Research Q&A: Andrew Jones, East Asian Languages and Cultures

smiling man with glasses gazes off camera with books in background
Prof. Jones as a visiting scholar in Beijing, China
November 27, 2023

Andrew F. Jones, Louis B. Agassiz Professor in Chinese, teaches modern Chinese literature and media culture. Among other works, he is the author of a trio of books on modern Chinese music: Like a Knife: Ideology and Genre in Contemporary Chinese Popular Music (Cornell East Asia Series, 1992), Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Duke University Press, 2001), and Circuit Listening: Chinese Popular Music in the Global 1960s (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). He was co-editor of a special issue of positions: east asia cultures critique entitled The Afro-Asian Century, and translator of literary fiction by Yu Hua as well as Eileen Chang's Written on Water (Columbia University Press, 2005; New York Review of Books 2023). Professor Jones also leads the Asian Studies MA program at Berkeley.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How does music offer a lens into 20th century Chinese culture and politics? And how does the examination of Chinese music broaden the conversation about global cross-pollination, both culturally and musically?

Especially in the 20th century, music was really inseparable from larger social movements and political movements as well as technological change in China. My book Yellow Music traces the origins of modern popular music in China back to the emergence of modern media culture. 

That happened largely in Shanghai, which was a crossroads for people from the world over, including White Russians who fled the Revolution as well as a fairly sizable population of Jewish refugees. Some of the early composers and band leaders at Pathé EMI — which was the major record company in China at that time — were Russian Jewish refugees. In the course of doing the research, I came across something that I don't think had been written about previously: that there was a pretty sizable community of African American jazz musicians in Shanghai at that time. Buck Clayton, the main trumpet player for Count Basie’s orchestra, got his start as a bandleader in Shanghai. I hadn't expected to find a story about early collaborations and influences of black American jazz music on Chinese pop music, but there it was. 

It also tells the story of one of the fathers of modern Chinese popular music, Li Jinhui. Li’s first goal was to promote Mandarin as a national language. (Mandarin only goes back about 120 years as a modern national standard, although colloquial vernacular Chinese is of course older.) Li Jinhui’s older brother wrote the first grammar of modern standard Chinese, and Li started to write songs in hopes of teaching schoolkids how to speak this new invented standard language. He was gradually drawn into the modern media industry because he began to sell records and publish children's operas. 

So Yellow Music brings together a very distinctive story about Chinese nation-building and building a new language with the emergence of modern media culture, including transnational companies like Pathé. 

What drew you to this topic of popular music as a cultural lens? 

There's both a personal and an intellectual trajectory. I grew up listening to records from Jamaica that we picked up when we went back home to see family. I always felt that was a conduit to other worlds, and a conduit into thinking about history. When you listen to Jamaican reggae, you realize that it's always placing the current moment within the penumbra of slavery and the dark shadow of the Middle Passage as well as the sense of temporarily sojourning on this island unwillingly. There's even a lot of reference to indigenous people and the way they were displaced. So from very early on, I thought that if music was a way to understand my own heritage and background it could also be a conduit or a lens into whatever place I happened to be interested in. 

When I was an undergrad, I went to Beijing University to study Chinese and Chinese literature. That was in 1988, just before the emergence of the Tiananmen Square student movement. It was a rapidly changing sound world, and the moment in which a new Chinese rock and roll first emerged. I got involved in that scene and met many of the musicians, went to concerts… I was totally fascinated by what was happening. 

At the same time in college, I started reading British cultural studies, especially Stuart Hall. (I didn't know at the time that he was from Jamaica.) I felt really empowered by work that took popular culture seriously, and I realized that I could also do serious academic work on these topics. I was also reading a lot of pre-modern Chinese poetry at that time, and I realized that these things weren't as separate as I had imagined. My undergrad thesis on Chinese rock music and popular music became my first book, published right after I came to Berkeley as a grad student. And the rest is history, as they say.

You also translated Eileen Chang’s Written on Water. Could you tell us about the book and why you wanted to bring it to English-speaking audiences? 

Eileen Chang is an absolutely iconic figure in Chinese literature. People always say she's one of the greatest women writers in modern Chinese literature. I prefer to say she's one of the greatest writers of Chinese literature — period. She’s an amazing stylist who works in short stories, as well as essay forms, which I particularly enjoy as a reader. 

A lot of my translations emerged out of teaching: I couldn't teach a modern Chinese literature course without including such a brilliant personality. So I started to translate the essays by her that I would like my students to read, and it developed into a larger project. Eileen Chang was from Shanghai, from a rather aristocratic background that had begun to fall on hard times. She went to University of Hong Kong, but then the war forced her to go back to Shanghai under Japanese occupation. In four years of the war she wrote two books, Romances and Written on Water. Basically, her whole literary legacy and her reputation rest on those two books. 

There's also a Berkeley angle: she came to Berkeley in 1967 as a visiting researcher at the Center for Chinese Studies, and wrote a study of the Dream of the Red Chamber here, as well as the research on communist language that she was hired to do. 

My initial translation of Written on Water came out in 2005 from Columbia University Press. You're never really satisfied with a translation, so when the New York Review of Books expressed an interest in reprinting the Columbia translation, I asked to make revisions. The updated translation came out in 2023. 

You're the faculty lead for the Asian Studies MA program. Berkeley offers relatively few terminal MA programs in languages and literatures. Why is this one important, and how do you hope to expand it?

The program goes back to the 1970s, so it has 50 years of history. It's important because it's a stepping stone or a bridge for students who may not have had the opportunity in their undergraduate institutions to study Asian languages and cultures in depth. When they come here, they have the flexibility to experiment with various disciplines and make use of the amazing resources we have here at Cal to develop their sensibilities for scholarship, and then they go on either to PhD programs or into fields like NGOs, public service, etc. 

If you look at the landscape of Asian Studies or East Asian studies across the U.S. and in Europe, it's not a field with a great deal of diversity of representation of non-Asian or non-white people. I want Berkeley to become a flagship for serving those populations as well as welcoming more people from California State Universities and different levels of the tertiary educational system here in California. We have done outreach to community colleges with Asian language programs as well as to HBCUs, letting program coordinators and chairs know about the resources that we have at Cal. 

We get a lot of applications from people who grew up in the rich cultural matrix of Los Angeles, you know, where Koreatown is right next to East LA and people are absorbing each other’s foods and each other's cultures. If we can serve that kind of constituency — that's emerging out of who we are as Californians — that makes a lot of sense for the University of California. 

How does your research inform your teaching and advising?

Those things are inseparable. On a day-to day-level, I do a lot more teaching and advising than research. For both teaching and advising, I draw on my experience as a researcher to help students understand how to ask questions, or how to formulate good questions. 

My academic work comes directly into the classroom through my translation of Chinese authors like Yu Hua, a contemporary Chinese author who is enjoying a huge renaissance right now. I was his first translator into English. He became very, very well known —  probably one of the most well-known writers in China these days — and he has become a kind of truth-telling figure for young people through his social media presence. My students were so excited that I knew him; I got a little bit of his reflected glory. 

As for teaching, this may sound silly, but my family and friends would recognize that I am someone who enjoys show and tell. Sharing the things that I have been deeply imprinted by in my research — musical works or works of literature that I find beautiful and inspiring — and passing on that enthusiasm and engagement to students is really important to me.