Rulan Chao Pian, an eminent scholar of Chinese music, an influential Chinese language teacher, and a mentor to students and younger colleagues in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America, died peacefully on November 30, 2013 at the age of 91 in her Cambridge home.
Much respected and dearly beloved, Pian shaped many academic careers and lives in America and China. Her seminal publications, public lectures, and personal guidance expanded the intellectual scope of Chinese music studies; her many decades of Chinese language teaching laid the foundation for a generation of scholars who went on to establish the field of Chinese studies in North America; her mentorship nurtured students inside and outside Harvard University, where she taught from 1947 through 1992.
Pian’s Sonq Dynasty Musical Sources and Their Interpretation (1967; 2003 reprint) was a path-breaking work in both Historical Musicology and Sinology, and it received the Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society as the best scholarly book that year on music history. Her extensive fieldwork in Taiwan on Peking Opera during the 1960s resulted in a series of critically important research papers in the early 1970s. When Mainland China opened its doors to foreign scholars, she began fieldwork there on narrative songs and folksongs and published several seminal papers on those subjects. Other distinguished recognitions include selection as a Fellow of the Academia Sinica (Taiwan, 1990) and Honorary Member of the Society for Ethnomusicology (2004), as well as numerous Honorary Professorships and Fellowships in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
She began teaching career at Harvard University in 1947 as a Chinese language teaching assistant, later being promoted to instructor, lecturer, and professor; through her tutelage, and using as textbook her own A Syllabus for the Mandarin Primer (1961), she set her students on their way to becoming influential Sinologists. In 1961 she started teaching courses related to Chinese music, and later began mentoring graduate students in the Departments of Music and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. In1974 she was appointed Professor in both departments, one of the first women professors at Harvard, a position she held until 1992, when she retired as Professor Emerita. In 1975-78 she and her husband Theodore H. H. Pian were appointed Co-Housemasters of South House (now Cabot House), the first ethnic minorities to hold such a position at Harvard. After her retirement, she devoted her time almost entirely to the compilation and editing of the complete works of her father, the pre-eminent linguist and composer Yuen Ren Chao, published as the 20-volume Zhao Yuanren Quanji (2002).
Rulan Chao Pian was born on April 20, 1922, in Cambridge Massachusetts, where her father was teaching at Harvard at the time. As a child, Pian’s family moved often, living in various cities in China as well as in Paris, and in Washington D.C. When she was age 16, her father, Y. R. Chao, moved the family back to the U.S. for good, where her father taught for brief periods at the University of Hawaii, Yale, Harvard, and -- eventually permanently in -- at the University of California at Berkeley from 1947 until his retirement in 1962. Pian settled in Cambridge where she received a B.A. (1944) and M.A. (1946), both in Western music history, from Radcliffe College, and a Ph.D. (1960) in East Asian Languages and in Music, from Radcliffe-Harvard. In 1945 she married Theodore Hsueh-Huang Pian, who later became himself an eminent Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until his retirement in 1989; he died in 2009 at the age of 91. They had one daughter, Canta Chao-po Pian.
In 1969, Rulan Chao Pian and several prominent Chinese scholars in North America, including her father, founded the Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature (CHINOPERL), a scholarly organization devoted to the research, analysis and interpretation of oral and performing traditions, broadly defined, and their relationship to China's culture and society. She was also a charter member of the Association for Chinese Music Research, founded in 1986. Until shortly before she died Pian was serving tirelessly as the inspiration, guiding spirit, and enthusiastic supporter of both organizations.
Pian’s interest in Chinese music fell into two main areas: music history and the study of traditional musical genres of modern China. Each of these two fields demands a different set of theories, methods, and source materials. Her study of history adheres to a long tradition of historical musicology at Harvard University, as well as to the centuries-old tradition of historical studies among Chinese scholars. She consulted sources exhaustively in Harvard’s own Yenching Library, as well as libraries and archives in Japan and Taiwan. (Mainland China was inaccessible at the time.) Her interest in modern China placed her among the ranks of ethnomusicologists and took her on field trips to Taiwan, and later after the opening of the Mainland, to many parts of China. In the early 1970s she was among the first ethnomusicologists to embrace the latest technology of videotaping in her ethnographic work. The result was a rare and precious collection of videotapes of traditional performances that she captured in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, before they underwent metamorphosis like China itself.
A common thread running through Pian’s diverse research projects was her theoretical interest in musical notation and its relation to issues of transcription, analysis, performance practice, and the social contexts of music. For example, her study of Chinese music history was accompanied by detailed and careful research into historical systems of notation and the issues that arose when these old notations, which preserved compositions from as early as the tenth century, were transcribed into modern notation. Her study of the traditional music of modern China focused to a great extent on the recording, transcription, and analysis of repertory from the oral and performing traditions.
Pian’s music associates may not realize that she made two other important contributions to Chinese studies outside the area of music -- contributions that in turn exerted a significant influence on her musicological orientation and thinking. The first of these was in linguistics and language teaching. Under the influence of her illustrious father, and through her long years of language teaching and self-study, she acquired a strong linguistic training and developed her own pedagogical method. Such intimate knowledge of the workings of a language and of linguistic theories provided her with insights into the workings of music and of music research, which are reflected in several of her publications, the most notable being the substantial research paper “Text Setting with the Shipyi Animated Aria” (1972).
Straddling the realms of language and music was the second of Pian’s contributions, namely her research into the nature of and the issues related to the oral and performing literature. Although the Chinese people have placed great emphasis on the written word since antiquity, they also developed and preserved rich traditions of oral literature, ranging from elaborate and complex systems of drama and narrative to simple, short, idiomatic sayings. Spoken words have performative and musical dimensions that are suppressed when these words are represented in written form. These dimensions -- tonal inflections, rhythmic patterns, dynamic levels, timbral manipulations -- must be taken into consideration if oral literature is to be fully appreciated and evaluated. Chinese oral literature, which broadly defined includes the performative aspects of everyday speech, has served the literary and artistic aspirations of the majority of China’s illiterate and semi-literate population for centuries; yet, until recently, it failed to receive the scholarly attention it deserves. To rectify that neglect, CHINOPERL was created, thus recognizing the importance of oral literature not only in its own right but also as an indispensable medium through which popular culture can be explored. Music specialists tend to ignore such literature because it has not been labeled as “music” and does not sound particularly “musical” to their ears. Pian was among the first to study such literature from a musicological perspective. No one disputes the fact that speech and music are wedded in song; Pian showed that there is also music in speech.
Pian’s lively mind, warm personality, and generous disposition nurtured many young scholars and inspired others who crossed her path. To students who worked with her closely, she set an example not only of how to be scholars and teachers, but also how to live fully, joyously, humbly, and generously. Pian made it clear to her students that her home and her private library were open for them to visit at any time, whether for a brief stop or an extended stay of a few months or more. Ever inviting, ever stimulating, the house in Cambridge that she shared with her husband Ted for over half a century was filled with friends and colleagues. Visitors remember countless hours of discussion in her study, around the fireplace in the living room, or over food at the dining room table, often extending into the wee hours of the morning, when she would magically bring out more food for xiaoye. Even more than the content of the discussions, visitors remember the way in which she expressed ideas, asked questions, stated propositions, and forwarded counter-arguments -- quietly, gently, persuasively, leaving strong and everlasting impressions on her students and friends. Later in the 1980s, these occasions were formalized into monthly gatherings called Kangqiao Xinyu (New Dialogues in Cambridge), organized by her and her former student (and later close friend) the writer and poet Loh Waifong. In these gatherings, notable local scholars and those visiting from China were invited to give presentations to the concerned community in Cambridge on a great variety of subjects related to China. The gatherings would attract a huge crowd, sometimes numbering up to 50 or 60, completely filling every seat and square foot of floor of their spacious living room. Then Pian would bring out an enormous pot of hongdou xifan (red bean porridge) to nourish the body and warm the heart.
As a teacher, Pian’s influence reached far beyond her Harvard classrooms and her Cambridge home: she broadened the intellectual horizon of a generation of music scholars in China. Pian was the first music scholar from the West to lecture in China after the establishment of the Peoples Republic when she visited in 1974, and in subsequent years, and particularly after the early 1980s, she visited and lectured there regularly and frequently. In formal lectures and informal gatherings, she introduced her Chinese colleagues and students to contemporary Western theories and methods of research in musicology and ethnomusicology, to recent scholarship in Chinese music outside of China, and to her own work. Along with ideas, she also brought gifts of books and recordings, as well as the most advanced electronic equipment, which she would leave in China for her colleagues. Through Pian, a generation of Chinese scholars gained a broader perspective on musical scholarship than would otherwise have been available to them. In 2009, she donated almost the entirety of her personal collection, including over 5,500 items of audio-visual material and 250 boxes of books and notes to the library of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Pian is survived by her three younger sisters, Nova Huang of Changsha, China, Lensey Namioka of Seattle, and Bella Chiu of Arlington MA; her daughter Canta (and husband Michael Lent) of Washington D.C., and her granddaughter Jessica Lent of New York City.
Bell Yung, Robert Provine, Joseph Lam, Amy Stillman, Siu Wah Yu
December 10, 2013