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Article Chinese American Song

Detail from Chinese Band

Detail from Chinese Band, c1904. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Chinese American community is the largest ethnic group of Asian Americans in the United States. At the time of the 2010 census, the population stood at around 3.8 million. The largest Chinese American communities live in California and New York.

The Chinese were among the earliest of the Asian peoples to arrive in America; the first record of Chinese migrants in the United States dates back to 1785. However, the first major wave of Chinese immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, following the discovery of gold in California in 1849. During the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants were encouraged to come to the United States to work in service professions that supported the boom towns of the Gold Rush, and to help build railroads in the West.

Between the mid nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries, most of the Chinese immigrants were young men from rural backgrounds who only spoke local dialects. The majority came from the southern Guangdong region. They brought with them their indigenous musical styles. These included Cantonese opera and Taishan muyu song, a sub-genre of an important South Chinese narrative song type from the Taishan region where many of the first immigrants originated, which often included lyrics about the early Chinese migrant experience. These forms went on to dominate the Chinese American music scene for more than a century.

The Library of Congress collection includes a recording of a traditional Chinese song, entitled "Drum Song of Fengyang." In this song, which was recorded in San Francisco, California, by Rulan Chao Pian and Margaret Speaks in August, 1943, a wife complains that her husband is lazy, while the husband complains that his wife has big feet. The song is well known in China and many versions exist of comical complaints about family life. But it seems that this is comedy in the face of adversity, as the song is thought to have originated in Guandong province as a song sung by refugees of floods in the north of China who found themselves singing on the street of cities in Guangdong province to get money to survive. This explains why the song is sung in Mandarin, while the language of Guandong is Cantonese.

In 1852, a year after San Francisco experienced its first full-length Italian opera performance (of Bellini's La Sonnambula) Hong Took Tong Chinese Dramatic Company from Guangdong Province, a 130-member Cantonese opera troupe, staged the first Chinese opera in the United States. The following year the same troupe performed in New York City.

Chinese opera, like lion dances, quickly became emblematic of Chinese American life and a powerful source of community. Not only did visiting troupes from China make regular visits to the United States, but theaters devoted to the art form also sprang up around the country. In the late 1870s and 1880s; the so-called "golden era" of Chinese theater in America -- San Francisco boasted no less than four Cantonese opera venues.

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Chinese Americans became the victims of racism. The anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in the passing by Congress in 1882 of The Chinese Exclusion Act. Signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, the Act created a ten-year moratorium on most Chinese immigration. Although the law as written allowed for men to send for wives and children from China, the effect was to severely restrict even this type of immigration.

Widespread prejudice and cultural differences led to the ghettoization of Chinese communities within the United States. Cantonese opera aficionados continued to practice their art form isolated in "Chinatowns" with little contact with mainstream American life.

The collapse of the nationalist regime on the Chinese mainland after World War Two and the establishment of the People's Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 prevented many Chinese people, including some five thousand well-educated, upwardly mobile Chinese citizens, from returning to their homeland. Stranded in the United States, the intellectual Chinese population propelled the growth of Peking opera (Jingju) in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. Peking opera, which is considered to be the national opera of China and Taiwan, is sung in Mandarin and generally features fewer instruments than its Cantonese counterpart. The form was first brought to the United States by Mei Lan-fang, a celebrated Chinese opera diva, during her sensational tour in 1930, but it wasn't until 1951 that a group of Chinese students formed the first Peking opera club in New York.

Even with the reopening of Chinese immigration after 1943, professional performing groups declined after the mid-twentieth century and theaters devoted to Cantonese opera performances disappeared after the 1960s. However, amateur opera clubs continue the tradition to this day in the urban centers where there is a sizeable Chinese population such as San Francisco and New York.

The four commercial recordings below of songs in Cantonese made in the United States in 1902 and 1903, are thought to be examples of Cantonese Opera, although the titles and the names of the performers are not known. They were made for distribution among Cantonese-speaking Americans:

Western instruments (saxophone, electric keyboard, electric guitar, violin) have been incorporated into the performance of Cantonese opera both in China and the United States since the 1920s. These instruments are played alongside traditional Chinese instruments like the bangu (drum), erhu (low pitched two-string fiddle) yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and houguan (double-reed wind instrument).

Speaking English as well as Chinese, the educated Chinese population strove to break down the boundaries separating indigenous Chinese culture from the American mainstream. In addition to serving the Chinese community, the educated class of Chinese Americans gave Peking opera lectures, demonstrations and performances for non-Chinese American audiences in universities, museums and other public settings.

Peking opera performers also helped to popularize the older and highly influential Chinese operatic form of Kunqu in the United States. Kunqu opera dates back to the fourteenth century, features literary and archaic texts, mimetic dancing and the dizi (flute) as the main accompanying instrument.

During the twentieth century, Chinese culture began to make an impact on American music in the United States. For example, in 1922, the American composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) wrote The Willow Wind, a song cycle based on Chinese themes. And the American composer Samuel Barlow (1892-1982) wrote his Three Songs from the Chinese in 1924.

The Magnuson Act (also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act) of 1943 allowed Chinese immigration for the first time since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and permitted some Chinese immigrants already living in the United States to become citizens.

It was only after the United States pushed through the 1965 Immigration Act that abolished "national origins" as a reason for allocating immigration quotas, that Chinese immigrants flooded into the United States. Mao Zedong died in 1976 and by 1983, China eased restrictions on emigration so that Chinese citizens were able to enter the United States in even greater numbers. Chinese people from all walks of life arrived looking to escape the difficulties of life that was the legacy of Mao Zedong's China. This influx led to a flowering of Chinese American musical culture in the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, the Chinese American vocal music landscape is extremely diverse. It encompasses such forms as Chinese operas, Taishan muyu, choral singing, western orchestral music, Chinese and western pop, hip-hop and rock music, karaoke and Asian American jazz (primarily an instrumental form).

Western classical music and instruments gained popularity in China in the nineteenth century. The arrival of educated, cosmopolitan Chinese immigrants in the mid twentieth century led to the cultivating of a western classical music tradition among the Chinese American population and a new hybridized Chinese-western repertoire. Chinese American orchestras and choruses emerged, performing a range of western and Chinese music. Chinese-born composers, such as Bright Sheng, Chen Yi and Tan Dun, have developed prominent careers in the United States starting in the late twentieth century by combining occidental and Asian musical ideas.

Chinese American pop music is similarly hybridized. Well-known Chinese American vocalists include the rapper Jin (Au Yeung), the R&B singers Coco Lee and Leehom Wang and singer-songwriter Magdalen Hsu Lee.

The organization Music From China was founded in 1984 in New York City with the aim of introducing American audiences to Chinese music. The Library of Congress collection includes a webcast of instrumental Chinese music performed by members of Music From China: The Ann Yao Trio: Traditional Chinese Zheng Music from Florida, July 27, 2011.


  • "Chinese Music" by Su Zheng in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 957-965.
  • See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.

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  • Chinese American Song


  • -  Immigration and Migration
  • -  Songs and Music
  • -  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
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