European Music Proves Instrumental for China

Article excerpt


The Kennedy Center's monthlong "Festival of China" brings to the nation's capital an unprecedented array of music, dance and theater from what is arguably the world's oldest continuing culture. Indeed, the origins of many Chinese musical instruments still in use today can be traced back nearly 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Paradoxically, a significant amount of contemporary Chinese music, although based on authentic Chinese traditions, sounds surprisingly Western.

As is frequently the case in history, you can blame this on the Jesuits. In addition to spreading Christianity to far-flung corners of the globe, priests of this sophisticated Roman Catholic order also carried European high culture and science with them on their travels.

On a journey to Beijing in 1601, Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit, gave a clavichord to Chinese Emperor Wan Li, who was enchanted by its keyboard mechanism. There was nothing like it in China. Members of his court were given lessons on this novelty instrument, and the seed was planted.

In succeeding centuries, China's interest in Western music waxed and waned depending on political vagaries. But by the late 19th century, as a result of a growing European colonial presence, European musical traditions became firmly established on Chinese soil.

Of particular interest to enterprising Chinese generals were the spit-and-polish European-style military bands being established by the colonials in such cities as Shanghai and Beijing. Immediately recognizing the inspirational and patriotic qualities of Western band music and military marches - a kind of music that simply could not be performed on traditional Chinese instruments - they began to adapt it and make it their own.

Chinese music educators also saw opportunities in Western music. Noting its successful adaptation in Japan as a teaching aid allowing short lessons to be set to memorable tunes, they imported this "school song" tradition to China around the turn of the 20th century.

For better or worse, both these musical streams eventually achieved harmonic convergence in agitprop compositions crafted to support Mao Tse-tung's communist revolution. Mao and his inner circle clearly appreciated the notion - promoted in the West by Italian communist Antonio Gramsci - that the creative arts could be harnessed to support a Marxist dictatorship.

Eventually, however, Mao became troubled by the pervasive influence of Western music and, by extension, Western culture. He abruptly resolved the issue by banning Westernization altogether during the violent and disruptive purges conducted throughout his Cultural Revolution (circa 1966-1976).

Overnight, all things Western were banned, including Western-oriented classical music. Beethoven and Brahms were out, and traditional Chinese music was in. Along with other intellectuals, Western-tainted music professors were sent out to labor in the rice paddies, and their pianos were smashed and burned by Mao's Marxist thugs. Some musicians went silently underground to wait out the siege. Others committed suicide. By all accounts, the upheaval was an unmitigated social and cultural disaster.

The Cultural Revolution only ended with Mao's death in 1976. But some Chinese-born classical musicians such as Jindong Cai - co-author, with his wife, Sheila Melvin, of the recent book "Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese" - feel its artistic end was marked when Beethoven's 5th Symphony, hitherto forbidden, was performed on Chinese radio by Chinese musicians early in 1977.

Like mushrooms popping up from beneath the ground, music professors, teachers, instructors and musicians began to reappear in China almost as if by magic. They had kept their spirits alive for a decade by self-educating themselves in Western musical traditions, and occasionally, by performing the music in secret, often in rural locations where they could remain undiscovered. …