From Wax Cylinders to WeChat: The Strange and Circuitous Journey of Berthold Laufer’s Chinese Recordings

By the early years of the twentieth century, China had suffered unduly at the hands of European, American, and Japanese colonialism. The Chinese citizenry had been deeply dissatisfied with the way the Qing dynasty—itself a foreign dynasty ruled by Manchus—had failed to protect China from the encroachment of increasing numbers of foreign powers. By the time the Republic of China had been formally established in 1912, the Chinese people believed that the fall of the Qing decisively signaled the Manchu’s loss of the mandate to rule and trusted that the new Chinese Republic would finally remove all vestiges of foreign colonial presence. The hope for a country free from the meddling of outside powers was not realized immediately after the founding of the Republic of China, however. The influence of colonialism was so deeply imprinted on China that it would take another several decades of civil and international warfare and internal political struggles in order to begin to free the country from its grasp. 

An example of the longstanding impact of colonialism that began before the Republic and continued well beyond its founding is the ethnographic collection of Chinese culture commissioned by the eminent anthropologist, Franz Boas, for the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1901 and 1902 (Gregorev). The underlying premise of the project was that Chinese people in the early years of the twentieth century represented a pre-industrialized and—dare I say—somewhat less advanced group of people than their European counterparts. Consequently, Berthold Laufer, a German-American Sinologist, was engaged to oversee the collecting of materials representing everyday life in China in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai for the museum. When one visits the museum today, visual artifacts from the Laufer collection representing late Qing-dynasty Chinese culture (and other pre-industrialized non-European cultures) are displayed in the same building—although not on the same floors—in which animal habitats are showcased. 

Berthold Laufer

Due to Laufer’s personal interest in Chinese theater, his collection also includes vocal performances from Beijing and Shanghai, recorded on the relatively new technology of wax cylinders. Given the dates of the Chinese ethnographic project—spanning 1901 and 1902—Laufer’s work represents the world’s oldest attempt to create stereo recordings of performances. The recent discovery of Laufer’s wax cylinders, which seem to have been unacknowledged, or at least grossly under appreciated, until just a few years ago, adds a significant new dimension to our understanding of the ethnographic project. Although the wax cylinders technically belong to the American Museum of Natural History, the majority of Laufer’s wax cylinders are housed at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music where they have been studied by engineers and historians (Feaster). Supported generously by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the cylinders have been reconstructed and digitized as part of the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, which has been charged with digitally preserving all of IU’s valuable audio, video and film holdings (Feaster).

Laufer’s wax cylinders

Laufer’s sound recordings are remarkable not only because of the pioneering way in which he tried to create a kind of stereo sound using wax cylinders, but also because they represent the elusive and transitory sounds of an era about which we otherwise have very little documentation. In order to appreciate Laufer’s efforts, Patrick Feaster, a specialist in the preservation of early sound media at Indiana University Bloomington, explains the particular value of Laufer’s work: “The idea behind making two recordings, one of the voices and one of the instruments, was that when he listened back to the recordings to transcribe them, it would be easier for him to hear what he needed to hear . . . [And although] they don’t sound quite like recordings that were made to be listened to in stereo—because they weren’t—they do give a wonderful sense of being in the space where these sounds were being made” (Cesanek). Thus, the newly digitized archives of Laufer’s recordings enable listeners to hear sounds of the past in a stereo-like ambiance—a feat that no one had previously thought possible from recordings dating back to 1901 and 1902.

While the digitization of Laufer’s cylinders might appear to be of interest only to a few crusty Sinologists and geeky recording engineers, it turns out that the collection has become quite a sensation among many rank-and-file Chinese, not to mention Chinese scholars and amateur musicians (Jin, Xiao and Ling). Professor Xiao Mei of the Shanghai Conservatory put the recordings on “WeChat,” the world’s largest standalone mobile app, in order to make them available to the average person (Xiao and Ling). Consequently, the sounds from Chinese theater and folk song from over 119 years ago are now available to listeners in China and, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. 

Professor Xiao says that she does not look at the return of the materials as “repatriation,” but rather as a kind of “homecoming,” and has made their availability a reason for celebration. But even euphemistically referring to the Laufer collection as a homecoming obscures certain troubling issues associated with the ethnographic project. Shouldn’t Laufer’s removal of artifacts and sound recordings be considered an example of cultural theft, inspired by an ill-conceived premise about the perceived inferiority of pre-industrialized Chinese people? Given the current climate in ethnomusicology and anthropology, many would argue that such a project indeed represents blatant colonialist bias and constitutes the robbery of intangible cultural properties. However, one could also say that the multi-million-dollar funding from the NEH, the painstaking efforts in digitally preserving the recordings, their return to scholars in China, and their subsequent availability to anyone who would like to hear them should be seen as important compensatory gestures, if not complete reparation, for what many today would consider inappropriate behavior on the part of Laufer and his associates. 

Additionally, one has to question whether these cultural artifacts would have survived had they remained in China. Given the civil war between the Nationalist and Communist forces, fought intermittently throughout the first half of the twentieth century, not to mention the war of resistance against the Japanese beginning in 1937 and continuing throughout the duration of World War II, it isn’t clear that the delicate cylinders would have been safe from the ravages of war even if they had never been removed from Chinese soil. Moreover, Laufer’s cylinders might not have escaped the intense scrutiny during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution from 1966-76—a time when many traditional cultural artifacts were destroyed as vestiges of China’s feudal (and we could also add colonial) past. Even if the cylinders had survived the wars and political upheaval, it is also possible that they might simply have been regarded as technologically-obsolete relics of a bygone era, collecting dust in an archive. However, given their unusual discovery at a time when technological expertise and generous funding from the NEH made it possible for their digitization, Laufer’s recordings have become an international phenomenon and, with the additional importance of representing something that had been removed from China at a time when the country had been vulnerable to foreign interference, the recordings have special cachet. 

I am certainly not arguing that the colonialist bias underlying the very premise behind the Laufer collection is justifiable or acceptable in any way. However, I am saying that one needs to be careful in pronouncing blanket judgments against all forms of ethnographic research as we find ourselves in the process of evaluating our current academic work in terms of scholarly intent, concerns about social justice, and the lingering effects of coloniality. What began as an inherently flawed project to collect and remove artifacts and musical sound was redeemed, in part, by the heroic efforts and substantial financial support to digitize, preserve, and make available priceless recordings that we otherwise would not have. And the very real possibility that the recordings might not have survived the political and military traumas that ravaged China throughout the first half of the twentieth century constitutes yet another factor to consider when evaluating the removal of cultural artifacts from their country of origin. While it is highly problematic to engage in any kind of cultural appropriation, this case does suggest that—despite the misguided intentions of Laufer and those who commissioned the work—the convoluted historical journey of Laufer’s collection of wax cylinders argues for a contextualized and nuanced approach in evaluating its ultimate relevance and worth over time.

This post was written by Francesca R. Sborgi Lawson, Humanities Center Marshall Fellow


Cesanek, Jamie. “Stereo recordings believed to be the world’s oldest preserved at IU.” News at IU Bloomington, Arts and Humanities, Bicentennial Priority: A Community of Scholars. July 9, 2020.

Feaster, Patrick. “Phonographic Factors in Berthold Laufer’s Chinese Recordings.” First Recordings from China: The 1901-1902 Cylinders of Berthold Laufer. Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 25, 2020.

Gregorev, Nina. “Laufer China Expedition.” Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History., retrieved on December 4, 2020.

Jin Qiao. “An Astounding Recording of a Two-Stringed Legend: An Interpretation of Shanghai Hu Qin in the Laufer Collection.” First Recordings from China: The 1901-1902 Cylinders of Berthold Laufer. Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 25, 2020.

Xiao Mei and Ling Jiasui. “Repatriation of the Laufer Collection in China.” First Recordings from China: The 1901-1902 Cylinders of Berthold Laufer. Conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, October 25, 2020.

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  1. For a more contemporary, and still controversial, response to these issues, see Barre Toelken’s “The Yellowman Tapes, 1966-1997,” where Toelken as folklorist, collector, and family member grapples with giving back, rather than archiving, his tape-recorded field research:

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