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Meet Andreas Steen    

The Sound of China

By Jeppe Kiel Revsbech

Through three decades, professor of China Studies Andreas Steen has been immersed in the music and the sound of one of the world’s most diverse countries. Now he is examining how sound can give the Chinese – and western – history a dimension it so far has not had. “Sound is not neutral,” he says.

It started in his youth with a deep interest in the world of music. Initially as a drummer in different bands and as a devoted collector of records. Since then, Andreas Steen has made his enthusiasm for music – and in particular sound – his profession as professor and researcher at China Studies on Aarhus University.

Based on modern Chinese history and the country’s early foreign connections, he was among the first to study the advent of rock music in China. Later on, via a PhD-project, he examined the spreading of an international record industry in Shanghai of the time, and at present, focus is on the research project ‘Sounds of War’. In this, Andreas Steen and his colleague Wulf Kansteiner examine ‘The Memory of World War II in Taiwan, East Germany, and Denmark, 1945-2015’, as the project is called, working with music, language, tones, and noise from the period.

“At first, the objective is to take the sonic experience of the world seriously,” Andreas Steen says about the ‘Sounds of War’-project and elaborates:

“Interest has been shown to research within music and memory for a long time, but during the last two decades, we have experienced a surging interest in sound’s significance in our everyday lives, its part in identity construction, and its relation to a number of different cultural and historical contexts. Thus, the idea is to examine how sound has contributed to creating a collective memory and a collective identity for the people in the three countries. Which sonic memories do we have from the experience of World War II? What was the new soundscape post-war in terms of music, radio shows, movies and documentaries? And what memories have been passed on to the next generation and how are they communicated?” Andreas Steen explains.

The Silent History

The angles of the research project are many, but they are all rooted in a central question the German professor noticed when he, earlier in his career, read a scientific article with the wording: ‘Why has history always been silent?’

“I find that to be a very fascinating question. I believe that the explanation partly has to do with the fact that historians and researchers for a long time have been satisfied with taking archaeological findings, objects, written sources, and visual material such as photography or film as their starting point. However, the surging interest in sound technology over the past three decades and the distribution of the internet have made it relevant to ask new questions about the significance of sound in our everyday lives, because you now have access to a bunch of material you did not have before. That makes it a no-brainer to also examine the sonic dimension of history,” Andreas Steen says.

The songs from the famous Chinese singer Teresa Teng are still being sung today. Among these, her remake of ‘When Will the Gentleman Return?’ which has a stormy place in Chinese history. (Photo: Pixabay.com)

When Will You Return?

To the Aarhus-professor, the sonic dimension is not just about specific historical events. It is also about memories, and how sound helps us remember the past.

As an example, he points out the famous Chinese song ‘When Will the Gentleman Return?’, which was recorded in 1937 and released in the spring of 1938 – parallel to the Nanjing-massacre where Japanese occupying forces subjected the people of Nanjing – the capital of China at the time – to a particularly brutal killing. The song suddenly got a different meaning.

“The song became popular immediately because it asks the question: ‘when will you return?’ The word ‘you’ can be replaced by anything – my son, my loved one. It was a song in a time of war where many people went out and fought, and where many of them did not return. The Chinese areas of Shanghai were occupied by Japan, and after three years of occupation, both the Chinese and the Japanese officials in town banned the song, because the expression ‘when will you return’ was seen as very ambivalent: Who is to return to Shanghai, and who is the ‘gentleman’ in the song? The nationalists or the Japanese?” the professor explains.

The song – and its message of hope – was not, however, forgotten by the people, and towards the end of the 70s, ‘When Will the Gentleman Return?’ became successful again when the singer Teresa Teng, the daughter of a Chinese soldier, recorded it in an updated version. The answer from the Chinese communist government was to ban the song once again, but the well-known melody kept its popularity. It appeared as recently as 2018 in the American film hit ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.

“The new generations typically do not know the history of the song, but the movie can make them curious, and they find information on the internet to solve the puzzle. This song is a very well-known example, and there are other examples where an online discussion can push a critical discourse. Here the limits are set by the Chinese government to control public renegotiation of past events and memories,” Andreas Steen elaborates.

“In general, and to be somewhat provocative, you can say that no sound is neutral,” he points out.  

China in the Ears of Others

That claim sets the scene for a large part of the work Andreas Steen has concerned himself with in his years as a researcher. Based on a glowing enthusiasm for music, he travelled to China in the early 90s to study the spreading of rock and pop music in the country, and the Chinese interpretation of the western genre.

Later on, he turned his attention to the development of a cultural industry in China and its relationship to the state. A topic he has since extended to a broader historical and global perspective with the research project ‘China Sound – Culture and Politics from the Gramophone to mp3’, which is still ongoing. In this, the attention is also turned to how the outside world perceives the sound of China. From music, movies, and language to the sounds of everyday life and noise.

“During a conference, I spoke with a colleague and said: ‘We are always talking about the western sounds coming to China. Why are we not talking about the other way round?’ China plays an immense role in a global perspective, so how does China sound to the outside world? Which role has sound played in other countries’ perception of China? Has it influenced the appreciation of Chinese culture, and is the perception different from country to country, from community to community?” Andreas Steen says.

The Great Wall of China, mao shoes, giant cities, and spectacular nature. Things that are not hard to imagine when the conversation turns to China. But how does the great country to the East sound like in the ears of others? That is a question, among others, Andreas Steen examines in his research. (Photo: Colourbox.com)

The Individual Soundscape

With ‘Sounds of War’ and ‘China Sound’ as the main projects, the professor hopes in time also to move into the digital age where what he calls ‘the physical sound carrier’ has largely disappeared and has changed our way of perceiving and digesting sound. A change he himself notices daily among the students at Aarhus University.

“You rarely see a student without headphones if they are by themselves. What does it mean for sound when we exchange sound with a sort of artificial soundscape in which we are always running from the actual soundscape into our own sonic privacy? Certainly, the development is a global phenomenon, and research within the area is already being conducted, but how does it affect or redefine the individual and collective meaning of sound, both in China and in the West?” Andreas Steen asks and states:

“It is a challenging project, but it is also a project I am eager to engage myself in.”

Andreas Steen

Andreas Steen has studied at Freie Universität Berlin and Fudan University in Shanghai, where he studied China Studies, English philology (culture studies), and modern Chinese literature. In 1998, he became research assistant at Freie Universität Berlin where he also received his PhD in 2003.

After this, he collaborated with different research projects at Peking University, Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai, and with different archives in China. Andreas Steen joined Department of China Studies at Aarhus University in 2007, and he has been associate professor of modern Chinese history and culture since 2010. In 2020, he was appointed professor at the same place.