The Broken Zither, the Sage, and the Deaf

Silence, Hearing, and Deafness in Early Chinese Texts

(Dr Avital Rom, University of Cambridge)

Hearing silence is successful perception of an absence of sound. It is not a failure to hear sound.

A deaf man cannot hear silence.

Roy Sorensen, ‘Hearing Silence’

This talk shall examine conceptualisations of the absence of sound in early Chinese texts dating to the Warring States (453221 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–AD 220) periods. Following an analysis of passages relating to silence and soundlessness, I will argue that early Chinese conceptualisations of silence were intrinsically linked with the importance attached to the sense of hearing; and that early Chinese intellectuals perceived the absence of sound in two inherently different ways. On the one hand, the ability to ‘listen to the soundless’ and extricate sound and meaning from within it was considered a sagely quality. On the other hand, deafness, as the failure to hear sound and discern between sound and soundlessness, was framed as a malady and an indicator of ignorance.