Value is Proven in the Fire: Huang Xiangpeng

Sometime back I wrote a piece called 'The Ringing of Sacred Chimes' for Danwei ( and mentioned a Chinese musicologist by the name of Huang Xiangpeng and his stellar contributions to our understanding of two-pitch bronze bells in China and music temperament. Ever since that article was posted, I’ve been meaning to write a brief biography of Huang. I got round to scribbling something down the other day.

Material from the biographical sketch below comes from a book titled Huang Xiangpeng: Jinian wenji [A Commemorative Anthology in Honour of Huang Xiangpeng], published in 2001 and written by his wife Zhou Chen and other contributors.

--Peter Micic

Huang is an incredibly important figure in twentieth century Chinese music. Two of the contributors in the Commemorative Anthology compare Huang’s iron determination and endurance to Prometheus’ heroic feats of snatching fire from Zeus and the Gods for the benefit of mankind. After reading the book, I felt that Huang’s life could be summed up in the Prometheus Society's motto: Ignis Aurum Probat: 'Value is proven in the fire,' or 'Fire tests gold,' part of a quotation from Seneca which reads, 'Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes hominess' ('Fire proves gold, but calamity [proves] strong men').

The story of Huang Xiangpeng (1927-1997) must surely be one of the most extraordinary in the history of twentieth century Chinese music. It is hard to believe that someone of Huang’s intellectual capacity only began writing on music in earnest in his early fifties, and even less plausible, perhaps, that the first article he wrote using his real name only appeared in 1978.

Huang was born in Nanjing on the 26 December 1927. Huang’s birth was difficult and his mother who was twenty at the time died shortly afterwards. Huang was left to the care of his maternal grandmother and grandfather. His grandfather was a soldier in the Taiping Army. Returning to civilian life, he opened a fabric business in Nanjing which did a roaring trade, but by the time Huang was born, the family business had already fallen on hard times.

Huang was a top student. He loved mathematics, physics, chemistry, history, geography, languages, the natural sciences and music. He spent time browsing through second-hand bookstores and was physically active enjoying all kinds of sports, including rowing and mountain climbing.

Huang was ten years old when Nanjing fell to the Japanese imperial army in December 1937. The family fled the city narrowly missing the horrific events and carnage that followed. None of the family witnessed the Nanjing massacre first-hand, but they obviously heard the stories and reports of mass executions of soldiers and the slaughtering and raping of tens of thousands of civilians in the Chinese capital.

When the family returned to Nanjing in the spring of 1938, they knew the worst of the atrocities had passed, but the city was now under Japanese rule. 'The sight of Japanese flags unfurled across the city,' wrote Huang’s cousin, Cheng Jiming, 'was totally humiliating.' Cheng and Huang found strength and courage in patriotic figures from China’s past like the Song dynasty statesman Yue Fei, and the Ming dynasty general Qi Jiguang. The two of them made an oath that they would struggle to the end to liberate the Chinese people and make China strong and prosperous, a plausible sentiment in the winter of 1938.

In the charged milieu of late 1930s and at a time of increasing national crisis, many young Chinese joined the national salvation movement to fight against Japanese imperialism and oppose Jiang Kai-shek’s policy of appeasement towards Japan. Huang was among the many young boys in Nanjing who joined the ranks of the United Salvation Society (Tuanjie Jiuguoshe) and a number of literary and art groups performing plays and operas, writing essays and circulating samizdat material to express their anti-Japanese sentiments. While Huang aligned himself with such progressive cultural groups, his father Huang Qimiao (Huang Kai) was a government official who worked for the new puppet regime inaugurated by the Japanese on January 1 1938.

Chinese collaborators who worked for the Japanese would later be called 'traitors' (hanjian) by the Communist regime. After 1949, Huang's family links would not be an easy legacy to live with. He would be constantly reminded of his father’s past actions and branded with a tarnished and shameful past. In the wake of the Anti-Rightist Campaign in the late 1950s, both Huang and his wife were targets of the crackdown. Zhou was sent to a labour camp on the outskirts of Tianjin and Huang was thrown out of the Communist Party. Many intellectuals branded as 'Rightists' divorced their spouses to protect their children and themselves. A Party official advised Huang that if he divorced his wife (they married in 1954), his party membership would be reinstated.

It’s very possible that Huang did not think of his life as 'his life' but rather a series of random events that had no logical connection. He had graduated with flying colours from the composition department at the Central Conservatory of Music in 1951 and had the opportunity to further his studies in the former Soviet Union the following year, but his less than impeccable family links with the KMT put an end to that. His wife was in a labour camp and he had to look after his two-year old daughter Tianlai. In March 1958 he started work at the Music Research Institute attached to the Chinese Academy of Arts in Beijing. He was thirty years old.

In early 1961 after her release from the labour camp, Zhou found a job in the reference library at the Tianjin Music Conservatory. Zhou and Huang resided in two different cities for the next twenty years seeing each other no more than once or twice a year. Repeated requests to transfer to Beijing to join her husband were denied. Zhou had to wait until 1978 before her political slate could be cleared and Huang the following year to have his party membership fully reinstated. Because of these political misdemeanors in the 1950s, Huang could not publish any of his writings using his real name. He wrote under a number of pseudonyms until the late 1970s.

During the Cultural Revolution, Huang was labeled a 'KMT spy,' subjected to writing numerous self-flagellations about his past ‘errors’. He was incarcerated in a ‘cow shed’ (niupeng), a form of confinement on the grounds of the Music Research Institute, as were other colleagues. From September 1969 to 1975 he spent six years in several ‘re-education’ schools for cadres and intellectuals in Hebei province.

At one of the cadre schools at Tuanbowa located near Tianjin, staff and faculty members from the Music Research Institute were organized into four units or brigades with the task of planting wheat and vegetables. Huang was chosen as the unit leader. He took it upon himself to learn as much as he could on agronomics, investigating the saline and alkaline content of the soil that was detrimental to growing crops, working with pesticides and purchasing all kinds of farm tools. We might expect Huang’s intellect, and finally, his spirit, like so many intellectuals during this period, to be broken by the horrors of the age in which he lived: the purges, the denunciation meetings, the appalling manifestations of politics gone wild, but Huang's way of coping with life was to immerse himself in his research and try to ignore the topsy-turvy world around him.

Many of Huang’s colleagues returned to Beijing in the early 1970s, but Huang was confined at Tuanbowa until 1975. His health had deteriorated and he had now lost most of his teeth making eating unbearably difficult. Huang's incessant smoking, excessive back-bending labour, breathing in pesticides as well as his nocturnal working habits did not help either. From the mid 1970s until his death, Huang was constantly plagued with serious respiratory problems.

In 1977, Huang was among a number of scholars from the Music Research Institute who examined bronze chime bells excavated in Gansu, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan. The bronze chime bells yielded a miraculous discovery: some of the bells produced two fully independent pitches, each with its own fundamental and harmonics. Huang published his findings in a paper titled 'Acoustical Material on the Tuning System of Neolithic Bronze Instruments and Questions on the Historical Development of Scales in China.' Doubts, however, lingered on the dual-pitch phenomenon, but it was fully recognized in the summer of 1978 with the discovery of a unitary ensemble of 65 bronze chime bells excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng in Leigudun, Suixian county Hubei province.

Huang’s research on bronze bells and music temperament gained him international recognition, but he also became virtually synonymous with the expression 'Tradition flows like a continuous river' (Chuantong shi yitiao heliu), taken from the title of his book published in Beijing in October 1990. Tradition, like a river’s mouth and source, remained constant, but it was also in a state of flux, constantly flowing. Huang found cognizance with a similar idea used by the Peking opera actor Mei Lanfang to describe his own art: 'the actor moves on stage, but the pose remains unchanged' (yibu bu huanxing). Huang adamantly rejected that music traditions embodied an idealized image of music styles and standards believed to be inherited from ancient times, especially the Golden Age of the early Zhou which court scribes were trying to recapture in the official standard histories. 'The literati slavishly copied classical commentaries on Chinese music,’ wrote Huang, ’ignoring the musical and artistic practices of their own times, imposing closed, rigid and orthodox standards on traditional music.'

Huang became somewhat of a celebrity in Japan among Japanese music scholars of Chinese music, and especially admired by Shigeo Kishibe and Kenzo Hayashi who had published a number of influential articles on Chinese modes and scales. In 1995 Huang received the Koizumi Fumio Prize for Ethnomusicology for his contributions in historical musicology in China, but Huang was already too ill to personally accept the prize in Japan (he now required an oxygen tube to breathe). Instead a small Japanese delegation visited Beijing in August and presented the prize to Huang in his home.

Huang was hospitalized five times from April 1994 to March 1997. During his hospitalization, he kept a number of notebooks called ‘Notes Taken While Recuperating’ (Yangbingji). His time spent in hospital was anything but a rest. He received a constant stream of visitors and colleagues, not just to wish him a speedy recovery, but also to have a 'class'or 'session' from his bedside. He discussed articles in the pipeline with his colleagues and dissertation queries from his research students. He also wrote and revised a large part of his Musicological Questions (Yuewen), in hospital, a 388 page unfinished manuscript consisting of thirteen chapters edited by Cui Xian and published posthumously in Beijing in June 2000. The book sports a black and white photo of Huang taken in the last decade of his life. A man with a full set of grey hair with strands of a beard he let grow out white in wisps. There is an oxygen tube and of course those inquisitive, eternally youthful eyes.

Huang had been in and out of hospital so many times in the last three years of his life that he perhaps considered another trip from early March in 1997 as just another routine check-up. By March, however, Huang's life hanged in the balance, at times fading away like a candle. He now had enormous trouble stringing together a coherent sentence. By March 3 Huang had fallen into a state of delirium. He turned to Zhou Chen, and in a weak but audible voice said: 'The music of our people…' That unfinished utterance spoke volumes. Was it a final and total surrender to a life devoted to Chinese music or a call to a higher cosmic force that he was too busy to die? These were perhaps not the last words he ever spoke to his wife, two months before he died, but that unfinished statement was the truth of him, not only what he said, but also the fact that he could say it to his wife, who had stuck by him through everything, and say it without apology, without regret.


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