The Last of China’s Literati

The Music, Poetry and Life of Tsar Teh-yun


Bell Yung

ISBN : 978-962-209-916-6

Film, Media, Fine Arts

October 2008

200 pages, 6″ x 9″

  • HK$295.00

In this biography of Tsar Teh-yun, centenarian poet, calligrapher, and qin master, Professor Bell Yung tells the story of a life steeped in the refined arts faithful to the traditional way of the Chinese literati. Set in the two cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, this book recounts the experiences of an individual who lived through war, displacement, exile, and unrequited longing for home and for a style of living lost forever. Yet Madame Tsar sustained, as one of its last exemplars, much of that style of living despite being a woman in the largely male world of the refined arts.

The author weaves a picture of an extraordinary but also tragic figure: extraordinary as daughter, wife, mother, and a celebrated musician, poet, and calligrapher; tragic as a member of the literati exiled from Shanghai to Hong Kong and always longing for the lost world of the refined arts. She was known particularly for her accomplishments as a teacher and performer on the qin—instrument par excellence of the literati. The book delves into her teaching method and musical style to a degree rarely found in the literature of this kind, and is thus an important contribution to musicological study.

Through this life of one member of China’s last generation of literati, Professor Yung provides rich material for anyone interested in the cultural and social history of twentieth-century China, especially for those with a special interest in qin music, or the place of women in this period.

Bell Yung was born in Shanghai, grew up in Hong Kong, studied in the United States, and has taught at universities in Hong Kong and the United States. A prolific author on Chinese music, he is currently Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.

“In this unassuming biography of a master qin musician, the author (himself a pre-eminent scholar in Chinese musicology) gives a heart-warming portrait of Tsar Teh-yun, who was a living legend in Hong Kong. It is also evocative of a fading world of literary arts in China, which makes this little book even more precious.” —Leo Ou-fan Lee, Professor of Humanities, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

“Bell Yung’s qin teacher, Tsar Teh-yun, was not only a musician but also a poet, calligrapher, and painter, as befitted a woman the author calls ‘the last of China’s literati.’ Yung’s moving homage deserves a wide readership for its insights into the complex dimensions of traditional elite culture in a life well lived.” —Evelyn Rawski, University Professor, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh

“As a student of Tsar Teh-yun and professor of ethnomusicology, Bell Yung is not only eminently qualified to tell the life story of his qin teacher who lived through the turbulent times of modern China, but also to interpret the ideals and aesthetics of this unique musical instrument to the Western reader.” —Mayching Kao, former Chair Professor of Fine Arts, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

“This book is a biographical study of a remarkable woman—a musician, poet, calligrapher and teacher. But it is much more than that. Madame Tsar’s story provides a lens through which readers—both English- and Chinese-speaking—can view Chinese history and culture of the twentieth century, with its wars, displacements, political and social transformations, and the disappearance of the ‘mandarin’ class of literati, their culture and their way of life. The book is pervaded by an overwhelming sense of loss. Yet there is an undercurrent of optimism, as the author and, through him, the reader discover meaning and value in the culture of their forbearers and in Madame Tsar’s long and admirable life.” —John Spitzer, Chair, Music History and Literature, San Francisco Conservatory of Music