Sacred dance of 5 lamas, China. Photograph by Berthold Laufer. Image #336284
Sacred dance of 5 lamas, China, Image #336284, American Museum of Natural History Library


Location: China, Beijing and Shanghai
Dates: 1901-1904
Format:  Phonograph cylinder
Accession Number: 54-150-F

Berthold Laufer (1874-1934) was one of the most respected sinologists of the early 20th century. Shortly after emigrating from Germany to the United States, famed anthropologist Franz Boas recruited Laufer for the Jesup North Pacific Expedition, during which Laufer conducted ethnographic fieldwork between 1898 and 1899 on the Amur River and Sakhalin Island. Laufer was asked soon thereafter to lead the Jacob H. Schiff Chinese Expedition on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History. Laufer - the only person on the "expedition" -  spent over three years traveling China collecting cultural artifacts that showcased the arts and pre-industrialized customs still common in China. In that time, he collected over 7,500 objects of Chinese culture that were sent to the American Museum of Natural History, dramatically expanding the museum's holdings from East Asia. 

Laufer recorded a wide array of folk music, Beijing opera, and music to accompany dramas and shadow plays. The ATM holds 400 phonograph cylinders made between 1901 and 1902 throughout China, along with accompanying notes, translations, and references. The quality of the recordings is remarkably good for the time period and they are also the earliest known sound recordings made in China. This collection is one of several collections deposited at ATM by the American Museum of Natural History recorded by late 19th and early 20th century anthropologists. The Laufer recordings are now available for streaming on Media Collections Online.

Sample: Unidentified Perfomer. 1901. The Song of Lady Meng Jiang|孟姜⼥调 (Mèng Jiāng Nǚ diao). Shanghai, China. (54-150-F: SCY 2923). This is the earliest extant recording of the "Song of Lady Meng Jiang," an old and very popular tune among folksongs throughout China with many variations in terms of singing dialects, melodic ornamentation, localized styles, and lyrics.