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Lyrics as literature 

Ohio State professor offers new perspective on cultural diversity

Chase Stevens | The Rebel Yell

Interpreting song lyrics as a literature device can aid in furthering and bettering the understanding of cultures during different time periods and in relations to different groups of individuals, an Ohio State University professor said.

In “Whose Afraid of Khubilai Khan? A New Perspective on Diversity in Yuan Chinese Musical Culture,” a lecture by Patricia Sieber, Ph.D., and associate professor of East Asian Languages and Literature at Ohio State University stated that lyrics of ancient songs can been viewed as literature and used as a tool to understand cultural diversity.

“We should see these songs as one chapter in the unfolding history of Chinese as a world literary language,” Sieber said.

Sieber explained the culture of music and song in China during Marco Polo’s time. Although the melodies of many songs have been lost, most of the lyrics survived, but these lyrics can help understand diversity in a different time and give insight into a medieval diversity that is seemingly understated.

During the time of Marco Polo’s stay at the palace of Khubilai Khan, the founder of the Yuan Dynasty during the thirteenth and 14th century, he recorded in his journals on what occasions music was played and why music was played.

The lyrics to these songs were used for major court functions such as royal birthdays, New Year’s celebrations and for court audiences such as when Khubilai Khan was entertaining foreign ambassadors, according to Sieber.

Many times, these musical events included the same songs which were sung acapella by women, who also were active in the urban musical culture during the Yuan period. The participation by women are examples of diversity and equality in Yuan culture, Sieber stated.

The inspiration for these lyrics are diverse from the palace, to urban and rural life, as well as the different ethnicity’s that were united under the Yuan dynasty. Due in part to the fact that song writers and musicians were relocated to the capital, many aspects of their local culture influenced their songs.

“What is important here, is seeing this urban and rural origin, is the imperial heritage for this song writing,” Sieber said.

In evaluating these song lyrics as literature, a new appreciation for medieval diversity in historically and socially specific ways is created.

By studying these lyrics there is a distinct picture of the different people present and influential throughout Asia during Polo’s time there.

In this period, many writers may not have been of Chinese ethnicity, but scholars accredit these songs to the Chinese because those writers were culturally stimulated, Sieber said, adding that the songs and lyrics are the dynamic creation of those who lived during the Yuan dynasty.

“In short, what I am trying to suggest is that these songs might be yet another reason why world historians might justly claim that the Mongol empire was one of the transformative cultures in modern age,” Sieber said.

Lyrics from the Yuan period can be used to understand the relations between different people throughout Asia such as students, military officials and artists, who all participated in songwriting as well as locals and non-locals in that community, Sieber said.

Many different members of society were educated and specialized in writing lyrics, continued Sieber.

Through studying these lyrics, Sieber stated that many conventional concepts characteristic of Yuan culture do not correlate with more modern understanding of ethnic discrimination, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.

“We need to rethink the way we view how these songs play a role in world literature and in world history,” she said.

Contact Camalot Todd at [email protected]

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