“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.

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14 Comments on ““The Classical Music Revolution of China””

  1. Great post, very interesting. I’d like to see more variation in music here in China, so much of it is bland euro-style pop that it make me want to tear my hair out in frustration.

    Where’s China’s punk, metal, rock, goth, alternative stuff hiding? Here in Shenzhen it’s impossible to find.

    • Emily He says:

      It must all be sheltered here in Beijing, and probably Shanghai. One of the first shows I went to here was a music competition between bands of ALL those genres you mentioned. I blogged about them in one of my early posts, if you’re interested! Thanks for reading!!

  2. I read your post breathless. Superb. It is always moving to hear the story of the efforts of the Chinese people making their way through the open doors, just like your mom. It’s incredible. When I was in China I’d always try to get to know so much more from every person’s life through the Cultural Revolution and their life throughtout the 80s. There’s so much to say still which is rarely said because memories are not always good to bring out. But your story is wonderful and my compliments to your mom, she looks gorgeous!! It would be wonderful to hear her opera!

    • Emily He says:

      Thank you, Roberta! I’m only now beginning to learn all of this history of China and my parents myself, but only because I began asking questions, because like you said, people rarely openly speak about the past. Part of it is I think because society has progressed (developed economically) so far beyond the period of the Cultural Revolution, but I’m trying to dig that all up! At least from my own family’s perspective. I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 I learned a lot while writing it.

  3. Ps: and if you r curious about Chinese underground music, in Beijing there is the D-22 next to Peking Uni where every Tuesday evenig they make really cool, unusual music, mostly post-rock and experimental. It’s definitely a different China there at D-22, something to experience. Otherwhise if you google Beijig gig, there is a website which keeps up to date on all alternative music in Beijing, it’s really cool!

    • Emily He says:

      yes!! I actually went there once to see a band from Shanghai. Excellent, excellent bar! Reminds me of my favorite bar at home..sigh… Thanks for the heads up!! I need to get out more while I’m here.

  4. great post really informative !!!!

  5. Really loved this post, Emily. It’s really interesting to hear how classical music made its way into Chinese culture–and your mom’s story is great, I would love to hear her one day! As a daughter of two hardworking musicians, I definitely agree that the classical arts aren’t necessarily elitist. Like you said, when it comes to musicians like our parents, passion comes first–it’s no cake-walk to be successful in the field, regardless of whether you have money or not. But Tommisini has it right that the funding/promoting of arts-based education and performances across economic divides is a fundamental step in ensuring that it’s not limited to the elite/the 1%.

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks Hannah! I always forget that we have that in common–musical parents! It’s a shame money plays a role in everything we do/see/hear. Like hip hop culture, where artists that didn’t become big from rags to riches are not considered as legitimate as those who rose from the projects; if you started out rich, you’re not legit! It’s a shame because the arts are about talent and passion and creativity, not the economic background of the artist! Anyway, to be optimistic, we’ve come a long way and the arts are more widely available (right?!), but it’s one thing to just have them; it’s another to motivate people to partake.

      Did that make any sense at all?!

  6. mooselicker says:

    Showing off the smarts with this one!

    For some reason I’m proud of your mom for being semi-famous. Maybe she’s not semi-famous. But, you know what I mean. I think if an artist (no matter what type) is meant to succeed that they will. It takes a lot of will and drive to go through it. We do have to realize though that making sacrifices does not mean that you will automatically succeed. We hear all those stories about how artists lived in awful apartments for years with cockroaches. They sacrificed their social lives to be the best they could be. It takes more than that to succeed. You need luck, a whole lot of skill, and finally the hard work. I’m sure some of the greatest artists of all time gave up because of how frustrating it can be at times.

    When that’s the path anyone wants to go down they have to decide what’s more important. Is it trying and failing then landing a dead end job or not trying and failing and having a dead end job for even longer? That’s how I look at it.

    I’ll stop here. Someone will ask a question and I’ll get flustered because I have little information about every topic except about myself.

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks for being so insightful about my post and for being proud of my mom! I am too. Finally. But I won’t admit it to her.

      You also hit on a point that I’m going to talk about in my next post–sacrificing social lives to be the best they could be and so much more. My mom sacrificed a lot to get to where she is now–moi for example.

      Hahaha, your last sentence! I want to ask you a question to see you flustered, but I’m not that cruel. Oops, here goes anyway: isn’t that what blogging is about?! Getting to know oneself?! At least that is the case in my process. I, too, know little about myself (how cliche), but I’m here to learn!!!!!!

  7. Jean says:

    Wow, what a story about your mother and her luck of being selected for music school, plus her singing musical career. Same for your father’s committment to music/arts. Inspiring.

    As for classical music and learning how to play seen as elitist: There is a hard reality that this is true. I am eldest of 6 kids, and like most working class families (father was restaurant cook and mom, a full-time housewife) in Canada, there was no money for after school lessons for art, music. So none of my siblings learned to play an instrument nor knew of their inclination. However some of us did simply develop an appreciation for certain classical music eras. (Mine is: baroque.) We did discover only 15 yrs. ago that my father did play some sort of Chinese string instrument as a teen in boarding school. (1930’s) . Before he never mentioned it and we learned when he was fiddling on piano keybo

    • Emily He says:

      Thanks Jean for your comment, and for sharing your family’s story! Before this post, I never even thought about classical music and its connection with social-economics. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of the genre, I hope classical music, and the arts in general, can become more widespread so that people are at least given a chance to discover whether it is in their inclination or not, the chance you and your siblings were unfairly deprived of. Thanks again for taking the time to read my post, and I’m glad it struck a chord with your family. Now I will go look up music from the baroque era!


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