Music for Our (Hi)Stories: Reading Beethoven through Adorno in Alex Kuo’s Chinese Opera


  • Fulvia Sarnelli



Asian American Studies, Transnational American Studies, Alex Kuo, Romantic music and aesthetics, Adorno’s sociology of music


In Alex Kuo’s 1998 short novel Chinese Opera, American pianist Sonny Ling performs for the Chinese audience at the Beijing Concert Hall in the Spring of 1989. The program for his concert, which is also his “political statement,” is “Schumann’s Kreisleriana; Liszt’s Mazeppa Revenge; Beethoven’s Opus 111; No intermission.” The concert represents for Sonny, who does not speak Chinese even though he was born in Chongqing a few years before his parents migrated to the United States, the only and crucial way to establish a transnational communication and alliance with his parents’ people beyond geopolitical and racial hegemonic categorizations.

I read Sonny’s music—which stands as the high art of the Romantic tradition and is deeply connected to the writing activity at multiple levels—in dialogue with Theodor W. Adorno’s philosophy of music as founded on his conceptualization of hope and freedom in Beethoven’s late works. I argue that in Chinese Opera art invites to recover the libertarian and revolutionary connotations and the emphasis on the individual non-conformity inscribed in the Romantic idea of nation, as a way to fight the transnational authoritarian and populist turns of the past and the present.

Author Biography

Fulvia Sarnelli

Fulvia Sarnelli teaches courses in American Literature and Culture at the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and the University of Pisa. Her research interests focus on Asian American literature, diaspora and migration studies, modernist aesthetics between China and the West, the writing of Henry James. She is the author of the monograph Panda in the Promised Land. Soggettività cinese americana tra multiculturalismo liberale e nuove alleanze (La scuola di Pitagora, 2019).


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