introduction 7
Western jazz and pentatonic folk melodies, which come together in the forg-
ing of the modern idiom of Mandarin pop (shidai qu); Western classical music;
traditional regional and operatic forms; revolutionary anthems; rock and pop
genres, increasingly throughout the twentieth century; and various combina-
tions of these categories. This breadth of musical styles is matched by the plu-
ral forms of their encounter with the cinematic medium, with song numbers
appearing across a far- ranging constellation of genres, including backstage mu-
sicals and revues, romantic and family melodramas, comedies, historical cos-
tume dramas, and fantastic ghost stories. Another major strand, one unique to
the Chinese context, arises at the juncture of cinema and the Chinese operatic
tradition of xiqu. In opera films we see the musical field of Chinese filmmaking
further differentiated on the basis of diverse regional styles and modes of per-
for mance rooted in the musical stage.12 Opera films can be distinguished from
singing films (gechang pian) for their fluid alternations between singing and
speaking within an integral musical structure, as opposed to the incorporation
of discrete musical numbers. At the same time, the use of songs or arias as a
means of expressive punctuation is common to both of these types of films.
Across this broad constellation of genres, sound and image intersect in surpris-
ing ways, and mutating modes of musical signification call into question easy
distinctions between background and foreground, diegetic and nondiegetic el-
ements. The heterogeneity of this landscape necessarily inflects the individual
film, as it forms a horizon of possibilities within which par tic u lar ways of mo-
bilizing music in a narrative context can make sense and carry meaning for an
It is somewhat ironic, then, to find that the interpretive frameworks brought
to bear on these works often tend to flatten out this diversity. Much writing on
song per for mance in Chinese cinema looks to the American film musical as a
point of critical reference. Because the films in which the songstress features
contain musical sequences and alternate between narrative exposition and
song numbers, they are seen as synonymous with—or aspiring toward— the
film musical à la Hollywood. Yet, as Yeh Yueh-yu astutely notes, “Hollywood-
style musicals never existed in China as a major film genre.”13 To assume that
they did is to use a set of tools for analyzing the cinematic functions of music
derived from a different body of work and cut to the mea sure of its conven-
tions. The cultural specificity of genres is nowhere more apparent than in this
instance, and the impossibility of transposing a genre category derived from
one regional context into another is registered in the language of film criti-
cism. Chinese film criticism lacks an exact equivalent for the term film musical,
instead referring to films containing discrete scenes of musical per for mance
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