In praise of the humming tube: a performative review of Jing Wang’s Half Sound Half Philosophy: Aesthetics, Politics, and History of China's Sound Art. London, Bloomsbury, 2021.
By Bixiao Zhang
Half sound Half Philosophy: Aesthetics, Politics, and History of China's Sound Art is a study of Chinese sound art through the ancient wisdom of qi (translated literally as air or gas, it can be loosely imagined as diffusive clouds of energy-matter-affect). The book is written by Jing Wang, an associate professor in the College of Media and International Culture at Zhejiang University. Her research focuses on sound, sensory and performance studies, and anthropological methods. As the book title Half Sound Half Philosophy suggests, three of its six chapters discuss qi-philosophy (coined by author) and how the understanding of qi parallels the concept of sound in China, from ancient shamanistic rituals and ceremonies to contemporary experimental music. The remaining three chapters include a brief history of sound art in modern China (predominantly from the post-cultural revolution era, from the 1980s up to the late 2010s) and its political context.
Qi-thinking in sound is explored within Chapters 1, 4, and 5. Wang draws a correlation between ancient qi-thinking, Daoist/Chan Buddhist infused shanshui, and shamanistic practices while exploring the phenomena of sound through the dynamics of qi. As suggested by the author, qi-philosophy is a sound-attuning philosophy that emphasizes correlationality, resonance, process, and transformation. The author points out that traditional Chinese thinking never revolves around subjects and does not distinguish between the thing and its medium or the thing and its action. Instead – to understand Wang‘s suggestion performatively – qi can be imagined as diffusive, elusive, dynamic clouds of prehension, an amalgam of energy-matter-affect that cannot be considered as definable as the spiritual, emotional, or material. qi-philosophy suggests an enchanted worldview that regards the cosmos and the myriad things (including humans) as interrelated organisms that are constantly resonating, condensing, disintegrating, and merging with one another, a worldview in which humans revere transformation and mutation.
Crucial to qi is the act of resonance. In Chapter 1, Wang explores the event of sound through Song Dynasty scholar Zhang Zai’s (1020-1077) qi-philosophy, including interpretations of Zhang Zai’s work by various scholars such as scientist Joseph Needham and Confucius scholar Jung Yeup Kim. In qi-thinking, sound emerges from mutual grinding/riding of material things and/or qi. The grinding of things/qi creates sounds like echoes in a valley or thunder, revealing the inherent capacities of things to respond or resonate. Zhang Zai stresses the importance of resonating sound, as interpreted by the Chinese philosopher Tang Junyi (1909-1978): “From the fact that one thing can prehend another, we can see that the thing must have the void within itself in order to be able to absorb the other” (Tang, as quoted in Wang, p. 19). Zhang Zai’s qi-philosophy suggests that an ear is a small hollow, a valley is a large hollow, mountains are small valleys, and the earth is a large valley. In Zhang Zai’s thinking, the inherent responsive, resonating, hollow nature of things generates sound. Wang points out that electrical sound systems enact the same vibrating phenomena through loudspeakers; she also presents the hollow humming tubes used by Shamans in ancient China to predict the weather as an example of qi-cultivation. From this understanding of qi, the shamans are not the mere operators of the humming tubes; instead, they are part of the humming tubes, within which the shamans maintain the state of the void, as a conduit of qi, to enlarge their capacity to resonate.
In qi-thinking, mutual resonance (感, gan) is intrinsic to Earth as it is intrinsic to humans. Wang refers to the Daoist book Huainanzi (125 BC), where mutual resonance is stated as profound and the act that impregnates the world. Zhang Zai emphasizes that the interpenetrating resonance of things gives birth to creativity; as an ethico-aesthetics, qi-cultivators practice the capacity to resonate with multitudes of things. While qi can be imagined as a diffusive atmosphere and a dynamic field, Wang suggests that, instead of focusing on questions defining what qi exactly is, it might be helpful to think of qi as a big verb, a proposition, and a small noun; qi articulates propensities, tendencies, correlations, and processes.
Wang continues to expand the practice of qi in shanshui in Chapter 4. Shanshui – literally “mountain-water” – is a Chinese traditional water-based ink painting that performs at the correlation of two opposites in the cosmic Dao. Unlike Western landscape paintings, in shanshui painting, there is no object of perception and no part-whole binary. Following historical painter Shi Tao (1642-1707), shanshui could be understood as the transformative and performative state of following mountains and being like water, where the concept of yinyun (diffusive clouds of qi), huwei tuotai (mutual birth), and moqi (tacit resonance) highlights the practice of shanshui through qi-philosophy. Yinyun – as described by Shi Tao – is all possible conditions of the ink when soaked in the brush at the moment before one paints, a state of the “chaosmos,” impregnated with limitless potentiality to be released on the paper. Being in the state of yinyun means simultaneously listening in and to the cosmos and the myriad things, to the mountains and the waters, in a diffusive state full of possibilities.
The elusive, diffusive state of yinyun becomes the substrate for mutual (re)birth. Wang quotes Shi Tao: “It is not that I, the autonomous subject, have the landscape at my disposal, but, the landscape has me at its disposal in equal measure, each brings the other into the world (tuotai)” (p. 126). The potential for mutual birth is understood as jian(間, literally: betweenness, in-between spaces, as well as barrier, partition) in shanshui. Opening the door to reveal a crack would be jian. Breathing is a kind of jian, and humming tubes are a kind of jian too. Jian might be a gateless gate, whose hollow figure enlarges the capacity to resonate. This leads to moqi (tacit resonance). Wang highlights that shanshui values mutual understanding through nonlinguistic ways, and effort is spent in mastering how to resonate, how to enter the state of moqi. Tacit resonance can be seen as an ethico-aesthetics, prioritizing the ability to resonate and respond, as the primordial modes of care.
Wang also points out shanshui’s rather idiosyncratic ethico-aesthetics of dan (淡, quiet and bland) and you (幽, inward expansiveness). Dan refers to the virtue of neutrality, valuing the unfinalizability of all things and the undefinable: not leaning in one direction more than in another but preserving within itself a multitudinous capacity for action. You can be understood as a motion of inward expansiveness. In Chan Buddhism, the phrase youxuan (幽玄) refers to that which is unspoken, the darkness, a state of the negative beyond logic and language. Wang mentions haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) in particular, who values youxuan as an aesthetic quality generated through sound, referring to the lingering rhythm after a sound slowly dissipates. Another example of the sonorous characteristics in shanshui is presented through art historian Susan Nelson’s notion of “listening painting”: “The whole landscape reverberates throughout with throbbing contours and vibrating dots, the ‘pure tone’ of the piping of the earth” (Nelson, as quoted in Wang, p. 126).
In Chapter 5, Wang highlights the shamanistic nature of qi-cultivation, including in Daoist and Chan Buddhist practices. Quoting Deleuze and Guattari, she highlights the anomalous position of shamans as the line of flight, capable of drawing transversal lines that cross and unite human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic, and natural and cultural domains. Wang suggests that the transversal is achieved through a trance-like state of huanghu(dissolution of the division of the five senses and a return to the sense of resonance, an elusive, evasive state that might be called synesthesia now) in ancient shamanistic practices in China. Wang suggests that – within the state of huanghu – the spectral world of plural becomings (like the yinyun state of shanshui water inks) appears, full of transformations, reincarnations, and interspecies relations, in which things such as rocks, trees, and animals can transform, merge, and disintegrate. She describes the aesthetics of huanghu as the charm of the world of the strange, wherein such aesthetics values the productivity of the unassignable and unfathomable. Wang further explores characteristics of shamanism in ancient China in terms of withdrawal, inner expansiveness, and resonance with the impure and strange.
Withdrawal, a negative method of shamanistic practices, means retreating to the background, to the inner world, eliminating oneself from the center: to draw the moon, the painter draws clouds on paper to leave a negative space (jian) that de-picts and suggests the moon. The negative method also refers to the negation of the positive method of logic. Quoting Feng You Lan, Wang argues that one uses the positive method of reasoning to develop intellect; one negates the method of reasoning to get to the Daoist state of huanghu. She explores the sound of inner expansiveness in shamanistic practices through Wang Fan’s term and title of the album Dharma Crossing (2000). Wang Fan explains Dharma as the interior axis that contains everything and travels everywhere; Dharma crossing is when the axis travels outside and inside and outside again. The artist states that it is through Dharma crossing (inner expansiveness) that one gains gnosis. As a parallel to the practices of dan and you in shanshui, shamanistic practices resonate with the impure and the unfamiliar. Wang quotes Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki, arguing that the Ancient Chinese valued “the sheen of antiquity” and “the glow of grime” as a particular aesthetic taste in favor of impurity (Tanizaki, as quoted in Wang, p. 164). As Wang suggests, behind such praise for impurity is the wisdom of huanghu, a promiscuous state and source of alternative visions, a spectral world crossing external and internal boundaries.
In Chapter 5, Wang points out that, unlike the modern conception of noise, noise in ancient China refers mostly to sounds of defiant and free-spirited roaring, long whistling, and chanting, called xiao (啸). Quoting Taiwanese scholar Li Fengmao, she states that during the Han Dynasty, xiao, as the sound of huanghu, was a kind of incantation practiced by shamans that could summon and command souls, ghosts, birds, clouds, wind, thunder, and rains (Li, as quoted in Wang, p. 152). Xiao was also practiced by women in ancient China as a way of expressing their emotions. Evolving from shamanistic practices to qi-cultivation and the singing arts, xiao is probably the earliest anti-language and interspecies noise-making in Chinese history, known for its wild and defiant qualities.
Qi-philosophy, shanshui, and shamanistic practices across different times and places in China share a common reverence for interpenetrating resonance and immanent humming, and each concept’s distinctions and correlations are accounted for rigorously by Wang. In the remaining chapters, she maps out the history and political background of Chinese sound art, and it becomes clear that this mapping does not share many aspects of qi-thinking. Chapters 2, 3, and 6 display an archival approach to contemporary sound art with discrete categorizations (non/academic – conceptual/experimental – installation/live music) and linear historicity (with a focus on the post-cultural revolution era).
In Chapters 2 and 3, a sudden divergence from historical sound practices to the time period of the 1980s to the 2010s appears, from the transversal practice of the anomalous shamans to the centering focus on (comparatively recognized) contemporary art. In Chapter 2, contemporary sound art history provisionally starts from the formation of the Post-sense Sensibility group (1999–2003), a group of Beijing artists influenced by YBA’s (Young British Artists) controversial exhibition Sensation (1997). Experimental music history, explored in Chapter 3, begins in the post-cultural Revolution era, when academic musicians began to study overseas, and rock music became popularized in China. Although given some presence, female artists and minorities are generally underrepresented in the collection of artists and works presented, despite Wang’s attempt at a pluralistic approach. The ethnographic research of sound practices might have been enriched through a deeper investigation of the history of female identity and their relation to xiao shouting (mentioned in Chapter 5) or through a study of shamans in different ethnic groups that are still practicing today. Additionally, the mapping of sound history might not necessarily need to fit into the (predominantly Western) contemporary art framework: qi-thinking, indigenous folklore, chanting ceremonies, and autonomous cultural practices from different areas of China (either ancient or contemporary) could all be vibrating dots within the piping scenery of a “sonorous archipelago” (a term coined by François J. Bonnet). Even though Wang explicitly mentions parallels between qi-cultivation and some of the ancient and contemporary sound practices, the transversal line, the humming tubes, and the jian of mutual resonance are generally missing in discussions of the relations between qi-philosophy and sound works.
In Chapter 6, while criticizing the age of nano-politics (see Schulze 2010) and ambient control (monumental power being distributed to the body as a sensual experience in a more ambient way through sound, for example, the tone of national TV forecasting that implies harmonious sovereignty), Wang suggests “performative monuments” (see Widrich 2014) as a mode of resistance to the now ambient form of governmentality. Quoting Widrich, the performative monuments emerge from below instead of above, are responsive to different communities, and can be ephemeral and precarious instead of grand and immobile (p. 172). Wang gives examples of some anti-monumental works such as Water: Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary (1991) by Zhang Peili – where he asked a famous national TV broadcaster to recite the definition of “water” from the dictionary, creating an estranging effect by bringing the monolithic voice to the foreground – and Liu Chuang’s investigation in Untitled (2010) as to how the everyday life ambiance – such as the flow of traffic – is controlled and shaped by politics and technology. The works mentioned here are relevant in that they point out the atmospheric nature of nano-politics, although the act of pointing out itself appears to put to practice the conceptual and citational rather than the performative meaning so that the works do not seem to be appropriate examples of performative monuments.
In the conclusion, Wang almost equates qi-thinking to the cybernetic systems. The idea that qi-thinking is a closed system like cybernetics paradoxically counters the characterization of qi as diffusive, elusive, and unfathomable, articulating propensities, tendencies, and process, as suggested earlier in the book. One of the critiques of cybernetics in research is that, when applied as a methodology, the researcher still stands outside of the observed system and apparatuses in a rather stabilized environment: even though there is some degree of interaction between the environment and subjects, the conclusion is drawn based upon reflexive observation (see Clough, Gregory, Haber and Scannell 2015). This makes cybernetics distinctive from the notation of yinyun, huanghu, and jian, in which the philosophy of qi does not separate object and subject, and thing and medium. Moreover, the making of systems and networks such as cybernetics is also an act of reduction and formalization, where such systems therefore become alien to living (Sha Xing Wei 2013). And as Wang suggests in the first chapter, it is crucial to think of qi as a “big verb, a proposition, and a small noun.” Hence, to perform qi as a big verb, I will end this review with a provisional attempt, a performative re-imagining of sound practices in China as a way to provide a glimpse into works that are presented as contemporary sound art in Half Sound Half Philosophy in the ways of the humming tubes, where resonance could be cultivated between qi-thinking and sound works, and across past and futures of sound making in China.
Xu Zhen’s work Shouting (喊 han) from 1998 is one of the early filmic sound works in contemporary China, a recontextualized performance of xiao (roaring, chanting) in the modern city of Shanghai. A camera documents people in public places, reflexively turning in shock due to a sudden eruption of a shout behind them. Lin Tianmiao created a mixed media installation High!!! (1999), where the moving images show the artist changing from a contemporary female presence to an androgynous naked bald person. The projection screen connects to a wall with thousands of strands of white cotton threads; the speakers behind the wall play different frequencies of sound, causing these threads to vibrate, creating gan (mutual resonance) between sound and image, highlighting the transmutation of electronic qi. The relationship between sound and video is also explored by Qiu Zhijie and Wu Meichun in the first-of-its-kind Phenomena and Image Video Art Exhibition (1996) in Hangzhou. Resonating with Bill Viola’s insight, a video apparatus is interpreted more like a sound apparatus (such as a speaker or microphone) and video signals are treated as electronic transducers of physical energy (light) and electrical impulses. Jiang Zhuyun’s Sound of Temperature(2005) traverses the thermodynamics of a quivering body and oscillating speakers: a contact microphone is attached to his body, and the vibration of his quivering body is transmuted to audible sound. In Xu Cheng’s Cries of Wind (2016) – a sound piece for which he experimented with his self-built modular synthesizer – city noises and the acoustics of natural wind are mixed through synthesized sound, an impure and uncanny aesthetic of resonance. Wang Changcun’s album Song of Anon (2018) features a responsive algorithmic instrument using his own music as samples in Max/MSP, making the designed software a digital humming tube between human and machine. Zhang Ding’s sound installation To the West N Kilometers (2006) is a multichannel soundscape that mixes field recordings from the Linxia Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province, including sounds from restaurants, public places, streets, riverside, and an old mosque. The piece performs a pluralistic city, with Hui Muslims and Dongxiang, Sala, Bonan, and Tibetan minorities. Sharing a multitudinous perspective, Liu Chuang’s three-channel video installation Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018) offers a speculative and poetic dialogue between Bitcoin, telegraphs, state power, currency, minority cultures, railways, dams, sci-fi, ethnic music, the atomic bomb, and wushe, an ancient Chinese bronze bell. The work is narrated in the Zomi language, spoken by a historically stateless Zomian ethnic group, residing in the same areas where Bitcoin farms are located. The latter two works depict a sense of multiperspectivism through polyphonic video/sound channels that vibrate with each other, orchestrating a diffusive state of huanghu, a spectral world of plural becomings, and immanent humming.