped (nicer-sounding than ‘stole,’ right?) a bunch of cool scientific widgets from China’s scientific history and put them in boxes in his Cambridge office-manor.

Oh! One final really cool thing / bit of nonsense:

Apparently the word for ‘pitch’ in the old days was lv4, the same as the second character in ‘law’, and the word that usually means ‘rate.’  I’m sure this was a retrofitting, but look! the physics of sound is so transparent in the language! I hadn’t been that excited since learning that ‘function’ was literally ‘envelope number.’ f sends members of Z/pZ to the complex numbers — via first class mail.