What We Learned about Music in China: Teaching Piano Lessons in the PRC

By Huang, Hao; Thibodeaux, Tatiana | American Music Teacher, June-July 2017 | Go to article overview

What We Learned about Music in China: Teaching Piano Lessons in the PRC


Huang, Hao, Thibodeaux, Tatiana, American Music Teacher


"I bear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."                   --Confucius' 

Over the past three decades, music programs in conservatories and universities across the United States have found that it is crucial to recognize and recruit Asian and Asian-American music students. Without their participation, Western classical music would be in dire straits. Following that trend, the Juilliard School plans to open a music conservatory in Tianjin, People's Republic of China (PRC) in 2018. (2) The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University has cultivated a more than decade-long partnership with Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. Oberlin Conservatory, the Boston University School of Music, Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, San Francisco Conservatory and Manhattan School of Music have made regular recruitment tours of Asian nations. (3) The authors of this article have visited as guest piano faculty at the College of Arts in Xiamen University in 2013-2015, and we believe it is important to share the insights we gained during our visits to the PRC with our fellow music teachers.

The Rise Of The Piano In Present-Day China

Over the past decade, the Asia Times and The Independent have estimated that more than 36 million Chinese children study piano, compared to 6 million in the United States. (4) Pianos have held a special pride of place for generations of Chinese. Recently, pianist Tianshu Wang explained, "Nowadays with the rapid financial development in China, families want to provide the best possible education for their children. Studying a musical instrument has become fashionable and essential. Many families choose the piano, and they can afford the instrument and the lessons. As with Lang Lang's family, 'piano parents' can be extremely devoted." (5) The nearly insatiable desire for the piano in China is corroborated by an article in Culture Magazine that states China "is now both the world's largest piano producer and consumer, with the country accounting for 76.9 percent of the global piano output in 2012 alone." (6) Why has China taken to Western classical music with such a passion even though other cultures in India, South Asia or the Middle East have not? An answer may be found in this statement, "The piano might have been seen by many as a route out, as a way to college, as a way to the U.S., even as a way to get to Beijing from the countryside. As a way to a better place in society."

Yet these enthusiastic characterizations of China as a piano-crazed society do not reflect the totality of reality. Most of the music students we encountered in China over the past several summers were female. When we inquired about the lack of male pianists, we were informed openly that their parents were very anxious about how the males would support themselves and that a career in classical Western music was too dicey. To provide further context, a comment by pianist Tianshu Wang is illuminating, "Yes, the piano is very foreign and new to my country's culture. The first piano was brought to China by an Italian missionary." Wang goes on to explain, "When the piano was brought into China, it was viewed as something high-class. Intellectuals and well-connected individuals would have been the most likely people to be exposed to the piano at that time." (8)

How Western Music Invaded China

For China, to begin to comprehend the present, one must understand the past: The influence of Western music in China can be traced back to the 16th century when the first Christian missionaries arrived. At the end of that century, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, one of the most influential Italian missionaries, rook a harpsichord to China. (9) Arriving in Macao in 1582, he later went on to Beijing in 1601, where he presented the keyboard instrument to Emperor Wanli. Diego Pantoja, a young priest who was a member of Ricci's entourage, taught four of the emperor's eunuch musicians to play the harpsichord and wrote eight songs in Chinese for the entertainment and edification of the Qing emperor. …

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