There may be no place in the world where the great works of the Western classical music tradition are so widely admired as in China. Some 36 million Chinese children are studying the piano, six times the number of American children. Government has poured money into majestic new music halls such as the Shanghai Opera House and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. What one critic has called the “frenzy” for music training in China, writes Hao Huang, a professor of music at Scripps College, has an unexpected history.
Western classical music wasn’t introduced to the Chinese public until Christian missionaries came in the 19th century, but it quickly gained popularity and prestige as a symbol of the Western “culture of scientific progress and modernization.” The rigors of classical training fit the Confucian value of self-cultivation through self-discipline. Confucius believed that the study of music was “an indispensable way to train the mind,” Huang notes, and considered it more important than mathematics and writing. The great sage said that “one is roused by Songs [poetry], established by ritual, and perfected by Music.”
Confucianism and classical music both came under severe attack during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76). The communist government portrayed European music as a bourgeois invention used for counterrevolutionary ends. By the 1980s, however, the Chinese Communist Party was beginning to re-embrace Confucius, and classical music came back into favor as well.
Li Delun, one of the Chinese musicians trained in the West whose career survived the Cultural Revolution, helped lead the revival with a new ideological line, declaring, “People need this product of the West to liberate their cultural thinking from 2,000 years of feudalism.” By the early 1990s, the Chinese government was deliberately encouraging the study of music through its education policy. Students and their parents were keenly aware that musical training could be an advantage in China’s brutal competition for slots at top universities. Knowledge of Beethoven was something to show off, and President Jiang Zemin (in office 1993–2003) enjoyed doing just that, taking the baton to conduct orchestras at state banquets and playing the piano for Western leaders.
There is a deeper irony in China’s renewed enthusiasm for Mozart and Mahler, Huang says. The future of Western classical music as a “living art form” may be in the hands (and fingers) of the East’s rising musicians rather than those of the West, where classical music is “marginalized by the contemporary entertainment industry as an esoteric genre for a privileged few.”
Photo credit: China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Beijing Concert Hall by drnantu via flickr