Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Synopsis

In China, a nation where the worlds of politics and art are closely linked, Western classical music was considered during the cultural revolution to be an imperialist intrusion, in direct conflict with the native aesthetic. In this revealing chronicle of the relationship between music and politics in twentieth-century China, Richard Kraus examines the evolution of China's ever-changing disposition towards European music and demonstrates the steady westernization of Chinese music. Placing China's cultural conflicts in global perspective, he traces the lives of four Chinese musicians and reflects on how their experiences are indicative of China's place at the furthest edge of an expanding Western international order.

Excerpt

During China's Cultural Revolution, the piano was likened to a coffin, in which notes rattled about like the bones of the bourgeoisie. This harsh assessment of an instrument which has been one of the proud carriers of Western musical culture has been attributed to Mao Zedong's widow, Jiang Qing. In fact, Jiang had a soft spot in her heart for pianos, which she helped save from Red Guard destruction, although she felt no affection for the music written for the piano by European composers. The piano became the object of hostile attention because it is the Western musical instrument, only tentatively rooted in a society busily rejecting Western influence. Moreover, the piano makes a poor fit with Chinese culture, even compared to, say, the violin, oil painting, or ball-room dancing. The piano is industrial; it rose to prominence with Europe's bourgeoisie. Possessing a remarkable facility for harmony, and with its tonal intervals permanently fixed to the Western twelve-note chromatic scale, it incorporates a non-Chinese aesthetic. But most important, the piano's social base in China was weak and vulnerable. Those who owned and played the piano were urban, prosperous, intellectual, and removed from China's traditional culture.

Two decades later, many of these same factors have turned the piano and other Western musical instruments into emblems of modernization. Western music is flourishing; Beijing has opened China's first modern concert hall, and winners of international music prizes are hailed for contributing to China's international prestige. A 1986 film, The Fascinating Village Band, featured peasants who purchase trumpets and trombones; newly prosperous from Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, they use European music to demonstrate their acquisition of modern culture.

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