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Identity and cultural translation in the music of Chinese American composer Chen Yi.

Chinese-born, U.S.-based composer Chen Yi (1953--) is critically characterized as a composer who bridges different cultures and "transcend[s] cultural and musical boundaries." (1) This view is discerned both from her compositional practice, which features an integration of elements from Western and Chinese musical traditions, and from her own statements in interviews. According to Chen Yi, her musical fusion seeks to enhance cross-cultural understanding, interaction, and communications. (2) The purpose of this paper is to explore the way that Chen Yi constructs her identity through music. To that end, I direct attention to her metaphorical understanding of music as language, and her attendant belief in the "translatability" of "culture" into music by analyzing her interviews and her musical score. Given these central concepts, this paper seeks to understand Chen Yi's musical identity through her role as a cultural translator and through her philosophical meditation on different cultures coexisting with "equal rights" in art as well as in society.

This paper first examines Chen Yi's musical identity and self-narrative in relation to three important concepts--language, society, and culture. Following this theoretical basis is a discussion of the disparate aesthetic orientations of the same compositional practices in the music of Chen Yi and her Chinese American contemporary Tan Dun (1957--). The paper further examines Chen Yi's idea about musical language and translation, and the final section tests the applicability of Chen's idea of cultural translation in her Chinese Myths Cantata (1996).


Notions of identity have appeared in discussions of Chen Yi's music since the turn of the century. Notably, Chen Yi's interviews tend to correspond to the concept of narrative identity developed by Dan P. McAdams in 1985, which emphasizes the formation of the individual's identity by integrating personal life experiences into an evolving story of the self: (3)
   Narrative identity ... is the internalized and evolving story of
   the self that a person constructs to make sense and meaning out of
   his or her life. The story is a selective reconstruction of the
   autobiographical past and a narrative anticipation of the imagined
   future that serves to explain, for the self and others, how the
   person came to be and where his or her life may be going. (4)

As McAdams's critical notion tends to feature in Chen Yi's interviews, one can argue this narrative method of self-identification is employed by Chen Yi and provides her with a better understanding of her self-knowledge and self-perception as a composer. McAdams's analytical framework further offers the notion of "the redemptive self," defined by McAdams as the process according to which people transform pain and suffering into a positive status or outcome in their lives. (5) Chen Yi's life narrative evolved when she moved to America in 1986, and her life story appears in almost every interview she gives and has been reproduced in many profiles of her available on the Internet, in program notes, and in CD booklets. Three interviews in particular--conducted by John de Clef Pineiro (Fall 2001), Bruce Duffie (Winter 2005), and Jennifer Kelly (Spring 2010)--are useful in understanding the narrative construction of Chen Yi's life; these span over ten years, and the breadth and depth of the topics discussed support a "narrative" analysis of Chen Yi's own life stories. (6) Given this explicit autobiographical context, it becomes useful to further consider Chen Yi's stated idea of music as a language, as well as two other related themes: her belief in culture's translatability into music and her confidence in her own "bilingual" background. These aspects of Chen Yi's compositional philosophy, I argue, are clear functions of the composer's own narrative identity.

Chen Yi's account of her experience as a farmer during the Cultural Revolution is one instance of her redemptive self-narrative. Chen Yi's parents were both doctors and were obsessed with Western classical music; her mother played piano at a professional level and her father was an avid violinist. Chen Yi recalls that there was a huge collection of classical musical records, "ranging from solo instrumental and vocal pieces to orchestral works and operas, [that] they played ... at home every day during and after dinner." Chen Yi began piano lessons in 1956, at the age of three, and took up the violin at the age of four. (7) As their family escaped the first wave of house searches in 1966, immediately after the movement started, Chen Yi was able to continue her violin practice but had to "practice ... with a heavy metal mute, and put a blanket between the hammers and the steel frame in the piano" in order not to be heard. (8) In 1968, when she was fifteen, she was sent to the countryside to receive "re-education" and her immediate family was separated. Chen Yi recalls:
   My mother was kept as a prisoner at the hospital to do heavy
   labor and was compelled to engage in self-criticism.... Shortly
   after undergoing a serious stomach operation, my dad was
   forced to leave his medical position in the city and go to work
   as a doctor in the countryside. My sister was sent to a remote
   farm in the North, and my younger brother was sent to a middle
   school in the South. Our domestic possessions were either
   seized or destroyed. (9)

Remarkably, what must have been a traumatic experience becomes, in her later recollection of the same events, an occasion to acknowledge her own mother tongue and cultural history:
   Two years of hardship, working in the countryside, educated
   me a lot [in my] basic language. There is [the] native language
   that the farmers spoke, [and] actually [it was] the first time that
   I realized that this [was] my native language! It's not classical.
   It's not Mozart! [Both laugh.] It's not Beethoven that I'm used
   to.... I realized that I have to think into my cultural roots very
   deeply in order to find my own voice, to have a unique language to
   speak in. (10)

Chen Yi's concepts of "native language" and "cultural roots" are so vital to her musical identity that it becomes crucial to understand her variant usage of the word "language" and her slippage between referring to verbal and musical "languages." Firstly, in this quotation, she uses language to mean the verbal language that farmers spoke when she encountered them in the labor camp, and she emphasizes that this language was not the classical language of Mozart or Beethoven. In this context, the term "language" changes to mean Western culture and Western classical musical culture. Chen Yi is implying that music had been so important to her and her family that it had assumed a status equivalent to that of verbal language in their household, as a form of day-to-day communication. The music was therefore a "Western" language other than Chinese. Yet it is not Chen Yi's realization that she speaks the farmers' language that is significant here. Rather, it is the deep incongruity that she feels between her musical "native language"--meaning the Western classical musical training in which she was engaged as a child--and her spoken language of Chinese. Coextensively, there was the contradiction between Chen Yi's middle class background--with her modern, Western education--and the working class situation of the Chinese farmers. Chen Yi's interview statement implies that, despite their shared spoken language, she and the farmers were quite culturally opposed.

Drawing from her realization of these two contradictory musical and native "languages," Chen Yi elected to find "[her] own language," which would be the perfect combination of the two:
   I believe that language can be translated into music. Since I
   speak naturally in my mother tongue, in my music there is Chinese
   blood, Chinese philosophy and customs. However, music
   is a universal language. Although I have studied Western music
   extensively and deeply since my childhood, and I write for all
   available instruments and voices, I think that my musical language
   is a unique combination and a natural hybrid of all influences
   from my background. (11)

This quotation introduces a central feature of Chen Yi's musical philosophy, which is the intertwining of the concepts of music, language, and culture in her musical philosophy. Chen Yi at times uses "language" as a synecdoche for "culture," and her native Chinese speaking is used to justify the presence of Chinese elements in her musical language. Chen Yi's own musical language is therefore a combination of the different cultural "languages" that she has experienced in her life. Chen Yi's claim that "music is a universal language" conveys a belief that music transcends the barriers of verbal language--meaning that her own music, like other musical forms, effectively communicates with people from different cultures, allowing Chen Yi to be more globally or cross-culturally understood. It can therefore be argued that the early experience of deeply incongruous "languages" inspired Chen Yi's devotion in her career to bridging the cultural gap.

From this understanding of cultural language boundaries, Chen Yi develops the idea that music should be a language derived from and connected to all peoples and societies. If a language is culture, and music is a language that can be understood by another culture, then her musical language can also be a musical "translation" of her past experience and her native culture to each and every new audience. After receiving the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award in 2001, (12) Chen Yi states:
   I am glad that my music is in a unique language, and that it
   reflects my cultural background, and most distinctly my Chinese
   origins. I think I'm doing it consciously and unconsciously;
   after all, it's hard to change your background and your
   taste intentionally. (13)

This statement, coupled with the extracts quoted previously, demonstrate that Chen Yi's formation of her musical identity is based on the cultural criteria that the individual cannot choose, such as bloodline, appearance, and language. Since the moment that Chen Yi realized that her native language was Chinese rather than her familiar musical language of Mozart and Beethoven, she decided to shape her music style around the practice of cultural hybridization. Having understood how Chen Yi became an advocate of cultural hybridization, this paper now turns to look at Chen Yi's philosophical meditation on different cultures coexisting with "equal rights" in art as well as in society.


Chen Yi is consistently associated with other Chinese xinchao composers in current studies of East Asian contemporary music, normally being grouped under the umbrella heading of "cultural fusion." (14) Despite commentators having acknowledged the disparate musical styles and compositional techniques within this commonly recognized practice, the philosophical differences between the various composers' attitudes toward cross-cultural synthesis have been overlooked. In this section, I point out the fundamental differences in the philosophical orientations of composers currently linked under the umbrella concept of cultural hybridity, focusing on Chen Yi's championing of distinct cultures coexisting with "equal rights," versus Tan Dun's attitude of cultural synthesis, embodied by his famous equation "one plus one equals to one." From this comparison, I aim to present their disparate attitudes toward questions of cultural boundaries and difference.

Admittedly, Tan Dun and Chen Yi share a similar background. They both experienced the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, and in their teenage years were both sent to the countryside by the government to be reeducated through heavy labor and were separated from their families. When the educational institutes reopened in 1978, they were among the first students to be admitted to the Beijing Central Conservatory. Subsequently, they both went to New York to study composition with Chow Wen-Chung and Mario Davidovsky at Columbia University.

Despite their identical conservatory experiences, Chen and Tan developed distinct philosophical positions and visions of their own experience of cultural fusion, evidenced by the following accounts. Firstly Chen Yi, in an artistic statement made in the website American Composers Forum in 1996, states:
   Modern society is like a complex network, everything exists in
   equal rights under different cultures, environments and
   conditions.... As to the music composition ... I hope to get the
   essence of both Eastern and Western cultures and write more works
   that embody my temperament and spirit in the new society, to
   improve the understandings between peoples from different cultural
   backgrounds, for the peace of our new world. (15)

Chen Yi's use of the term "equal rights" indicates that her concern lies more with the asymmetrical, imbalanced power between different cultures and peoples than with an aspiration to combine all different cultures into one. That is, what Chen Yi aims for is a coexistence of Eastern and Western cultures rather than a synthesis of them. This contrasts sharply with Tan Dun's famous claim that "there is no East and West; all is human." Interestingly, Tan Dun also makes use of the term "equal" but in a rather different way. The following statements made by Tan Dun are taken from three interviews conducted in 2005 and 2006, two of them for the world premiere of his opera The First Emperor (2006) at New York's Metropolitan Opera House:
   Solomon: Do you see yourself as an avant-garde composer?

   Tan: I see myself as a spiritual mathematician. What I do is kind
   of one plus one. I figure out that one plus one equals one. (16)

   It's one Eastern plus one Western and you become yourself..
   East and West should be together as one. That is the history of
   art. All the masters of art, from Picasso to Bartok, have always
   collaged many cultural experiences to become themselves. (17)

Tan Dun further explains this "philosophical formula" using a culinary metaphor:
   You may want to put chocolate with spices, but if the dish that
   comes out still has the chocolate tasting of chocolate and the
   spices of spices, that is much less interesting to me. People will
   praise you for being a brave cook. But what I want to do is create
   a new taste--one that is neither chocolate nor spices. (18)

Tan Dun's aim is to dissolve the original cultures and their corresponding boundaries through their "clash of cultures," to generate a newly blended and unique style; Chen Yi, on the other hand, wishes not only for their coexistence but also for the survival of the different cultures through the recognition of their equal significance. In the case of Chen Yi, a contact zone is created and the boundaries are crossed rather than being removed; Eastern and Western elements are juxtaposed rather than being fused. Accordingly, despite being understood as composers whose cultural fusion "transcends geographical and cultural boundaries," Chen's and Tan's attitudes toward cultural difference and boundaries differ radically. Based on this more refined understanding of their differing philosophies, the subject becomes Chen Yi's compositional practice, and in particular, how Chen Yi translates Chinese mythical narrative into her own musical narrative.


In 1993, Chen Yi was appointed as composer-in-residence for the Women's Philharmonic and the Chanticleer male choir in San Francisco under the "Meet the Composer's New Residencies" program. This residency, which she held until 1996, was Chen Yi's first commission after graduating from Columbia University in 1993; consequently, it marks an important starting point in her compositional career in the United States. During the placement, she successfully premiered her Symphony No. 2 (1994). The following 1996 premiere of Chinese Myths Cantata, (19) with JoAnn Falletta conducting the Women's Philharmonic, the Chanticleer, and the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company and Dunhuang ensembles, represented the culmination of Chen Yi's accomplishments during the residency. The composition was conceived as a multimedia work including video projection, lighting, and dance, which can also be performed only as a concert piece.

Chinese Myths Cantata consists of three movements, each of which is based on a select Chinese myth or legend. The first two movements are inspired by Chinese cosmogonic myths and are entitled "Pan Gu Creates Heaven and Earth" and "Nu Wa Creates Human Beings," respectively. The subject of the third movement, entitled "Weaving Maid and Cowherd," is the popular romantic story of the encounter between a human being, a cowherd, and the weaving girl, who is the daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. In conversation with Stephen Johnson, as part of the BBC Radio 3 program "Discovering Music," Chen Yi explains that she intended for the piece to introduce Chinese culture to audiences by telling household stories that every Chinese child would have heard from his or her grandparents or nanny. (19) In other words, her chosen materials for cultural translation are not limited to sophisticated heritage traditions such as calligraphy or paintings. Chen Yi encourages a more intimate cultural understanding by sharing vernacular and everyday aspects of Chinese culture. The definition of culture, for Chen, is not exclusively what is considered "civilized" in a developed society; it rather connotes a people's way of life. This attitude, which echoes her earlier realization that music and language are bound to people and society, becomes a crucial feature of her music.

A primary feature of Chinese cosmogonic myths that distinguishes them from other traditions, such as the Judeo-Christian, is that the creation of the world is not the will of benevolent god(s) or a divine creator. Neither is there a single authorized account of creation, such as in the Judeo-Christian Bible; instead, several accounts exist for the creation of the world and of human beings. (20) The version that Chen Yi adopts in the first movement is one of the most widely accepted myths; first recorded in the third century AD, in Hsu Cheng's San Wu Li Chi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Historical Records of the Three Sovereign Divinities and the Five Gods"), it describes how the firstborn semi-divine human, Pan Gu ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "Coiled Antiquity"), separated the egg-like world, hun dun ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 'chaos'), into Heaven and Earth. (21)

In the preface to her score, Chen Yi recounts the Pan Gu myth in detail. Before heaven and earth were separated, they existed as a primeval chaos in a form similar to a chicken's egg. In the middle of this chaos, the first supreme being, Pan Gu, was nurtured for more than 18,000 years. One day he awoke, stretched himself, and shattered the egg shape around him into pieces. After the egg broke apart, the limpid part of it rose up into the sky and became heaven, and the turbid part of it sank down and became the earth. Pan Gu continued to grow nine times a day for another 18,000 years, to make sure that the separation of heaven and earth was complete. When his life reached its end, Pan Gu's body was transformed into the elements of the universe; his left eye became the sun and his right eye the moon. His breath became clouds and wind, and so forth. (22)

According to Chinese mythology scholar Anne Birrell, this account is the latest among the Chinese cosmogonic narratives and differs radically from earlier texts in two main aspects. Firstly, the image of a cosmic egg to describe primeval chaos is used as an analogy rather than a statement of fact or truth. (23) Secondly and significantly, unlike earlier accounts that the universe is generated from "formless misty vapor," in this anthropogenic and cosmogenetic account, the universe and the human being Pan Gu appear as "equal in the cosmic trinity of heaven, earth, and human." (24)


Chinese Myths Cantata is scored for a male choir, a symphonic orchestra, and four traditional Chinese instruments: erhu (two-string fiddle); yangqin (dulcimer); pipa (pear-shaped lute); and zheng (zither). The orchestra consists of two flutes, two oboes, two B-flat clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, three percussionists, and strings. The first movement, "Pan Gu Creates Heaven and Earth," can be divided into three major events: the chaos or hun dun (bars 1-80); the separation between heaven and earth (bars 81-123); and the formation of elements (bars 123-132). Where Moh-Wei Chen's 1997 DMA thesis, "Myths From Afar: Chinese Myths Cantata by Chen Yi," offers a detailed musical analysis, (25) my discussion of Chinese Myths Cantata focuses on investigating Chen Yi's idea of cultural translation--an aspect of her compositional practice that has not yet been investigated.

In order to explore the multilayered manifestation of Chen Yi's idea of translation in this piece, this discussion adopts the analytical and theoretical framework of Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, as outlined in his 1959 paper "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation." In his work, Jakobson lists three types of translation: (26)

1. Intralingual--rewording within the same language, such as "bachelor" into "unmarried man."

2. Interlingual--"translation proper," interpretation of one language by means of another language.

3. Intersemiotic--interpretation between different sign systems, such as translating literature into a piece of music or a film. (27)

Jakobson's analytical terms are useful toward identifying various ideas of translation manifested in Chen Yi's Chinese Myths Cantata. For example, at the beginning of the first movement, Chen Yi makes her first attempt to realize her idea of cultural translation. The beginning of the piece involves two types of translation, according to Jakobson's categories. The first type is an interlingual translation of the English word "chaos" into the Chinese equivalent hun dun. The second layer involves an intersemiotic translation of "chaos" from the verbal or lexical domain into musical language. As shown in example 1, the music opens with an ascending diminished fifth interval (E-[B.sup.b]) sung by the solo bass.

The diminished fifth interval represents Chen Yi's attempt to take material from Chinese music, which can, at the same time, represent a state of "chaos" in Western classical music. According to Chen Yi, the opening material--an enharmonic tritone--is taken from a folk song about the Pan Gu story, sung by the head of a Yao ethnic-group tribe, which she once heard during a field trip to the Guangxi Province as a conservatory student. (28) The harmonically unstable quality of the tritone constitutes Chen Yi's best choice of representing the unsettling formlessness of chaos.

While based on the same E-[B.sup.b] motive, she sets the two verbal phrases differently in this opening gesture. It is useful to understand, at this initial point, the tonal (29) principle of Mandarin. Mandarin is a tonal language and has four basic tones. The pitch contours of the Chinese language are shown in table 1. The first tone is a high, level tone. In Pinyin romanization, the tone mark is a horizontal line of the main vowel in the syllable. For example, the first tone of the sound of "ma" is marked as "ma." The second tone is a rising tone and is marked as "ma." The third tone is a dipping tone--a fall followed by a rise--and is therefore represented as "ma." The fourth tone is a falling tone, marked as "ma." Since different characters in Mandarin sometimes share the same sound, the four tones are used to clarify the meanings of words and to differentiate words from each other. The first word of chaos in Chinese, hun, uses the rising second tone, and the second word, dun, uses the descending fourth tone.

Based on this understanding of the tonal principle of the Chinese language, we can now turn to examine Chen Yi's musical setting of the two different languages. The melodic elaboration in the second and third bars largely follows the pitch inflection of the Chinese language. After the English rendering, the passage in Mandarin prolongs the first two-note motive by adding two minor seconds: E-[E.sup.b]; [E.sup.b]-D. As Moh-Wei Chen points out in her analysis, the melodic shape of the prolongation reflects the characteristic tonal inflections of the Chinese language. (31) While the syllables of Cha-os are set in an ascending fifth E to [B.sup.b] with a syllabic setting, the Chinese words hun dun, which is the second tone followed by the fourth tone, are set in a melodic shape with an ascending fifth from E to [B.sup.b], followed by a descending [B.sup.b]-E-[E.sup.b]-D. The melodic elaboration in the second and third bars largely follows the pitch inflection of the Chinese language (example 1), meaning that the bass soloist is, in a sense, assuming the role of a bilingual narrator in communicating these tonal aspects of the Chinese language through the musical tones (table 1).




The second movement of the Cantata depicts the creation of humanity by the goddess Nu Wa ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (32) Nu Wa, who has a human face and the body of a snake, is mythologized as being able to transform her appearance seven times a day. After heaven and earth were separated and Pan Gu passed away, no humans existed yet. One day, while the goddess Nu Wa was roaming the world, she saw her reflection in a pond and began to feel lonely. To dispel the loneliness, she began kneading yellow earth to create human beings. While she worked hard, it took her considerable time and strength to make humans in great numbers. To save time and effort, she immersed a rope in a muddy furrow and lifted it up, splashing drops around that became human beings. (33)

Chen Yi recalls the Nu Wa story in the preface to her score. In her retelling, she removes a detail from the narrative--a motif of social stratification that justifies the existence of a hierarchy among human beings. A version of the story recounts that the humans made from the material of yellow earth became "rich aristocrats," whereas those generated by the drops from the rope constituted the lower classes of "poor commoners." (34) The removal of the mythical origin of these existing social inequalities can potentially be read as another declaration of her belief in equal rights, which applies not only to cultures but also to the social classes within them.

Chen Yi's portrayal of Nu Wa's creation of human beings reflects her attitude toward the interrelatedness of human languages and the processes of communication and translation between them. Further demonstrating this interpretation is the music corresponding to Nu Wa's kneading of the yellow earth by hand. As shown in example 2, from bar 68 to bar 71, after a musical passage played by Chinese instruments representing Nu Wa's effort, the first human voice appears from the choir with the primitive utterance of "yi yi yi yi" (bar 71, Voice 1). After the same process is repeated in the instruments, the voice of the second human (Voice 2) singing "yo yo yo yo" joins at bar 77 (example 3). The third and fourth humans are then created, and accordingly sounds "A A A A" and "ye ye ye ye" come from Voices 3 and 4, respectively (example 4, bar 84). These sounds are delivered by a solo singer from each voice group.



These primitive utterances can be heard as humanity's instinctive cries in its prelinguistic state of being. These syllables, as they are sung, have not yet developed into words, nor have they as of yet been associated with any symbolic meaning. They may be suggestive of certain feelings or ideas, but they are not nouns, verbs, or adjectives, nor are they any other syntactical parts of human speech. However, despite being devoid of any intrinsic "meaning," these simple and basic utterances are nonetheless expressive of human emotions.

As more humans are created in the narrative, more singers join in the movement. As shown in example 5 in bars 96-97, each voice sings its own syllable with its own characteristic inflection. For instance, "yi" in Voice 1 features an acciaccatura on the pitch e"; "yo" in Voice 2 features a falling tone on "c"; "A" in Voice 3 features a quick rising and falling on "c"; and Voice 4 features a combination of several syllables, "da dei jong dududu," in a highly rhythmic, complicated, and developed pattern. These different syllables--altogether juxtaposed in bars 96-97--can also be interpreted as the origins of multiple human languages. Significantly, as Chen Yi shows in bars 98-100 (example 6), this diversification of language is not punitive: it does not block communication or separate peoples; rather, it yields a desire for communication and interaction between humans and cultures. For instance, in bars 98-102, each voice group starts to acquire the others' syllables and to sing a mixture of the syllables. Voice 1, in addition to its original "yi" sound, learns to speak "yo" and "ye." Voice 3 learns to speak "yo" in addition to its original "A" sound.



This portrayal of primitive acts of communication suggests how important the concept of interpersonal and intercultural communication is to Chen Yi. Yet, what enables this communication in the first place is the question. As her music suggests, the different voice groups do not learn other voice's syllables from a void but from active listening. In other words, the process of communication portrayed in Chen's Cantata does not start by merely singing your own syllables to the others but rather by actively listening to, making comparisons with, and even creatively misunderstanding other people's syllables. Importantly, this communication process itself entails an act of interpretation and translation, as George Steiner states in his seminal book on language and translation, After Babel (1998):
   A human being performs an act of translation, in the full sense
   of the word, when receiving a speech-message from any other
   human being. In short: inside or between languages, human
   communication equals translation. (35)


Viewed from this angle, the idea of translation for Chen is a metaphor for, and a means to communicate and develop relationships between, cultures. It is a way of relating to other people who are also concerned with enhancing cross-cultural communication.


The third movement of the Cantata is entitled "Weaving Maid and Cowherd" and is based on one of the most famous love legends in China. As the story is told, the Weaving Maid was the daughter of the Emperor of Heaven, and, as her name suggests, she was very skilled at weaving; the Cowherd was a hardworking mortal. One day, guided by an enchanted cow, the Cowherd approached the Weaving Maid and stole her gown while she was bathing in a river. During their encounter, he managed to convince her to become his wife. Though they led a happy conjugal life, with the Maid weaving and the Cowherd working the land, it was not to last. The Emperor of Heaven, upon learning that his daughter had married a mortal, ordered her abduction and confined her to the sky, making her the star Vega. The Cowherd followed her until he reached the opposite shore of the Silver River in the sky-also known as the Milky Way--which, due to the Emperor's will, had become enlarged to the point of being impossible to ford. Refusing to give up on his beloved, the Cowherd chose not to leave the skies, and so became the star Altair. Lying on the opposite sides of the Silver River for the whole astrological year, the star-crossed lovers encounter each other on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, when a bridge of magpies makes it possible for the Cowherd to cross the Silver River and reach the Weaving Maid. From this legend, the Qixi ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) Festival took its origin, which is regarded as the Chinese equivalent of the Christian tradition known as Valentine's Day. (36)

Based on this famous narrative, the structure of the third movement of Chen Yi's Cantata is divided into two parts. The first part, "Weaving Maid and Cowherd," which depicts the abovementioned story, is scored for the male choir; four traditional Chinese instruments--erhu, yangqin, pipa, and zheng; and the orchestra. The second part, "Song of Weaving Maid and Cowherd," is scored for the Chanticleer choir, singing a Chinese classical poem a cappella. The choir's singing of the poem, which draws upon the legend of the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd, acts as a commentary on the event. The "Song" of this second part forms the basis of my discussion of Chen Yi's cultural translation in this movement. Up to this point, I have demonstrated Chen Yi's attempts to find equivalences between different languages and media. In this movement, I look at how Chen Yi deals with the difficulty of translation when a fully accurate translation is harder to achieve.

The poem that Chen Yi sets for the "Song of Weaving Maid and Cowherd" is written in the style of classical Chinese from the late second century. It is the tenth poem from Gu Shi Shi Jiu Shou ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "The Nineteen Old Poems," second century AD), a set of poems of anonymous composition. (37) The poems in this anthology are without titles and feature five-character or five-syllable lines of verse; consequently, contemporary scholars normally use the first line of each poem as its title. The legend of Weaving Maid and Cowherd was one of the favorite themes in Chinese poetry throughout the ages, and the story was usually treated to depict either the "frustrated longing" or the "brevity of [the] lovers' meeting." (38) The poem selected by Chen Yi for her music belongs to the former group, containing the tone of deeper melancholy. In her preface to the score, Chen Yi provides the poem in both its original Chinese and her own English translation (table 2).

Within this poem, as each line of verse is made up of five characters, each character represents one syllable. As Chinese is monosyllabic, there are five words to a line, and end rhyming is employed at the end of each even-numbered line (characters marked in red). Significantly, this poem further features the use of word duplications, which gives it a distinctive rhythmic effect. Among the ten lines, six of them employ duplications: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (tiao tiao), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (jiao jiao), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (xian xianzha zha), [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ying ying), and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (mo mo). Through the use of this poetic device, the two lovers are presented as stars in the sky in the first two lines, before the focus is shifted for the next four lines to the emotions and thoughts of the Weaving Maid, who is unable to concentrate on her work while she suffers through her forced separation from the Cowherd. In the last four lines, the Milky Way that impedes their meeting is described--apparently as a small obstacle, yet one sufficient for the two to be unable to meet or even speak, forcing them to stare longingly at each other from their distance.

Mandarin Chinese belongs to a Sino-Tibetan language family. Unlike phonetic languages, written Chinese was recorded in the form of characters such as ideographs and was therefore unaffected and largely unchanged by phonological evolution. Inevitably, however, written Chinese evolved to a language very different from that of spoken Chinese. Classical Chinese refers to the form of written Chinese used for all formal writing from the early fifth century BC to the early twentieth century. (39) As sinologists David Pollard and Eva Hung point out, classical Chinese, because of its high density and grammatical versatility, often results in the diversity of its interpretation, particularly as these factors are evident in the process of translation. (40)

The interpretational multiplicity of classical Chinese is apparent when comparing various scholarly translations of the "tiao tiao qian niu xIng" poem to Chen Yi's own translation of it. Over the course of Chen Yi's career, she has set a considerable number of classical Chinese poems into her choral works, including Tang Poems (1995), Chinese Poems (1999), Landscape (2003), and The West Lake (2003). In the preface to each score, Chen Yi provides her own English translation of the selected poems, which raises the question of why she wants to translate the poems herself, particularly when the translation of classical Chinese is so challenging, and when there are already several scholarly translations that she could appropriate for her music. Comparing Chen Yi's own translation of the original Weaving Maid/Cowherd poem with prominent American scholar Burton Watson's in 1984 draws attention to one line that demonstrates the diversity of interpretation that is possible in the translation of Chinese, as observed by David Pollard and Eva Hung in their critique. This variation is relevant to Chen Yi's musical translation of the poem and how she sets the poem, as it helps to explain her approach to translation.

In terms of structure, Burton Watson's version of the poem effectively preserves the original formal structure of duplications, whereas Chen Yi's version does not. As table 3 shows, Watson employs the duplicated words of "far far," "bright bright," "slim slim," and "clack clack" in the first four lines, as well as "gaze gaze" in the last line, to parallel the duplications in the original poem. In comparing the two translations, their meanings agree in most lines; however, there is one point at which the two translations differ substantially. In line 8, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]? (xiang qu fu ji xu?), Chen and Watson give strikingly different interpretations: Chen Yi's "When can the two reunite again?" and Watson's "What a little way lies between them!" Demonstrating the difficulty inherent in transcribing classical Chinese poetry, the line is the most difficult line to convert among the ten in the poem. In the original line, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]?, the first two characters mean "from each other" while the third character, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], means "repeatedly." The last two characters, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], mean "how far." A literal translation of the five characters would therefore be, "How far apart can the two of them be?" (41) Based on this literal translation, the question mark indicates that this line is a rhetorical question. Consequently, Watson's version--"What a little way lies between them!"--is much closer to the original poem than Chen Yi's. However, Watson's translation changes the expression from a rhetorical question into an exclamation. The use of exclamation marks not only alters the phrasing but also exaggerates the register and the mood of the original verse. Conversely, Chen Yi's version retains the question form of the original line, but her translation is seemingly completely unrelated to the original meaning. Chen Yi's free translation turns the description of the external world around the protagonists--as a river lies between them--into an internalized pondering of their situation: "When can the two reunite again?"


Chen Yi's musical arrangement of the poem addresses the question of its translatability. Interestingly, while Chen Yi's literary translation does not follow the form of the original poem, its form is mostly preserved in her musical translation. For example, in Chen Yi's music, the duplicates are set at the same pitch. As example 7 shows, the duplicated words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (tiao tiao) in the first line are set on the pitch of "d". Of the six duplicates, five of them follow this pattern. Additionally, every two lines is presented as a couplet in the musical phrasing. For example, the first four lines are set in an antiphonal manner, according to which the first two lines are sung by a countertenor and responded to by a tenor singing the following two.

In terms of the musical texture, the music changes from monophonic to polyphonic in lines 5-8 (example 8). Significantly, the climax of the piece happens in line 8, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]? (xiang qu fu ji xu?), which is the line of poetry noted previously for its difficulty. As demonstrated in example 8, the line "xiang qu fu ji xu" is first sung by Countertenor 1 in the third beat in bar 31, followed by Countertenors 2 and 3 in bar 32. Then Tenors 1, 2, and 3 enter singing the text "xiang qu fu ji xu" with the dynamic f in the second beat of bar 32. Notably, the multiple voices start to shift from interlocking polyphony to a homophonic texture in the last two beats of bar 33. The multiple voices finally "unite" into homophony in bar 34. In the last three words of "fu ji xu" together with the following exclamation "A" in bars 35-36, the music reaches its highest and loudest point. Crucially, the musical arrangement of the line "xiang qu fu ji xu" from separate polyphonic voices into homophony supports Chen Yi's belief that "language can be translated into music," as Chen Yi effectively expresses both Watson's sentiment about separation in his own translation ("What a little way lies between them!") and her own expression of yearning for their reunification in the form of the rhetorical question ("When can the two reunite?"). In other words, for Chen Yi, the medium of music has the potential to compensate for and overcome the linguistic difficulties of translation.


In a 2005 interview, Chen Yi expresses her understanding that increasing numbers of musicians and types of audiences have become acquainted with her musical style and language:

BD: Do the Western audiences know enough of your language to be able to enjoy and understand your music?

CY: Oh yes, because music is closely related to language. When you speak out, you are in your unique language, and when many, many more people around the world know each other well, you also share your ideas and styles with more and more people. They get familiar with your language. In San Francisco, they would tell the orchestra, "Pick the Chinese sound." They would know how to play with the oboe, for instance, for the raw sound in the low register. When the Cleveland Orchestra rehearsed my music, they found no difficulty at all. They say that everything is idiomatic. (43)

This passage demonstrates Chen Yi's aspiration to enhance intercultural communication through her musical translation of the Chinese culture. In so doing, she can restore life to her subject matter inspired by Chinese tradition while promoting the diffusion and transmission of its central ideas across languages, cultures, and time. By importing the foreign elements for distribution to the target culture, she can give it a new context and life.

Where myths define beliefs, identity, and a sense of cultural belonging, Chen Yi's audiences become acquainted with her culture--as listeners to the stories and readers of her translation. Consequently, listeners are likely to appreciate the marvels of Chinese mythology, even though they will never feel as though they are descendants of Nu Wa's human creations. What Chen Yi tries to inspire is a desire for cultural understanding among people of different backgrounds, who necessarily have different sets of cultural values. Nevertheless, aside from Chen Yi's myth-telling being her attempt to enhance cultural communication, it is a pertinent source of the composer's own self-knowledge and self-definition. In an allegorical sense, evoking myths as her musical materials serves as an archaeological dig into her own past, to retrieve crucial reminders of where she has come from and who she is.


(1.) "Chen Yi's Rich Body of Work Blends Chinese and Western Traditions, Transcending Cultural and Musical Boundaries," KT Wong Foundation, accessed September 10, 2015. http://www.

(2.) Chen Yi, "Artist Statement," American Composers Forum, ca. 1996, accessed September 10, 2015, https://composersforum. org/members/directory/chen-yi.

(3.) Dan P. McAdams, "Narrative Identity," in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, ed. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Luyckx, Vivian L. Vignoles (New York: Springer Science+Bussiness Media, LLC, 2011), vol. 1, 99.

(4.) Ibid., 99.

(5.) Ibid., 109.

(6.) John de Clef Pineiro, "An Interview with Chen Yi," New Music Connoisseur 9 (Fall 2001), accessed March 20, 2012, http:// (interview conducted on July 26, 2001); Bruce Duffie, "Composer Chen Yi: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie," 2005, accessed September 10, 2015, (interview conducted and recorded in Chicago on December 14, 2005--a copy of the recording was given to the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University); Jennifer Kelly, In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 101-120 (interview conducted in May 2010, at her home in Kansas City, Missouri [103]).

(7.) John de Clef Pineiro, "An Interview with Chen Yi."

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.

(10.) Bruce Duffie, "Composer Chen Yi"

(11.) John de Clef Pineiro, "An Interview with Chen Yi."

(12.) The Charles Ives Living Award is given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for promising American composers. It includes an award of $200,000 over a two-year period, which aims to free the recipient "from the need to devote his or her time to any employment other than music composition." See "Lists of Awards," American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed September 10, 2015, awards2_all.php. When Chen Yi was given the award in 2001, she had already held a permanent teaching position at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She took a two-year leave and moved to San Francisco in order to fully devote her time to composition.

(13.) John de Clef Pineiro, "An Interview with Chen Yi."

(14.) Chen Yi (1953) belongs to a group of xinchao ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "new wave") composers who came of age during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 and subsequently entered the conservatories when educational institutes were reopened in 1978.

Emerging in response to economic reforms in China during the 1980s, xinchao music departs from the doctrine of social realism and emphasizes instead an individualist and modernist form of expression. According to Frederick Eau, the musical style of xiancho composers, while incorporating Eastern elements, has deliberately moved away from "superficial orientalism," by which Eau means a compositional practice that quotes Eastern folk song melodies directly and sets them within Western diatonic harmonies. See Yayoi Uno Everett and Frederick Eau, eds., Locating East Asia (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 27-28, 265, 270.

(15.) Chen Yi, "Artist Statement."

(16.) Deborah Solomon, "Questions for Tan Dun: Composing a life," New York Times, December 3, 2006, accessed August 17, 2015, This interview is for the premiere of the opera The First Emperor.

(17.) Ilja Stephan, "You suddenly realize that life is boundless," October 31, 2005, accessed August 17, 2015, http://www.

(18.) Ed Pilkington, "Once Upon a Time in the East," Guardian, December 15, 2006, accessed August 17, 2015, http://www. This interview is for the premiere of the opera The First Emperor.

(19.) Discovering Music, "Chen Yi: Chinese Myths Cantata," BBC Radio 3, March 6, 2004, by Stephen Johnson.

(20.) Anne Birrell, "The Origins," in Chinese Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore, Md., and Eondon: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 23-39, 24.

(21.) Ibid., 32.

(22.) Anne Birrell, "The Origins," 32-33; Chen Yi, Preface to Chinese Myths Cantata by Chen Yi (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Theodore Presser, 1996).

(23.) Anne Birrell, "The Origins," 29.

(24.) Ibid., 30

(25.) Moh-Wei Chen, "Myths from Afar: Chinese Myths Cantata by Chen Yi" (DMA thesis, University of Southern California, 1997).

(26.) Roman Jakobson, "On linguistic Aspects of Translation," in On Translation, ed. A. Reuben Brower (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 232-239.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Chen Yi, "Tradition and Creation," Current Musicology 67/68 (1999): 69.

(29.) Jerry Norman, "The Classical and literary language," in Chinese (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 52.

(30.) Moh-Wei Chen, "Myths from Afar," 23-24.

(31.) Image adapted from "Mandarin Tones," accessed September 15, 2015,

(32.) Chen Yi, Preface to Chinese Myths Cantata.

(33.) Ibid.

(34.) Anne Birrell, "The Origins," 34.

(35.) Burton Watson, "Poems of the Han and Wei," in The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Time to the Thirteenth Century, ed. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 93.

(36.) Chen Yi, Preface to Chinese Myths Cantata.

(37.) Burton Watson, "Poems of the Han and Wei", 93.

(38.) "The Beginning of Classical Poetry (Shi)," in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, ed. and trans. Stephen Owen (New York: WW Norton, 1996), 257.

(39.) Jerry Norman, "The Classical and literary language," 83-84.

(40.) Eva Hung and David Pollard, "Chinese Tradition," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, ed. Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha (Eondon: Routledge, 2008), 369.

(41.) This version of translation is taken from Yuming Euo, "Poetry of the Han Dynasty," in A Concise History of Chinese Literature, ed. and trans. Ye Yang (Eeiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV 2011), 135.

(42.) Burton Watson, "Poems of the Han and Wei," 100.

(43.) Bruce Duffie, "Composer Chen Yi."


American Academy of Arts and letters, "lists of Awards," accessed September 10, 2015, php.

Birrell, Anne, "The Origins," in Chinese Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore, Md., and Eondon: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 23-39.

Chen, Moh-Wei, "Myths from Afar: Chinese Myths Cantata by Chen Yi," DMA thesis, University of Southern California, 1997.

Chen Yi, "Artist Statement," ca. 1996, accessed September 10, 2015,

Chen Yi, Preface to Chinese Myths Cantata by Chen Yi (Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Theodore Presser, 1996).

Chen Yi, "Tradition and Creation," Current Musicology 67/68 (1999): 59-72.

de Clef Pineiro, John, "An Interview with Chen Yi," New Music Connoisseur 9 (Fall 2001), accessed March 20, 2012,

Duffie, Bruce, "Composer Chen Yi: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie," 2005, accessed September 10, 2015, http://www.

Everett, Yayoi Uno, and Eau, Frederick, eds., Locating East Asia, Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Hung, Eva, and Pollard, David, "Chinese Tradition," in Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, ed. Mona Baker and Gabriela Saldanha (Eondon: Routledge, 2008), 369-377.

Jakobson, Roman, "On linguistic Aspects of Translation," in On Translation, ed. A. Reuben Brower (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 232-239.

Johnson, Stephen, Discovering Music, "Chen Yi: Chinese Myths Cantata," BBC Radio 3, March 6, 2004.

Kelly, Jennifer, In Her Own Words: Conversations with Composers in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013).

KT Wong Foundation, "Chen Yi's Rich Body of Work Blends Chinese and Western Traditions, Transcending Cultural and Musical Boundaries," accessed September 10, 2015, http://www.

Luo, Yuming, "Poetry of the Han Dynasty," in A Concise History of Chinese Literature, ed. and trans. Ye Yang (Eeiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV 2011), 125-146.

"Mandarin Tones," accessed September 15, 2015, jinzhang/www/pinyin/tones/.

McAdams, Dan P., "Narrative Identity," in Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, ed. Seth J. Schwartz, Koen Euyckx, and Vivian E. Vignoles (New York: Springer Science+Business Media, EEC, 2011), vol. 1, 99-116.

Norman, Jerry, "The Classical and literary language," in Chinese (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 83-110.

Pilkington, Ed, "Once Upon a Time in the East," Guardian, December 15, 2006, accessed August 17, 2015, http://www.

Solomon, Deborah, "Questions for Tan Dun: Composing a Life," New York Times, December 3, 2006, accessed August 17, 2015,

Steiner, George, " Understanding as Translation," in Steiner, George, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1998), 1-50.

Stephan, Ilja, "You Suddenly Realize That Life Is Boundless," October 31, 2005, accessed August 17, 2015, http://www.iljastephan. de/publikationen/interviews/66.html#.

"The Beginning of Classical Poetry (Shi)," in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, ed. and trans. Stephen Owen (New York: WW Norton, 1996), 249-294.

Timms, Colin, et al., "Cantata," Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press, accessed October 10, 2015, music/04748.

Watson, Burton, "Poems of the Han and Wei," in The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Time to the Thirteenth Century, ed. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 93-122.

Chih-Suei Shaw is a DPhil candidate in musicology at the University of Oxford. She is currently finishing her doctoral thesis on discourses of identity in contemporary East Asian music. Her research interests include the construction of identity through music, reception history, and the relationship between music, nature, and environment.

Original       Pinyin (Phonetic
Poem           Transcription)

[TEXT NOT      tiao tiao qian niu xing
REPRODUCIBLE   jiao jiao he han nu.
IN ASCII]      xian xian zhuo su shou,
               zha zha nong ji zhu.
               zhong ri bu cheng zhang,
               qi ti ling ru yu.
               he han qlng qie qian,
               xiang qu fu ji xu?
               ying ying yi shui jian,
               mo mo bu de yu.

Original       English Translation
Poem           by Chen Yi

[TEXT NOT      Far, far away the Cowherd, and
REPRODUCIBLE   Bright, sparkling, the weaving Maid.
IN ASCII]      Lifting her dainty hands,
               Weaving with the shuttles,
               Yearning for her lover,
               She could not concentrate to weave
               Shedding her tears like rain.
               The Silver River is shallow and clear,
               When can the two reunite again?
               Separated by the limpid river,
               Lovingly looking at each other,
               They couldn't talk and meet.


Chen Yi's Translation            Burton Watson's
                                 Translation (42)

Far, far away the Cowherd, and   Far far away, the Herdboy Star;
Bright, sparkling, the           Bright bright, the lady of
  weaving Maid.                    the River of Heaven.
Lifting her dainty hands,        Slim slim, she lifts
                                   a pale hand,
Weaving with the shuttles,       Clack clack, playing the
                                   shuttle of her loom,
Yearning for her lover,          All day long--but the
She could not                      pattern's never finished
  concentrate to weave
Shedding her tears like rain.    Welling tears fall like rain
The Silver River is              The River of Heaven is
  shallow and clear,               clear and shallow
When can the two                 What a little way lies
  reunite again?                   between them!
Separated by the                 Only the span of a single
  limpid river,                    brimming stream-
Lovingly looking at              they gaze and gaze and
  each other,                      cannot speak
They couldn't talk and meet.
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Author:Shaw, Chih-Suei
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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