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Apr 29 2022

Songs of Tragic Love: Young Scholars and Beautiful Courtesans on Pearl River’s Flower Boats

Flower Boat, reproduction from Paul Van Dyke, “Floating Brothels and the Canton Flower Boats 1750–1930,” Revista de Cultura, no. 37 (January 2011): 112-42.

World Music Center Distinguished Scholar Series

Songs of Tragic Love: Young Scholars and Beautiful Courtesans on Pearl River's Flower Boats

Lecture by Bell Yung
Emeritus Professor
University of Pittsburgh


A volume of about 100 poems called Yue’ou, Cantonese Songs, was published in 1827, which features mainly the voices of courtesans on Pearl River’s pleasure boats (which disappeared in about 1930) who sang to their lovers with tenderness, yearning, and often despair; or the voice of the author Zhao Ziyong, who warns the women and men to not fall in love in ways that always had heart-breaking endings. These songs became celebrated because of their path-breaking use of Cantonese language; such natural colloquialism also enhances the songs’ expressivity and poignancy. The women’s fate adds to the sadness of these songs - sold to their “mother” as little girls, they were trained in the fine arts of pleasing men, including singing and playing the pipa; at around thirteen, they assumed the role of courtesans. Living in opulent furnishings of the flower boats, their best hope was to become someone’s concubine, the worst fate being banishment onto the streets when their beauty faded. This talk will feature a rare recording of a Yue’ou song sung in 1980 by an elderly woman who was a blind professional singer during the flower boats’ heyday.

Bell Yung 荣鸿曾, an ethnomusicologist specializing on China, is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He holds doctorates from MIT (Physics) and Harvard (Music), and an honorary doctorate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has published 10 books and over 100 articles in journals and edited volumes; the most recent are the Chinese edition of his 2008 book The Last of China’s Literati: The Music, Poetry, and Life of Tsar Teh-yun (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing香港三联书店, 2022), “Wu Song Kills the Tiger: Transcription and translation of a Cantonese narrative song from a live performance, with an introduction” (Chinoperl: Journal of Chinese Oral and Performing Literature, 2021), “A Cognitive Analysis of the Expressivity of Qin Performance: Towards a re-definition of music 从认知观点剖析文人琴娱己的表现力——给音乐下新定义” (Chinese Music 中国音乐,
2021), “From Humble Beginnings to Qin Master: The remarkable cross-fertilization of folk and elite cultures in Yao Bingyan’s dapu music” (Lee Tong Soon, Routledge Handbook of Asian Music, 2021), “A Heuristic Theory of Metrical Transformation and Tune
Metamorphosis: Tracking Creativity in Traditional Cantonese Opera” (Ethnomusicology, 2020), “Exploring Creativity in Traditional Music” (Yearbook for Traditional Music, 2019), and the forthcoming “The Scholar and the Courtesan: Love Songs on Pearl River’s Flower Boats” (Chinoperl, 2022).

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This event is FREE! No RSVP required. Early arrival is recommended.


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