I’ve posted slides from my conference presentation today of a quantitative study of Taiwanese “cantillation”. I use cantillation to translate Chinese yínsòng 吟誦, which is more commonly rendered “chanting” — but I think this latter word is a bad choice, because it suggests monotony and monastic plainsong. Chinese yínsòng, in which word-tones are elaborated into melody, is one of the most beautiful “spoken art” forms I know of, and I wanted something fresh to name it with.
I had studied Chinese cantillation intermittently in the 1990s — whenever I met people who had had traditional “sīshú” 私塾 educations, in which language training was carried out through intensive rote memorization of literature, I would try to get them to describe their studies to me and if they were willing, to perform what they could. Cantillation was once the normal way of presenting a piece of literature that one had studied to a good level of understanding — although of course rote memorization does not imply understanding at all. But if you are really studying the piece as you memorize it, as you should be, then your performance will reflect the depth of your grasp. Cantillation, like reciting and declamation, requires you to do more with the piece than simply receive it passively; as with reproducing a mathematical proof you have studied, you have to produce it from out of your mind even though you did not originate it, and while that can be done by brute force, it’s much easier if you actually understand the thing.
In 2000, while working in Taiwan, I discovered a CD of some remarkable cantillation performances by Hóng Zénán 洪澤南, who I tracked down and met. A humble schoolteacher, he has spent his life studying many of the different cantillation styles that survive in Taiwan. I began analyzing linguistically his work and the work of other recorded performers, but I became frustrated by some of the technical demands I encountered. But recently I learned to program, and my level is now sufficient to do the necessary technical work. So I have returned to the subject after having laid it aside for a dozen years, yet I find my enthusiasm utterly unquenched. I still find Hóng’s 1990s recording of Hán Yù 韓愈’s “Shī shuō” 師說 [On the Teacher] mesmerizing, and I am excited to see that hundreds of other recordings have been published by various performers in the intervening years. And I now have the tools to deepen my own study of them.
In much of continental China the collective tradition of cantillation was lost. That is not to say individual people didn’t possess the knowledge and the skill of cantillating. But under the influence of the Vernacular Language movement, Classical literature began to be downplayed somewhat in Chinese education, and then for several decades beginning in the 1950s there was intense political pressure against traditional learning and educational practices. In Taiwan, however, neither of these forces had much effect on the transmission of cantillation — the first decades of the Vernacular Language movement were largely ignored, since Taiwan was then under Japanese rule, and Taiwan was entirely spared the worst excesses of Communist suppression of cultural tradition. So Taiwanese poetry societies continued to practice and teach cantillation throughout the twentieth century. Transmission of styles there was continuous.
Transmission aside, in both Taiwan and continental China there is now a small resurgence of interest in this art form. Like Chinese calligraphy, with which it has a certain formal likeness, cantillation is a distinctly Chinese form of artistic interpretation.