Rulan Chao Pian was born on 20 April 1922 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as her father – the prominent Chinese American linguist, Yuen Ren Chao (1892-1982) – was then teaching at Harvard University. Although she would return to Harvard for her whole academic career and eventually die in Cambridge, she had a peripatetic childhood, living in France and several Chinese cities before returning to the US at the age of 16.
After a BA (1944) and then an MA (1946) in Western music at Radcliffe College (which did not begin the process of integration with Harvard until 1977), Professor Pian started her professional life at Harvard in 1947 as a Chinese language teaching assistant. Her own book, A Syllabus for the Mandarin Primer (1961), was to prove a highly effective textbook for herself and others.
By 1960, Professor Pian had been awarded a PhD (1960) in East Asian languages and music history by Radcliffe-Harvard, so the next year she added Chinese music as an extra string to her teaching bow and began to establish herself as an authority in the field. Her landmark book, Song Dynasty Musical Sources and Their Interpretation (1967; reprinted in 2003), was honoured by the American Musicological Society with its Otto Kinkeldey Award for the year’s best scholarly work on music history.
In 1974, Professor Pian became one of Harvard’s first female professors, attached to the departments of music and of East Asian languages and civilisations, becoming emeritus on retirement in 1992. She then devoted her efforts to a complete 20-volume edition of her father’s works, published as Zhao Yuanren Quanji in 2002.
Famously hospitable, Professor Pian was always happy for students to come and consult her private collection of books in the Cambridge house that she shared for 50 years with her husband, Theodore Hsueh-Huang Pian, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. Yet she also travelled extensively to Hong Kong, Taiwan and, when it became possible, mainland China for her musicological research.
She studied the Peking Opera in the 1960s, and in 1969, along with her father and others, founded the Conference on Chinese Oral and Performing Literature. In 1974, she became the first Western musicologist to lecture in the People’s Republic and proved a major stimulus to scholarship in China, notably by donating her research materials, including 5,500 audio-visual recordings, to the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Professor Pian died on 30 November and is survived by a daughter and a granddaughter.