Posted by: Bob Fisher | November 24, 2011

The Intrinsic Melody of Chinese Music

The ethics of music

The concert took place in the Yee Hong Geriatric Centre; a peaceful venue for the contemplation of the meaning of music, song, and eldership.

Like a succession of single tones in any musical composition, the concert was a tribute to the residents of this wonderful facility who, each in his or her own way, is approaching the end of their days.

The concert also celebrated the harmony of human existence: peace, friendship, and the artful blend of the human voice and music.

The Chinese Diaspora

There is little doubt that human beings are a migratory species. However, even though most of us moved beyond the transient stage in our evolution and “settled down” in permanent communities — in which our diverse cultures soon began to take root — many of us continued, of necessity, to migrate throughout the world.

There are of course many historical, economic, and sociological reasons why human culture (in its various hues and shades) continued to spread far from and beyond the initial “borders” in which it developed; but history shows how these migrations also contributed to the mosaic of other indigenous cultures, and to human culture in general.

It is worthwhile attempting to get an overview of the enormous contributions that Chinese culture has made to global culture — and to many of our individual national cultures.

The numbers speak for themselves

Worldwide, there are an estimated 40,000,000 “Overseas Chinese.” These are people of Chinese birth or descent; and we must not forget the additional numbers of individuals of partial Chinese ancestry who may also consider themselves as belonging to the Chinese diaspora.

The latter term, by the way, is from the Greek and means dispersion. It also has connotations of forced exile, and a collective migration out of the traditional homeland. Also implied in the term is the immigrant experience of living as a minority in a majority culture.

In many nations around the world, this minority cultural experience has often been the norm for Overseas Chinese, and a significant hardship. In Canada for example, where I live, people of Chinese descent are the largest non-European ethnic origin in our nation today; and the fifth largest of any ethnic origin in Canada other than English or French. Most were also born outside Canada. In fact, when you include all Chinese dialects and the two principal languages of Mandarin and Cantonese, Chinese is the third largest mother tongue in Canada after English and French.

Integration and heritage preservation

The Chinese people have always been a migratory culture. As early as the Ming Dynasty they were exploring trade opportunities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Different waves of emigration (and subsequently immigration) followed to regions as diverse as North America, Oceania, the Caribbean, Latin America, South Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia. In the 19th century, the age of colonialism was at its height and the many multinational colonies far from their cultural homelands required labourers, and China often supplied a pool of such workers. These people of course were most often economic refugees and frequently they worked in backbreaking and dangerous jobs such as the building of railroads and mining. This, as I have indicated, was how Canada’s transcontinental railways completed the east-west natural flow of which the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes were the first stage in the longest freshwater waterway to the interior of the North American continent.

As economic refugees, these migrant Chinese struggled long and hard to improve their lives and to successfully integrate into the “host” nation.

This was not always easy as racism and other forms of discrimination often relegated them to the status of second class citizens. However, as difficult as their lives were overseas (often living isolated existences; for example along the route of the aptly named Canadian Pacific Railway where even today you can find small Chinese businesses in the smallest of communities) what they did manage to do was to hang on to their culture.

And as we all know, language is the core of any culture.

In many ways the Chinese who emigrated throughout the world became role models for preserving thousands of years of history and art, while at the same time contributing to infrastructure-building far from “home.”

And they continued to speak Chinese — and to express their love of music.

Audio selections from the concert

The Choir: selection one

Chanelle Tseng’s piano solo

Choir leader Lily Tong’s Magic Flute solo

The Choir sings a Russian folk song

Chanelle Tseng and Taylor Cao: a piano duet of Schubert’s Military March

The ensemble plays a song using traditional Chinese instruments

A flute duet

Panis Angelicus by Lily Tong

Taylor Cao’s vigourous piano solo

The Choir: finale

Watch the video

To watch the video, click on this link.

Images and imagery from the concert

The evening’s programme

Other resources

The Yee Hong Geriatric Centre

Other China stories from The Philosophical Traveller

China Then China Now

The Chinese Diaspora: A Brief Look at the Power of Culture

An Evening of Traditional Chinese Music — and Eldership



  1. Hi, Bob

    Nice meeting you in Stouffville Hospital while I was taking the saline drip. Thanks for bring me that warm blanket.
    I am very impressed in your sharp obversation and insight on many things you experineced in your trips to so many great places. You even knonw better than a real Chinese like me on Chinese traditional music.
    Well, all the best and good luck to your successful career.

    Charlie Zhang

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