- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

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. They continued to be drawn to the complexity of Western music with its intricate, layered harmonic and rhythmic structures quite unlike Chinese traditional music, which is largely linear.

Ironically, the forced rural exile of some Chinese composers led them to a greater appreciation of indigenous folk music. So it was not surprising that they — like Antonin Dvorak, Bela Bartok, and George Gershwin before them — began to incorporate folk songs, idioms and traditional instruments into their still Western-styled compositions, creating a new kind of fusion music.

Even more impressive, however, has been the rapid rise of Chinese music students to the top of their profession in just a generation. Like the South Koreans, Chinese music students have become intensely competitive masters of technique, increasingly placing at or near the top in international music competitions. Today, proud Chinese parents crow about their children’s musical achievements much the way American parents brag about a son’s skill in football.

The once-banned piano, in particular, has become the instrument of choice for upwardly mobile Chinese families and their children. Hearkening back to the parlor-piano days of the 19th century in the West, no Chinese family on the make today can afford to be without a piano in the house — or without a willing young musician to perform on it.

The piano has, in fact, become something of a national obsession, and such successful young virtuoso pianists as Lang Lang — who appeared with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra in the “Yellow River Concerto” here earlier this week — have become as popular in that country as international rock stars. The complexity and difficulty of Western classical music and the techniques required merely to perform it present a formidable obstacle to music students. But in China, it is a challenge that young musicians embrace, driven by family support and the twin lures of honor and prestige.

After a long, nightmarish existence either underground or in service to a ruinous ideology, classical music is on the comeback trail in China, largely fueled by the enthusiasm of the young. That’s not to say that hip Chinese students don’t dig rock ‘n’ roll — they do. But classical music and classical pianists are more highly regarded today in China as the pinnacle of musical success and international prestige.

Yet clearly, for the Chinese government, not all Western-influenced music is created equal. Unlike classical music, culturally vetted and seemingly apolitical (Verdi’s subversive operas notwithstanding) rock music is carefully monitored by Chinese censors.

Like the American Federal Communications Commission, the Chinese government has a problem with over-the-top rap and punk lyrics. As wannabe capitalists, they see the profit potential in the “edgy” stuff, but are also on alert for anything that might undermine support for the still-omnipresent party.

Currently, the Chinese government requires certain approvals for public performances of pop and has banned both Chinese and Western groups from performing certain songs or employing certain lyrics. This schizophrenic approach toward musical genres is likely to persist.

Modern China is a work in progress. While China presents its best musical face at the Kennedy Center this month, bedazzled Washingtonians should try to keep things in perspective.

Even as the Cultural Revolution and the bloody, post-Maoist tragedy of Tiananmen Square recede in memory, China’s forward-morphing Marxist masters, reflexively fearful of forces the party can’t fully control, persist in keeping a short political leash on musical and artistic expression. While classical music is currently king, the censors, for the most part, are never very far offstage.

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