Top of page

Music and a Mystery to Celebrate the Chinese New Year

Share this post:

Chinese musicians holding a gong, drum, and cymbals.
Chinese Band, ca. 1904. The traditional instruments shown in this photo are often used in Chinese operas. These include a drum, cymbals, and a gong, held by performers. The man on the far left appears to be playing percussion on a drum stand. In the back are stringed instruments (a sanxian, an erhu, and an instrument related to the erhu), a flute, and a belled wind instrument. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Happy Chinese New Year! The Year of the Rooster begins on Saturday, January 28th.  To celebrate, here are four recordings of Chinese music recorded on Victor in 1902 and 1903.  We hope that someone reading this article might be able to tell us more about these songs.

The recordings are part of the collections of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress and can be  found in the National Jukebox. We do not know the song titles or the names of the performers. By talking to experts on Chinese culture so far, we have learned that the language is Cantonese (later issues of Chinese music on Victor were marked “Cantonese”). Selections 2 through 4 below, recorded in 1903, seem to be selections from a Cantonese opera or operas. The first selection, a duet recorded in 1902, may also be from an opera or it might be a traditional song. The Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) at the University of California at Santa Barbara gives no titles but tentatively lists them has having been recorded in Philadelphia, although the label says “Camden, NJ.” The DAHR does list a troupe that was recorded on other discs earlier in 1903, possibly in Philadelphia, the Chinese Opera Company. So this is a possible name for the ensemble, or one ensemble, on these recordings. To me, all this makes the songs intriguing, an interesting mystery that we would like to solve.  But as they are, the songs and music are delightful, even for those of us who can’t understand the words.

Here are the Victor recordings found in the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox. The “part” notes on three of the recordings might indicate that these selections recorded in August 1903 were all part of one opera. Additional recordings of Chinese songs may become available in future updates of the National Jukebox. This link will take you to the items as they appear in the National Jukebox, including the record label for each recording. (This article continues below.)

Chinese Recording Label
A recording label for one of the unidentified recordings of Chinese songs. The labels may include information that will help identify the songs, but they have not yet been translated. This one was recorded on November 17, 1902.

Most of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the mid to late 19th century were from Guangdong province and spoke Cantonese. The majority were men who provided support services for the construction of railroads and for the mining industry in Western states — beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1849. Initially this wave of immigration was encouraged by the United States. But anti-Asian sentiments led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that placed a ten-year moratorium on immigration from China. The laws of the time did not allow Chinese to marry European Americans, and, although the Exclusion Act allowed for men to send for brides and family members, the immigration policies as practiced made this difficult. Despite these hardships, Chinese communities grew in urban centers, particularly in western states and in some eastern cities.  It is these communities that Victor saw as consumers of the Chinese music that they recorded.

The origins of Chinese opera in Guangdong are not certain. It is thought to have arisen in the 13th century as a result of influence from the operas in Northern China. Northern opera arose from folk dramas that were originally from southern China, so interaction between the south and the north figures in sung dramas before opera arose in China. The plots are from Chinese history, classical literature, epics, and myths.  The stories often carry social lessons, and were intended to be educational as well as entertaining. Performances included acrobatics, dance, and martial arts as well as singing. The musicians used traditional instruments, as you can hear in these recordings. So these performances are quite different from European opera and contain many features of Chinese traditional music and song.

Cantonese Opera became popular in Hong Kong, where was popular with people who fled southern provinces during the regime change of the 1950s. In 1957 the Mao regime purged artists, including the opera tradition it had formerly supported, favoring only new artistic expressions that supported the new China, such as operas about the 1949 revolution. At the time in opera in Hong Kong thrived, but it declined during the later 20th century and there are few troupes performing it today, although there are current efforts to revitalize it. The music in the United States became less popular as Chinese Americans adopted American culture. Consequently there are not many people with the knowledge to identify these recordings. But those who are interested in revitalizing Chinese musical traditions may find these recordings all the more valuable for the information they contain.


Chinese American Song,” in The Library of Congress Presents the Songs of America.

Chinese recordings in the National Jukebox.

Liu, Marjory Bong-Ray, “Kunqu: China’s First Great Multi-art Theatrical Tradition,” a lecture on northern Kunqu opera presented at the Library of Congress, 2009. (video, 48 minutes)

Min, Du Jun, “The Development of Chinese Records to 1911,” in Antique Phonograph News, January-February 2008.

Min, Du Jun, “The Development of Chinese Records from the Qing Dynasty to 1918,” in Antique Phonograph News, January-February 2009.

Comments (9)

  1. Thank you, Stephanie, for another timely, well-researched and entertaining post. The recordings are amazing. It would be helpful if a Cantonese speaker from the Library of Congress’s Asian division could add some translation, or a synopsis of what’s going on, but it’s still cool to just listen to the music and hear how it gives way to some sort of recitative.

    Thanks again and please keep the variety coming.

    • Thanks. We have asked and we have been told that what we need is an expert in Cantonese opera. These pieces are quite old, and language changes over time. But because there is a revival of Cantonese opera now, I am hopeful that we might learn more about the songs someday. Getting the recordings out there may also be valuable to performers who want to know what the operas sounded like in the early 20th century.

  2. Where is Nora Yeh when we need her!

    • Yes. Well, Nora has listened to these and is very interested in them. But she speaks Mandarin, not Cantonese.

  3. Excellent! Thanks very much for posting this. I think Philadelphia is the most likely location, too, although some have also floated San Francisco as the troupe’s origin and recording location. Someday I hope we find out!

  4. Another mystery for me is: How did you “liberate” the MP3s from the National Jukebox to repost them here? Your links are downloadable but the NatJuke isn’t, and I’ve been trying in vain to unlock their secret for months….

    • Thanks for your interest. The recordings in the National Jukebox are set up to stream. We are able to stream them as examples on Library of Congress blogs as well, but they are not available as downloadable MP3s at this time.

  5. To correct my earlier comment… in the photo, the instruments on the table– farthest left, the 2-strings instrument related to erhu (huqin family) could be a jinghu made of bamboo body, instead of a gaohu which is also small but made of wood body. Both are high-pitched bowed stringed instruments. Huqin instruments are often called Chinese violins or spike fiddles.

    • Thank you!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.