Rhythm Revolution:
How Music “Modernized” China (1903–1937)

By Xiangjun Feng

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.2  (Fall 2020), pp. 1-42

This essay explores the relationship between music, rhythm and modernity in the opening decades of China’s twentieth century. Diverging from the existing musical scholarship that mostly takes the symbiosis between “modern music” and “modern China” for granted, this essay treats music as a modernizing agent, instead of an object for modernization, and pinpoints how exactly musical forms were transmitted into social forms and in this process acted to effect large-scale social change. It argues that music “modernized” China most fundamentally through a “rhythm revolution.” This revolution not only redefined how musical rhythm should be perceived, practiced and visualized through a new notation system, but also mediated a radically new conceptualization of modern time, one that was no longer an open-ended natural flux, but a rationalized, standardized and measurable Clock Time, standing aloft from and guiding the pace of the modern life.

The argument proceeds in three steps that analyse “rhythm” in three different senses. First, “musical rhythm” (rhythm as form) traces how the introduction and popularization of jianpu (the numbered musical notation) in the beginning of the century marked the birth of modern Chinese musical rhythm and became an optimum medium of the modern temporality. Second, “bodily rhythm” (rhythm as practice) offers a case study of the nationwide vogue for the “children’s rhythm band” in the 1930s, through which we understand how the body played a critical role in mediating the musical and the social. The third part, “social rhythm” (rhythm as social discourse and symptom) encompasses the rhythm revolution in the realm of social life. Using the 1930s’ Shanghai as an example, it argues that the rhythm revolution reached its crescendo in a condition of “polyrhythmia,” manifesting both the complications of and critical reactions to the modern time. Finally, a short epilogue will critically reflects upon some of our basic assumptions about modernity, and hence the verb “modern” in the title of the essay stays in the quotation marks.