Rhapsody in red: how children of China came to lead the world in Western classical music

By Jasper Becker in Beijing
30 October 2004

On any given day in China, 38 million children are practising the piano, in a country that produces more such instruments than any other.

Chinese pianists regularly win more prestigious international music prizes than British, Italian or French children. Last year 21-year-old Lang Lang, a former child prodigy, was the world's best-selling classical pianist. Three years earlier his rival, Li Yundi, won first prize in the Warsaw International Chopin Competition. There is probably not a conservatory in the West lacking a roster peppered with Chinese names, nor a major American orchestra without Chinese musicians.

The treasured names of British piano makers such as Broadwood, Knight, Welmar, Woodchester and Bentley have all folded or moved production to China, which now has the world's biggest piano factories. The Pearl River Piano Group in Guangdong alone makes 100,000 a year and has even taken over prestigious German names such as Ritmüller. South Korea, Japan and China together make 90 per cent of the world's pianos.

Just why these oriental nations have taken to Western classical music with such a passion when other cultures in Africa, South Asia or the Arab world have not, is a mystery. How did Western classical music take such deep root in this alien soil?

The Chinese, like the Koreans and Japanese, have never shown the same enthusiasm for rock, soul, jazz, salsa or any other Western or foreign music. They have stuck rigidly to the punishing discipline of mastering part of the classical canon, and a fairly narrow part at that.

"If there wasn't any classical music, there wouldn't be any modernity," says Li Delun, the China National Symphony's long-time conductor and one of the few Western-trained musicians to survive the Cultural Revolution. Mr Li is quoted in a book by Sheila Melvin and Jindong Cai that examines the Chinese phenomenon. Rhapsody in Red: How Western classical music became Chinese, describes how the Chinese had every opportunity to embrace classical music when it was contemporary, but did not.

The famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci presented a clavichord to the Ming emperor Wan Li in 1601 and even taught his eunuchs to play a few pieces. When Lord Macartney led his embassy to the court of the Qing Emperor Qianlong, in an attempt to open China to direct trade, he brought a German band with him, hoping to impress his hosts. The Qing court liked Western music, and several emperors employed a Western-trained orchestra. One or two studied how to play Western musical instruments, but the knowledge imparted by the Jesuits and others never spread beyond the Summer Palace.

Only after China's defeat in the opium wars did things begin to change. The popularisation of Christianity and the spread of church music was one factor; another was that marching bands began to be seen as important for the modernisation of the Chinese military. After 1919 the spread of school songs in the education system fostered widespread enthusiasm for Western music. The Sound of Music is still one of the best-loved films in China.

The Chinese came to see Western music as scientific, and heroic. And, because it was international, it was hailed as progressive. China's own long tradition of music was looked down on and either ignored or transformed into orchestral-type pieces.

The Chinese Communist Party, careful to use the performing arts as a political tool, embraced Western music until Chairman Mao turned against it during the Cultural Revolution. At the Shanghai Conservatory, once the foremost centre for Western music in Asia, dozens of musicians, many of whom had studied abroad, were murdered by their students, or tortured and driven to commit suicide. The piano was condemned as a bourgeois instrument. Several pianists had their fingers broken.

Since the 1930s almost nothing worthwhile has been composed in China, apart from works such as I Dreamt of Chairman Mao and Let's Go Behind Enemy Lines. But then there came about a curious development: classical music became a battleground for left-wing ideologues, who tried to work out which composers had the right class background. Mao's wife Jiang Qing, a former Shanghai starlet, staged eight model operas, which mixed Western ballet and music with the traditions of Peking Opera.

After Mao died and the battle for succession began, his followers held tense politburo meetings, in which they discussed whether Beethoven was acceptable because he was revolutionary, and whether Tchaikovsky was not because he was too bourgeois; whether Beethoven's Fifth was ideologically sound, and whether the Sixth, the Pastoral Symphony, was not. Since reopening its doors to the outside world after 1979, China's enthusiasm for Western music has again become a key part of its international diplomacy.

During the 15 years that Jiang Zemin was president, he seized opportunities to show off his extensive knowledge of Western music, often grabbing the baton to direct orchestras at state banquets. He would entertain Western leaders by singing or playing the piano. During his long tenure as party secretary of Shanghai, Mr Jiang helped to start a craze in China for extravagant opera houses. Shanghai commissioned a French architect to design an ultra-modern building of glass and steel. Costing $157m (£86m), it was erected next to the party's headquarters.

With this kind of patronage, annual events such as the Beijing International Music Festival have sprung up all over China. Attending a classic concert during the adopted Christmas and New Year festivals has become de rigueur for young urban Chinese. It is the busiest time of year for orchestras and musicians, with lavish Christmas banquets in five-star hotels. The live broadcasts of the Vienna Philharmonic's New Year's Concert, have even become a holiday ritual for many Chinese families.