Lives in Chinese Music edited by Helen Rees University of Illinois Press, HK$468 Individualism - you may have heard - is not widely considered a cardinal value of Chinese culture. Fair or not, this long-standing view of China has influenced generations of scholarship in all fields: a timeless, cyclical country of all-powerful emperors and bamboo-hatted peasants menaced by the occasional barbarian invasion. More sensitive, discriminating studies have largely put an end to this, and less clich?d pictures of the mainland are emerging in studies of politics, history, literature, culture and the arts. In the last, there is Chinese music, appreciated for its full richness of regional variation within the mainland but often reduced to a caricature of Peking opera, guzheng zithers and sugary pop outside the country's borders. Everyone and everything - from western academia, the central government's official views and Chinese musicians to the concepts and definitions of music - is challenged and critically considered in Lives in Chinese Music, the first volume to focus on individual musicians (plus a Chinese musicologist). The articles are by academics, but generally written in an accessible, journalistic style - sometimes too accessible, because it would have been rewarding to see more transcribed songs, or perhaps a CD included for the enjoyment of some of the music described. Still, the narrative style - with only a few lapses into the sort of academic jargon that makes reading this type of collection a perilous undertaking - complements perfectly the book's goal of bringing individual characters out of the woodwork to illuminate aspects of Chinese musical tradition. The Yangtze River Delta emerges as an astonishingly rich cradle of Chinese musical activity: three essays are devoted, respectively, to a folk singer in the Jiangsu countryside, a Shanghainese opera master and legendary guqin player Tsar Teh-yun, who made Hong Kong her home while retaining her Shanghainese cultural milieu. Their personal and artistic paths illuminate key moments of Chinese history and their influence on culture, often in surprising ways: the story of Huju star Shao Binsun, for instance, challenges the notion of draconian Communist Party control over all art forms. The evolution of Huju - like Peking opera, a form that seems timeless but is of comparatively recent vintage - had political aspects but its practitioners were often activists and were not, initially, constantly under the party's thumb. The late Professor Yang Yinliu is considered the father of Chinese musicology and the essay that chronicles his life is also one man's tale of Christianity, modern music and modern scholarly ideas filtering into the mainland. Meanwhile, the mainland's system of managing ethnic minorities - and their culture - receives close scrutiny in two essays that describe prominent Uygur musician Teng Ge'er. There is palpable tension between the musician's placement within a Central Asian-Islamic cultural tradition versus the mainland government's preferred label as part of China's ethnic culture. The Teng Ge'er appraisal, however, is a fascinating meditation on co-option by - and subversion of - the state featuring Teng's conflicts and collaborations with the authorities. A HK$468 price tag is hefty for a comparatively short volume that includes no samples of music. So consider sharing the cost with a friend if you would like an intimate, three-dimensional, highly engaging view of the personalities important to the understanding of China's musical traditions.