Sam Cheney

The Featured Researcher for August 2022 was Sam Cheney.

Working Title: “Sounds Exotic”: British Perceptions and Representations of Chinese Musicality, 1860 – 1939.

HEI The University of Edinburgh, School of  History, Classics and Archaeology.

Can we hear race? Does music shape our understanding of cultures different from our own? In what ways have historical soundscapes been manipulated to assert imperial and racial power disparities? My PhD project explores these broad questions by examining British interactions with Chinese music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Following the cessation of the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860), Britain’s imperial presence in China drastically increased. As a result, British missionaries, diplomats, and travellers were granted increased freedom to enter the vast country beyond China’s coastal treaty ports. This, coupled with the growing Chinese diaspora who began emigrating en masse around the world in this period, meant that the late nineteenth century offered more opportunities than ever before for British listeners to hear Chinese music.

A group of ten Chinese men posing for a photo, holding Chinese instruments including gong, erhu, dizi, and cymbals
“Ten Musicians,” photograph of Royal Asiatic Society Magic Lantern Slide (c. 1890 – 1910). © 2019 Royal Asiatic Society. Image courtesy of C.H. Foo, Y.W. Foo and Special Collections, University of Bristol Library (

The years 1860 – 1939, therefore, were an unprecedented era of global musical connection between Britain and China. The responses to this music were diverse, varying in both positivity and sophistication. Many British travellers in late-Qing China complained about the inescapable racket supposedly produced by traditional opera performances. Conversely, several Sinophile Edwardian composers incorporated Chinese folk melodies into their music, claiming to have transcribed these during visits to London’s nascent Chinatown at Limehouse. Elsewhere, Victorian and Edwardian musicologists analysed Chinese music from the perspective of racist pseudo-science and imperialistic epistemologies, while British missionaries lamented the apparent inability of their Chinese congregations to sing Anglican hymnal tunes, and the supposed ‘ungodliness’ of using Chinese instruments in Christian worship.

Encompassing these various arenas of global sonic encounter, my project explores what Chinese musical culture meant to different nineteenth and early-twentieth century Britons. In so doing, it highlights how the cross-cultural exchange of music was crucial to modern Sino-British relations, and how racial othering was often about audible differences as well as supposed visual alterity.

Twitter: @SamuelCheney8