Chinese ditty
August 31, 2011 6:26 AM   Subscribe

You know that stereotypical, cartoonish little jingle that in the past (prior to more enlightened views on race) was used whenever a clearly stereotyped chinese person entered the scene in movies/television/cartoons? Where the hell did that come from and why is that little tune supposed to mean "CHINA"??

There's no way to 'write' the song but everyone in America at least 30 years of age or so would know it - "Ding a ding a ding ding dong dong dong." Where did the originate from? Is it based on anything even remotely chinese or asian? Some traditional chinese folk song? Or was it invented from whole cloth by some early movie orchestra hack because it sounded vaguely 'oriental'? Why? Why that melody?
posted by spicynuts to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
there is a word or term for it, there's a wikipedia page on it (which i can't remember for the life of me!). as i remember from my reading, it never showed up in asian culture until us white people used it for everything asian.
posted by nadawi at 6:29 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

ah-ah! here it is.

oriental riff

(i got there by way of "turning japanese" by the vapors)
posted by nadawi at 6:31 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is explained in the linked material above, but the tl:dr version is it imitates the sounds of traditional Chinese/Asian music by using a pentatonic scale.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:35 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: Wow. I'm going to read that detailed paper, but since we are tl;dr-ing: seems to me most people would never have heard "Asian" music so how would they know that a western scale used to imitate it would sound 'chinese'?
posted by spicynuts at 6:47 AM on August 31, 2011

Well, and also parallel fourths are something that traditional western music tends to avoid, so a passage built out of that interval might strike the listener as something unusual or "alien" in the context of classical music traditions.
posted by mothershock at 7:00 AM on August 31, 2011

Not to thread-jack, but I have always been interested in little leitmotifs like the "Asian riff."

Does anyone have a good link to research about whether this is universal or just cultural conditioning? So strange that our brains are programed to respond to little things like a choice of scale or a few notes with an emotional response (e.g. minor scale = dread).

See TVtropes here and here.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:15 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: Additionally, Wretch729, it would be fun to see if other cultures have 'American' musical tropes.
posted by spicynuts at 7:16 AM on August 31, 2011

Bare parallel fifths on a pentatonic scale sound "primitive," so it might be an appealing way to depict "foreign" cultures. I feel like this is also used a lot to represent Native Americans (not the exact motif, but parallel fifths and pentatonic scales).
posted by John Cohen at 7:31 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: odinsdream, that song was written and produced by Americans so it's not what I'm getting at.
posted by spicynuts at 7:52 AM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

The detailed paper makes the case for this riff to have originated in 19th century American music so that by the time of Tin Pan Alley it was already been automatically associated by listeners as "Chinese music". But it was highly improbable the composer or their audience would have ever heard real Chinese music themselves and so besides the riff itself, additional aural and visual cues would have been necessary to plant the idea that this was "Chinese". Given that the use of a pentatonic scale already sounds "foreign", it wouldn't have been that hard to convince someone of the era it was from China.
posted by tommasz at 8:19 AM on August 31, 2011

posted by elsietheeel at 8:27 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster: I wonder if the Tin Pan Alley era was due to the high numbers of Chinese immigrants to NYC in the early 1900s and the subsequent fashion of going down town to opium dens.
posted by spicynuts at 8:34 AM on August 31, 2011

Response by poster:
More of a whole pastiche than a single trope, but pretty awesome nonetheless.

That is freakin awesome but I was thinking more like...let's say...A Soviet film and suddenly an American enters the scene. Is there a ditty that triggered "American" to Soviet audiences like this little "Chinese" ditty triggers "Asian" to American audiences?

However, we're getting into me using this thread to ask a second question so maybe I'll let it be.
posted by spicynuts at 8:36 AM on August 31, 2011

the problem with finding something like the oriental ditty that screams american to foreign audiences is that we export a lot of our entertainment so they don't really have to make up what we're like. there's stereotyping from what we export (a lot of europeans seem to have john wayne accents when they make fun of americans), but not so much "we've created this piece of music because our audience will have no idea it's not actually american."
posted by nadawi at 8:44 AM on August 31, 2011

There was a lot of Orientalism in Western art and music in the 19th century in general; Tin Pan Alley composers might not have been familiar with actual Chinese music, but they probably *were* familiar with Western interpretations and remixes of Chinese music.
posted by mskyle at 9:17 AM on August 31, 2011

I'm afraid this is one of those popular culture questions where the topic is too ephemeral (a sound) and the trail peters out in the era before the advent of recorded sound.

Reinforcing msklye, it's worth noting that the late 19th century saw the "Opening of Japan", "Opium Wars" in China, the height of the British Empire and other novel aspects of east-west contact.

There's a conceptually similar musical motif that used to get played over scenes of 'Indian' villages and/or attacking warriors in American movies, TV, etc. Alway comped by the "BOOM boom boom boom BOOM boom boom boom" tom-tom rhythm, it sounds like a brass fanfare -- odd that, since by and large, Native Americans didn't play the trumpet much before the Europeans arrived.

You know: "DAAA da da DA-da-dat DAAAH!"

I'd love to know where that one came from, too!

This N. A brass fanfare has since been replaced by the ubiquitous breathy vibrato-laden nose flute sound as the cliched audio signature whenever Native Americans appear.

I don't know the source(s) of these motifs, but I'd like to propose several vectors:

1) Accompaniment for silent movies (1890s - 1930s).
2) American composer Ferde Grofe (1892 - 1972).
3) Carl Stallings' work for Warner Brothers cartoons (1891 - 1972).
posted by Herodios at 10:50 AM on August 31, 2011

Best answer: Additionally, Wretch729, it would be fun to see if other cultures have 'American' musical tropes.

No specifically American, and a little ambiguous in context of the story, but it's the only example I could pin point: Freddie from the Japanese cartoon Cromartie High School.

The joke is more that the guy is this silent character that has an uncanny resemblance to Freddie Mercury, but the possibility of him being a foreigner is kind of hinted at (or just that he looks like one). A lot of times, when he makes his appearance in the show, he has a Queen-like soaring guitar riff theme that plays.

But this non-example is sort of the prime example of what I saw growing up in Korea, consuming Asian culture and media. Musical cues are more or less used only in exaggerated comedic circumstances. And even when they are, it's not a common "Here comes the Westerners" theme that gets used consistently. Also it's character AND culture specific.

For example, a French character might have baroque-y harpsichord music play when they start talking or make an entrance, but not just if they're French. The character is usually someone who acts really snobby or high-falutin' as well. But they'd use the same song for an Asian character acting snooty. Same with American. They don't just cue the guitar heavy rock because an American walks on screen, usually they are also over the top "YEA AMERICAN!!!" with jeans, sunglasses and an American flag bandanna, just rocking out. But they'd probably use that same song for an Asian character who's heavily into rock-and-roll or a rockabilly.

Not saying it doesn't happen though, just saying that there's not really a discernible leit motif that says America. But if it came down to it most often it will probably be a generic rock or hip hop sounding clip.

And Asians do it to each other too. I remember Ranma 1/2 used to do a lot of "this is Chinese" song. For the cartoon episodes (since a lot of the characters lived in or come from China, the musical cue just seemed to just be a huge underlying motif), especially for Shampoo. (And if you're all "OMGWTF, why does the English dub give her that horrible "Chinese-y" accent, her broken speech was part of her original characterization the bled through in other dubs. The point was she'd just come from China, so she wasn't fluent and had an accent. I remember even the Korean dubs sprinkled her speech with "ni hao", "lai lai"s and other stereotypical Korean Chineseisms).
posted by kkokkodalk at 5:00 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

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