Sunhee Koo, "Sound of the Border: Music and Identity of Korean Minority Nationality in China" (U Hawaii Press, 2021)


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When faced with some of the complex identity questions which often arise in borderlands, Koreans in China – known as Chosonjok in Korean, Chaoxianzu in Chinese – have long seemed adept at navigating the shifting demands of being both Chinese and Korean. Sunhee Koo’s new book, Sound of the Border: Music and Identity of Korean Minority Nationality in China (U Hawaii Press, 2021), makes a strong case for Chaoxianzu music being a clear index of this, reflecting as it does the layered cultural worlds of this community living in Yanbian prefecture where China, North and South Korea, and the wider world collide.

Offering an in-depth account of the shifting styles, genres and themes present in Chaoxianzu musical output across the decades, Koo examines the form and content of Korean folksongs and traditional instrumentation, Chinese- and North Korean-inflected socialist propaganda tunes, and more recent commercialised blends of essentialised ‘ethnic’ music and South Korean pop. Woven into the book’s close musical analysis are rich reflections on the often-tumultuous social and political contexts navigated by Chaoxianzu musicians and their publics over time, all of which reveals that from these intersecting cultural worlds has emerged not so much a musical chimera as a varied and distinctive musical tradition in its own right.

Ed Pulford is a Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and indigeneity in northeast Asia.

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