Rulan Pian, 91; Chinese music scholar, Harvard professor

A portrait of professor Rulan C. Pian (right) was unveiled at the Cabot House, where she had served as housemaster at Harvard University.
A portrait of professor Rulan C. Pian (right) was unveiled at the Cabot House, where she had served as housemaster at Harvard University. (2008 file/Harvard University News Office)

As a scholar of Chinese music and teacher of Chinese language at Harvard University for 45 years, Rulan Pian wrote papers and a book that illuminated the history and technical aspects of music created centuries ago.

A mentor to generations of Harvard students, she also became, with her husband, the university’s first minority housemasters when they were named housemasters in 1975 of what is now Cabot House.

Several years ago, her portrait was unveiled at Harvard, and it is now displayed in a university building, an honor that for years was conferred overwhelmingly on white males.

“I remember taking her over to Harvard to see the painting, which was then in one of the Harvard museums,” said her daughter, Canta Pian of Washington, D.C. “She was clearly awed by the honor. She became a full professor at a time when Harvard University as a whole had hardly any women of such rank, and when women of color were even rarer.”

Dr. Pian, an ethnomusicologist and professor emeritus at Harvard, died of pulmonary fibrosis Nov. 30 in her Cambridge home. She was 91.


“Rulan was a true pioneer in so many ways,” said Alexander Rehding, chairman of Harvard’s music department. “She held a joint appointment between the department of East Asian languages and cultures and the music department. Nothing less than this rare arrangement between two very different departments would have been appropriate for her boundary-crossing expertise.”

Rehding, the Fanny Peabody professor of music, added that “she was truly a special person and occupies a unique place in Harvard’s history.”

When Bell Yung was a Harvard graduate student, he lived in Dr. Pian’s home for six months.

“I stayed in her basement and wrote my dissertation into the wee hours,” said Yung, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.


“She would come down to the basement in the middle of the night with hot chocolate, cookies, or Chinese snacks to give me a break from my work,” Yung said. “She was always generous to her students. For example, she’d let her students use her private library anytime for any duration.”

Dr. Pian was born Rulan Chao on April 20, 1922, in Cambridge, and was exposed early on to Harvard, where her father, linguist and composer Y.R. Chao, taught. The family moved to Paris, Washington, and to cities in China before returning to the United States permanently when she was 16.

She graduated from Rad-cliffe College with a bachelor’s degree in Western music history in 1944. A year later, she married Theodore H.H. Pian, who became a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He died in 2009.

She began her career at Harvard as a Chinese language teaching assistant. In 1960, she received a doctorate from Harvard in East Asian languages and music.

Her book “Sonq Dynasty Musical Sources and Their Interpretation,” received the Otto Kinkeldey Award in 1968 from the American Musicological Society as the year’s most distinguished book in musicology.

Dr. Pian was “particularly supportive to young scholars,” said Yu Siu Wah of Hong Kong, who met her in 1975.

“Once I got to Harvard in 1985, she urged me to start with the studies of Western and Chinese music history, on historical sources in particular, which is more the concern of a historical musicologist,” said Wah, an associate music professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.


Dr. Pian, he added, was a nurturing presence.

“She was very meticulous in her comments on your writing and was a keen editor,” Wah said. “On the other hand, she was also like a mother who would like to make sure you were well taken care of in all aspects of life, not only in your academic endeavors.”

Lei Liang, an associate professor of music at the University of California, San Diego, met Dr. Pian after she retired in 1992. He also had lived in her home and said that Dr. Pian and her husband provided a nourishing environment.

“I was born in the last years of the Cultural Revolution and grew up in Beijing,” he said. “When I received my early education, China had undergone a violent period of self-destruction and there was very little traditional culture left. Meeting professor Pian was a life-changing event for me because she brought me back to a China that was vibrant with cultural heritage.”

Dr. Pian’s daughter said that given her mother’s talents “and her own upbringing by parents who exposed her throughout her formative years to the academic life at leading universities with high standards, it was probable, if not inevitable, that she would have a successful, fulfilling academic career.”

She added that Dr. Pian was thrilled when her only granddaughter, Jessica Lent of New York City, enrolled in a Harvard graduate program in education because the two could spend time together.


“There’s a legion of US diplomats, journalists, and Harvard grads who went into other professions who got their start in Chinese language with Rulan Pian at Harvard,” Dr. Pian’s daughter said. “In the music and musicology field, many of her top grad students became professors or orchestra conductors, and since diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China were established in 1979, she was able to participate, as an academic, in building or rebuilding strong ties with the reviving academic and music communities in China.”

Along with teaching, Dr. Pian loved to entertain.

“She was a wonderful cook, and she and my dad always had extra people over for dinner, or in the case of out-of-town visitors, to stay at the house with them,” her daughter said, adding that Dr. Pian “was the life of the party, had a good sense of humor and was engaging.”

In addition to her daughter and granddaughter, Dr. Pian leaves three sisters, Nova Huang of Changsha, China; Lensey Namioka of Seattle; and Bella Chiu of Arlington.

A memorial service will be announced.

“I’m probably one of the only colleagues still on the faculty who knew Rulan well and worked closely with her,” said Kay Kaufman Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts professor of music at Harvard. “I will carry memories of a skilled scholar, a wonderful mentor, and a good friend.”

The Chinese University of Hong Kong has established the Rulan Chao Pian collection as a center for research with more than 5,500 audio-visual materials and 250 boxes of books and notes she gave the institution.


“Many of the folk music traditions are dying out as China modernizes,” Dr. Pian’s daughter said, “but mom’s collection ensures that these rich traditions of China live on for researchers, scholars, musicians, and music enthusiasts.”

Laurie D. Willis can be reached at