Engineering the Minorities: Folk Music, Ethnic Traditions, and the Chinese Narrative in the 21st Century

A book project at MMRC


Brief description:

Provisionally titled “Engineering the Minorities: Folk Music, Ethnic Traditions, and the Chinese Narrative in the 21st Century,” this book project is based on the ethnographic data gathered in 2006–07, 2012–13, 2015–19, and 2021–22 in mainland China. This book project aims for a comprehensive picture of the traditions and changes in Chinese folk music in the 21st century, with a special attention to the musical practices and experiences of the communities being officially recognized and/or globally presented as minorities-in-China. This project explores the historical transformation and unique connotations of “minority” within the Chinese contexts. It also examines the ambiguous labels of “folk” and “traditional” being employed in the process of “engineering” the minorities. “Engineering” describes the process through which a piece, style, and repertoire is transformed into an element of the musical heritage, collective memory, and cultural identity of a minority. It reveals the institutional mechanism and socio-political factors underlying the changes in the conception, (re)construction and maintenance of the minorities’ musical cultures. It also investigates how meanings have been generated through the interactions between individuals and the socio-cultural structures evolving to regulate their musical activities and to influence their decisions.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Western concepts of “minority,” “folk music,” “nation,” and “ethnic groups” were imported into China by some elites of the Han, the vast ethnic majority. Since then, these borrowed notions have been manipulated to constitute a cohesive grand narrative that has been constantly modified by the authorities led by the ethnic majority to explain the past and present of the country and to legitimize the upcoming governmental actions towards a certain group in the country. Drawing on archival data and historical analysis, the book Engineering Minorities will examine these concepts and their unique connotations and functions within the Chinese contexts, in order to facilitate the understanding what they have been used to describe and suggest. Such an examination will also reveal the state’s goals and plans behind its 21st century policies implemented to engineer the cultures of minorities and the role that folk musics are assigned to play in that process of engineering.

The process of engineering the culture of a minority group not only occurs within the group to help its members answer questions such as “who are we,” “where did we come from,” “where are we going,” and “what is important for us.” The process is also situated in the musical presentations and representations of a minority community that may or may not be delivered by its members but are labelled as original and authentic and that constantly reach millions of countrywide and international audiences to establish a set of commonsense knowledge, understanding, and expectations towards the group. Based on ethnographic data gathered from China’s elementary school system, the archives, arts and heritage transmission institutes, and regional bureaus in charge of arranging cultural activities, this book will explore how China’s centralized control mechanism has been operating to generate or eliminate an element of a minority’s musical heritage and to lead its members to accept and identify with the norms, values, and historical accounts conveyed by the element. It will also interrogate how the normative images of a minority have been created and disseminated, based on field research with minority musicians who receive standard trainings at state-sponsored programs to present an ancient genre of their own groups, professional composers who are not members of a minority but produce nationally well-known “folk” songs of that minority, minority folk singers who are invited by the most-watched TV shows to perform those songs as authentic and original, and the state-sponsored instrumentalists who travel around the world to introduce a minority culture to global audiences but have never talked to its members, etc. This book will also include a reflexive account of the ethical issues that were encountered during researching and writing about minorities and politically sensitive topics.


Project realization: Kai Tang

Project start: October 2022

Funding: Deborah Wong Research and Publication Award der Society for Ethnomusicology, Austrian Science Fund FWF Grant-DOI 10.55776/Z352