Power, Politics, and
Commemoration: Western Musical Figures in the People’s Republic of China 1949-1964
The commemoration of prominent
musical figures is a well recognized feature of Western musical culture.In 2006, many nations and cities joined in
the commemoration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. In 2002, ceremonies in Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States marked the 200th birthday of
Hector Berlioz. Some twenty years earlier, in 1985, numerous events were held
to commemorate the 400th and 300th birthdays of Heinrich
Schutz, Johann Sebastian Bach, and George Frederick Handel respectively. It is
more than common to have musical events and Festschriften pay tribute to
composers, musical institutions, performers, and scholars.
In the People’s Republic of China,
there were also frequent national commemorations of Western musical figures,
especially during the early years of the country’s history: in 1954, Glinka’s
150th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Dvořák’s death; in 1956, Mozart’s 200th
birthday and the centenary of Robert Schumann’s death; in 1957, the centenary
of Glinka’s death and the 130th anniversary of Beethoven’s death; in
1958, Paul Robeson’s 60th birthday, the centenary of Puccini’s
birth, and the 50th anniversary of Rimsky-Korsakov’s death as well
as the 20th anniversary of Feodor Chaliapin’s death; in 1959, the
bi-centenary of Handel’s death; in 1960, 120th anniversary of
Tchaikovsky’s birth and the sesquicentennial of Chopin’s birth; in 1961, the
sesquicentennial of Liszt’s birth.
Why did the People’s Republic of China (hereafter as the PRC) join in the celebration of Western musical figures when China has a musical culture of her own? What were the meanings of these commemorations? It
has been recognized that there are as many forms of commemorations as their
roles and functions in a society, and the study of commemorations is a means of
understanding the cultural contexts, the ideology and politics of a country. As
pointed out in various studies, commemoration is a way of establishing national
whereas places of commemoration, monuments and landscape designs are the
embodiments of identity.
While commemoration is a way of forgetting, of healing the hurt,
it is also a way of using the past to serve the present,
with each past and present individual event tied into a particular
sociopolitical context. For instance, historian William Weber
notes that the British commemoration of Handel in 1784 was not only a musical
event, but a political one: it captured public attention and made Handel’s
music a national agenda “on the heels of constitutional crisis—dispute over the
authority of crown and parliament, the Fox-North ministry of 1783, and the
turbulent election of 1784.”
Ethnomusicologist Philip V. Bohlman
proclaimed, “We study music to understand more about cultural contexts, about
ideology and politics, about the ways in which language functions, about gender
and sexuality, and about the identities of cultures ranging from the smallest
group to the most powerful nation.”
In this article, through the study of musical commemorations
in the PRC (from 1949 to 1964), I hope to address the following issues. What
did Western music embody for Chinese people of the People’s Republic of China in this period? Why did the communist leaders feel the need to embrace Western music
and musical figures? What did the commemorative events tell us about the
communist leadership’s vision of China’s development and its place in the
international community? Most importantly, why and how were musical
commemorations treated as one of the strategies to attain their goals?
A background of the PRC (1949-1964) and Western music
The period between
1949 and 1964 in the PRC witnessed more than a handful of state-level commemorations of Western musical figures. It was a period, according to Lawrence
Sullivan, “marked by political turbulence and transformation but with
substantial progress in economic growth, public health, and social-economic
infrastructure.” The Chinese
Communist Party’s (hereafter as CCP) defeat of the Nationalist Party in 1949
led to the founding of the PRC on October 1. There was much to be done by the
new government both internationally and domestically in the face of the
emerging Cold War as well as the need to rebuild a country damaged by inflation
and civil war, and moving toward socialism and communism. Internationally, China sided with the Soviet Union, and her entering the Korean War put her in further opposition to
the US. Domestically, various political, economic, and social measures were
introduced to pave the way for socialism, land reform, state organization and
collective ownership of enterprises, and the setting up of the communes, to
name but a few. To ensure the smooth running of a totalitarian government,
state control was asserted over the media and all institutions of learning.
Political differences were mute and political opponents such as Western
educated intellectuals were subject to severe persecution in a series of
political campaigns, such as the “Three Antis” and “Five Antis” in 1951 and
1952 respectively as well as the “Anti-Rightist Campaign” in 1957, shortly
after a brief period of tolerance for intellectual freedom and free speech
known as the “Hundred Flowers” in 1956. The economic policy introduced in 1958
by Mao Zedong to dramatically increase agricultural and steel production so as
to catch up with major industrial powers--especially Britain--within 15 years
(known as the “Great Leap Forward” and lasting from 1958 to 1960) resulted in
catastrophe: drastic reductions in food supply from inefficient communes and
the production of millions of tons of worthless steel from blasting household
items in backyard furnaces. A period of recovery in economic and cultural
sectors came in 1962 following Liu Shaoqi’s ascension to power. But the
worsening of Sino-Soviet conflict in 1963 and the tightening of political
control in 1964 brought the country to the heel of the Cultural Revolution to
be erupted in full force in 1966, and lasting until 1976.
Mirroring the turbulent history of
the country, musical development in the PRC prior to 1966 went through similar
ups and downs. It
comes as no surprise that the CCP
leaders were quick to mobilize the musical forces to serve the socialist call.
Music conservatories were established in major cities, Western orchestras were
founded, and the Chinese National Orchestra was built based on Western models. The Central Conservatory of Music was
established in 1950 in Beijing, and the founding of music schools in secondary cities such as Shenyang, Chengdou,
and Wuhan were to follow.
Various amateur ensemble groups previously known as “Cultural Troupes”
established by the CCP for propaganda purposes in the Republican era were
reorganized to become professional performing groups such as symphony
orchestras, Chinese national orchestras, and dance companies. In Bejing alone,
there were the Central National Dance Troupe, the Chinese Broadcasting National
Orchestra, and then the Beijing Symphony Orchestra of the Documentary Movie
The CCP’s embracing of
Western-formatted musical ensembles has to be understood in the context of
Western music in China. China is a country with a distinctive indigenous
musical tradition that has incorporated various forms of foreign influences at
different stages of its development. While Western music was brought to the
Ming court by Jesuit missionaries as early as the early 17th
Western music’s imposing existence on Chinese soil was only felt after China was forced to open her doors to Western missionaries and merchants as a result of China’s total defeat by Britain in the Opium War in mid 19th century. After a series of
further defeats by Western powers, and only then, did China come to the realization that there had been a fundamental change in the power relations
between the East and West. By the end of the 19th century, Western
bands and orchestras, and likewise Western musical instrumental players began
to flourish in treaty ports such as Shanghai and Canton. Western melodies were
introduced to the school curriculum –one of several political, social and
economic reforms initiated by the Qing government in a hopeless attempt to save
an empire that nevertheless collapsed in 1911.
In conjunction with the 1919 New Culture Movement, the 1920s and 1930s
witnessed a massive importation of Western music, the founding of Western-style
conservatories to train Chinese musicians, the emergence of various Western
orchestras and musical institutions all run by Chinese intellectuals, which
were seen as creating a new China with a new musical art form – that is,
Western music embedded with a Chinese spirit. As Chinese intellectuals then
justified, Chinese music, often dubbed “unscientific,” was backward and did not
measure up to Western music in its notation, teaching method, and musical
Indeed, it was this colonization of the Chinese consciousness, as historian
James Hevia noted, that led to a whole new way of thinking on China’s part about the world.
During the Nationalist period,
members of the CCP (founded in 1921) were also quick to see the potential power
of “new music” to spread socialist ideology. Shanghai, the cradle of Chinese
communism nourished the first generation of left-wing cultural workers (wenyi
gongzuozhe), writers, playwrights, movie makers as well as composers and
musicians. Nie Er (1912-1935), Ren Guang (1900-1941), Zhang Chu (1909-1938), Lü Ji (1909-2001) were the
leading musical activists of the 1930s who engaged in producing mass songs of
revolutionary and anti-Japanese contents. In 1938, leaders of the
CCP founded the Luxun Arts Academy in Yan’an, the communist base camp, the
breeding ground of socialist Chinese art. “Folk opera” (yanggeju) and
“new opera” (xingeju)as well as
other musical genres such as mass songs and large-scale choral works were
cultivated at the Academy.
As seen by Mao Zedong,
art and music were a crucial weapon in the revolutionary process -- the
‘cultural army’ was to help with the ‘army with guns’ to defeat the enemies,
and the new socialist culture was going to reduce the impact of feudal culture
of the old society and comprador culture of the imperialist. Western music was not rejected by
Mao or the party leaders, but instead, seen as an art form that could be
revamped to serve the new society and its people. “Revolutionary art and
literature are the products of the brains of revolutionary artists and writers
reflecting the life of the people. . . . We must take over all the fine
artistic and literary legacy, critically assimilate from it what ever is
beneficial to us and hold it up as an example when we try to work over the
artistic and literary raw material derived from the people’s life of our own
time and place.”
While commemorating Western musical
figures is a sincere gesture on China’s part to show her appreciation of the
cultural legacy of the Western world, the early commemorations were often treated
as state events marked by ritualistic features that bore layers of meaning. The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Dvořák’s death in 1954 began with a
concert held in Beijing on 24 May 1954. The concert program bore the names of
several official organizations, including the Chinese People Defend World Peace
Council (a subsidiary of the World Peace Council), the Foreign Affairs Cultural Bureau, the
Association for Chinese Literature and Art, and The Association of Chinese
Musicians. The concert was also attended by foreign dignitaries, including
Consul General of Czechoslovakia.
The first part of the concert featured an opening address by Ding Xilin, the
vice-president of the Foreign Affairs Cultural Bureau. This was followed by
introductions to Dvořák’s
life and works presented by Ma Sicong, the vice-president of the Society of
Chinese Musicians, and by the Czech Consul General. The second part comprised
performances of Dvořák’s
works by the Central Philharmonic: the program included Carnival Overture,
Slavonic Dances, “New World” Symphony, and a selection of songs sung in
Chinese and Czech.
In conjunction with the commemoration, an exhibition was hosted for two weeks
at the Beijing Library; the exhibition featured Dvořák’s scores, some sixty photographs
and other illustrations related to his life and works, and a variety of books
and articles in Chinese, Czech, and German. A recent book on Dvořák translated from Czech to Chinese
received special attention.
The 1959 Handel celebration was
similar in several respects. It too included an official commemorative concert,
held on 14 April, which was organized by the same group of organizations and
attended by important cultural figures as well as representatives of the German
Democratic Republic and other countries. Introductory remarks were presented by
Mao Dun, the vice-president of the Society of Chinese Literature and Art, as
well as by the East German Consul General. Next was a concert of Handel’s works
performed by the Central Movie Studio Orchestra and the Central Philharmonic,
including Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 6, as well as a few instrumental
sonatas, and excerpts from his operas and oratorios.
politics of commemoration
Anthropologists very often interpret
ritual, a form of social acts, in relation to the needs and maintenance of a
society. As suggested by Andrew Walsh, what, how, and why we remember embodies
and influences the complex dialectical relationships between past and present.
Commemorations, like other types of rituals, thus are themselves open to
interpretation and reinterpretation.
The victory of the CCP in 1949
marked a new chapter in Sino-Western relation. After nearly a century of
internal weakness, humiliation, and encroachment by foreign powers, China hoped to become a power in the Far East as well as the rest of the world.
The overriding and all-embracing goal of the Chinese Communist leadership was
to achieve the modernization of China so as to establish national power and
prestige, reaching world power status as quickly as possible.
Needless to say, Western music, long established in China as an icon of
modernity, was a cultural facet that the PRC, with its claim to be building a
modern society, could not forsake, at least, not during the first decade of the
In many of the commemorative
writings, the fact that Chinese people had been exposed to Western music and
that the young generation of Chinese performers were able to perform Western
music was being emphasized. No longer was China the old nation clinging to the
culture of the past, and no longer were Chinese people denied Western art. The
commemorative article for the 1956 Mozart commemoration exemplified this
people can comprehend, love, and value Mozart’s great arts as can the rest of
the world. Chinese composers, like their counterparts in the West, have been
influenced by Mozart’s music, whose compositional features have enriched their
own works. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mozart’s works were more
widely introduced to the [Chinese] people than before, and our younger
generation performed Mozart’s operas with the deepest gratitude.
The commemoration of Western
composers without doubt served a new national agenda –the opportunity for the
newly established nation to reach out, and, perhaps, even to ‘correct’ the
West’s arrogant attitude toward and misunderstanding of China’s own musical
That is, when translated into diplomatic terms, they carried the mission to
“break the shackles forced on China by imperialists and colonists. . . and to
stand tall on the world stage.”
It was clear that commemorations
were diplomatic gestures that expressed China’s willingness to work toward
understanding among peoples around the world—a fact acknowledged in a great
many commemorative publications and programs. What better and easier way to
reach out to other nations than by celebrating those nations’ musical
accomplishments? No wonder the East German Consul who attended the Handel
commemoration proclaimed, “The German and the Chinese people’s celebration of
Handel together testifies to their friendship and their willingness to work for
a progressive society and world peace.”
In return, the Chinese speaker Zhao Feng praised East Germany for drawing
attention to Handel’s operas. “The repertoire of Handel’s opera is a rich
treasure. For a long time, however, these operas were overshadowed by Handel’s
other works. Only in workers’ states such as [East] Germany are Handel’s operas
performed regularly—a cultural Renaissance.”
Commemoration also functioned as an
effective and comparatively inexpensive way of validating China’s membership in a world community. Furthermore, honoring Western cultural figures also
acknowledged certain of the West’s cultural values. The 1954 Dvořák commemoration acknowledged China’s entering the world stage. A member of the World Peace Council, itself organized in
1949, the PRC acknowledged support for this organization by paying tribute to
cultural figures the Council chose to honor. In fact, statements to the effect
that commemorated figures were “chosen by the World Peace Council to celebrate”
opened practically every commemoration ceremony.
and ideology building
Back in the 50s and 60s in the PRC,
musical commemorations were often validation of domestic cultural policies. As
Barry Schwartz pointed out, to ‘commemorate’ is to do much more than merely
retrieve information: “to remember is to place a part of the past in the
service of conceptions and needs of the present.”
For instance, party-sanctioned commemorations of Dvořák, Handel or Chopin were signals to
the public that their music was respectable and acceptable in the Chinese
In a way, commemorations were ways
of establishing acceptable musical models for Chinese composers to follow. Most
of all, these commemorations—and especially the commemorative articles
published in conjunction with them—were measures to influence people’s world
views. As PRC’s leaders considered it important to mobilize the arts, including
music, to promote socialist ideology, one important function of commemoration
was to propagate socialist values by means of appropriate ‘socialist’ musical
models: depictions of composers or performers from a socialist perspective.
Consider the 1956 Mozart
commemorative article (part of which is quoted above), which portrays the
composer as a rebel, who, although born in an “era of capitalist revolution—the
French Revolution—revolted against the patronage and other forms of economic
and political repression.”
Mozart’s leaving Salzburg for Vienna in 1781 was described as a result of the
composer’s refusal to be “treated as a servant” and his fight for “artistic
freedom” and “ridding himself of control by the church and nobility.”
Mozart’s works were portrayed as “representative examples of capitalist
revolution, nevertheless embedded with progressive elements.”
The composer’s interest in Freemasonry was cited as an example of his aspiring
to the struggle for freedom, equality, and brotherhood and he also won praise
for having devoted his short life to anti-feudalistic callings.
Handel, too, was portrayed as a
proto-socialist in the bicentennial celebration of his death in 1959. In the
official commemorative article, the composer was evaluated in a revolutionary
context and praised as a hero who had lived up to socialist ideals:
an 18th-century democratic ideal, was the ideological foundation for
many [contemporary] philosophers and artists. Their strong belief in the
strength and talent of their fellow human beings led them to understand the
obstructive influence of feudalism on human development and its inevitable
collapse [as a social system]. . . . The works [of such artists] reflected
their longing for truth and justice [and for a society in which] scientific
truth would replace the ignorance of religion and socialist justice would deter
the cruelty of autocratic feudalism. Handel was a progressive artist who
embodied the aspirations of this era.
Despite its Biblical origins,
Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was hailed as embodying the composer’s
humanism because it dealt with “the common people’s fate and suffering,
happiness and hope, the joy of liberation.” Furthermore, Handel’s choice of
subject matter was epitomized as a “language” in which he could “express his
hopes on behalf of democracy, national independence, and the pursuit of justice
Close relationships between
ideology, political propaganda, and the arts were evident in the commemorative
publications. Consider the Chopin celebrations in 1960. Like Dvořák and Handel, Chopin was chosen as
one of the World’s Renowned Cultural Figures by the World Peace Council to mark
the composer’s 150th birthday in 1960, and his anniversary was
celebrated in approximately the same way as those of Mozart and Handel. An official
concert took place in Beijing on 22 February of that year, as well as in other
cities. A number of Chopin studies (translated from the Russian or written by
Chinese scholars) were published. An article about him published in Renmin
Yinyue in 1960 opened in a manner by then not unfamiliar to Chinese readers
—it articulated the PRC’s position toward the West:
the efforts of peoples around the world have forced the imperialists to conceal
their imperialistic policy. They put on the new outfit of “peace” in order to
disguise their military expansion. This is the calculated “double-sidedness” of
imperialism. American imperialism is the use of “American lifestyle” and
“yellow culture (pornographic culture)” to pollute the spiritual life of the world’s
peoples in order to paralyze their fighting. The motive of internationalism is
to kill national awareness and the will of people all over the world.
Hardcore pronouncements such as this
one epitomized contemporary political and cultural attitudes. So did a speech
entitled “Music in the Service of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers” delivered in
the same year by Lü Ji, then China’s leading musical
spokesman at the 2nd Representatives' Conference of the Chinese Musicians
Association. Lü drew a firm line between
“proletarian” and “capitalist” music. “No matter whether it is called new music
or jazz, it is permeated with capitalist poison, [and] is a tool of
Imperialism. Twelve-tone music, serial music, [or] electronic music, etc. is
not real music, but a reflection of pathetic craziness and mental breakdown …
typical of Imperialism and Colonialism.”
Official disapproval of the West,
which was seen as belonging to another camp—that of Imperialism—is omnipresent
in the commemorative article about Chopin. Western music critics, for example,
were criticized as a “class” for their fixations on Chopin’s lyricism. “To
insist on the lyrical,” Zhao Feng wrote, “was to render Chopin’s music
sentimental and salon-oriented; qualities that could not be tolerated under socialist
In the article, Chopin’s music was described as sorrowful (as well as
optimistic), embodying the fact that Chopin himself had imaginatively
anticipated the agonies of revolution in Poland as well as the eventual
socialist triumph of the Polish people. Interestingly enough, Chinese
commentators argued that Chopin and his music could only be understood by the
citizens of a liberated, “democratic Poland”; pronouncements of this kind, of
course, denied any right to Chopin’s music on the part of listeners throughout
the non-Communist world. Above all, the commentator placed the PRC in close
proximity to Poland, based on the assumption that the peoples of both nations
had both suffered under Western oppression and could sympathize with Chopin’s
nationalist and anti-feudalist compositions. The commentator also gave credit
to the CCP for making it possible for Chinese audiences to appreciate Chopin.
Without Communism, he maintained, it would have been impossible for the two
nations to develop precisely this kind of aesthetic, political, and cultural
relationships. He also pointed out that Chopin’s music was “sweeping” China!
domestic policy, and diplomatic relations
Musical commemorations in the PRC
during the early years were thermometers that recorded the rising and falling
temperatures of China’s relations with Western nations. Composers chosen for
celebration were largely composers from the so-called communist bloc nations.
As a communist regime, the PRC’s leaders accepted the Marxist-Leninist belief
that the world was divided into two hostile and irreconcilable spheres:
socialist and capitalist-imperialist.
Equally, the U.S. and Western European countries were suspicious of communism
and hostile toward the PRC and the communist countries. After the founding of
the PRC in October 1949, it was natural that China’s leaders turned to the USSR and the so-called “second world” or communist bloc countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.
In 1950, China and the USSR signed the Treaty of Alliance, Friendship, and
Mutual Assistance, which promised the PRC Soviet economic and military aid as
well as other kinds of assistance. The USSR also exercised a powerful
ideological influence on Chinese cultural policy. The CCP’s reliance on Soviet
artistic principles was most apparent during the PRC’s early years and its
influence the most extensive and far-reaching.
It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that China joined the USSR in celebrating anniversaries of Chaliapin’s, Glinka’s, Rimsky-Korsakov’s, and Tchaikovsky’s
births or deaths, occasions of importance perhaps to the USSR, but secondary to the rest of the world. The much lower-profile commemoration of Tchaikovsky’s
120th birthday in May 1960 may have been a telltale sign of strained
Sino-Soviet “friendship” that led the withdrawal of Soviet technicians from
China in the following August, which was followed by a complete breakdown of
relations and accusations that the Soviets were “revisionists” rather than
It is interesting that there were no
celebrations of French or Italian composers, for example, even though the
centenary of Debussy’s birth fell in 1962, the bicentennial of Rameau’s death
in 1964, and the sesquicentennial of Verdi’s birth in 1963. Perhaps worth
noting is that relations during the years in question between China (on the one hand) and France and Italy (on the other) were anything but warm. Sino-French
relations got off to a bad start during the early years of the PRC’s history.
In 1950, the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh government in Vietnam drove a wedge between China and the French Republic. The French government’s alliance with
the United States also drove the two nations further apart. As Jean-Luc
Domenach pointed out, the Chinese press was so hostile to anything French that
“[it] scarcely missed an occasion to vent its contempt for French militarism
Despite the political tension, there
were still a limited amount of cultural exchanges between the two nations. In
1955, French writers Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre visited Beijing, and it was also in the same year that a Peking Opera troupe performed at the
International Theatre Festival in Paris in June. In 1956, an article on French
music appeared in Renmin Yinyue. Entitled “French music and French
composers,” it had been translated from French into Chinese.
Significantly, 1956 was the year of
the “Hundred Flowers” or the so-called “Directive of the Two Hundred”— the “Let
a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” campaign: a
period of purported open-mindedness that was supposed to encourage diverging
views but unfortunately became an excuse to clean house: to identify and punish
1956 was also the year of Mozart’s 200 birthday commemoration. We should not
forget, however, that Mozart was an Austrian composer and Austria was part of the alliance of the West. Perhaps not coincidental, three years later, the
sesquicentennial of Haydn’s death was utterly ignored in China. In the same year, there was also an article about the Boston Symphony Orchestra, translated
from Russian into Chinese, by Li Delun, a sign of the nation’s interest in the
superpower of the West.This was the first non-hostile article on
American-related musical matters. Aside from issues of communist ideology, the
PRC’s hostility toward the United States was a result of American support for
the Nationalist government (which still governed Taiwan after 1949 and
antedated the establishment of the Mainland’s communist government). Continued
American insistence on the legitimacy of the Taiwan-based Nationalist
government was interpreted by the CCP as interference in China’s domestic affairs. Incidents such as the trade embargo and the Korean War further strained
relations between China and the United States.
All this perhaps accounted for the
CCP’s strong official disapproval of American music throughout the 1950s,
1960s, and early 1970s. In the June 1951 issue of Renmin Yinyue, for
example, the first year the journal appeared in print, Liao Fushu published an
article entitled “Criticism of American Music.”Liao vilified “the gimmicks and sexual
appeals” of American music overall, an art he considered “characteristic of a
nation on the verge of collapse.”
American popular music and Broadway shows were especially condemned, because,
as Liao put it, “proper love songs, in the hands of Americans,” became nothing
more than “derogatory lyrics, and healthy dances turned into cancans of
promiscuity.”Jazz, which had flourished in Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s, was criticized especially severely.
In an article titled “Comments on American Jazz” by Wu Yongyi, America’s then-widespread
form of popular entertainment was
described as a type of “noisy, vulgar, and unrefined music used for dancing,”
and “a product of the capitalist class,” nothing more or less than “a stimulus
for decadent life styles.”
The CCP’s paranoia toward the US was translated into a twisted understanding of American music as “capitalist art,” an
invader that attacked its listeners and poisoned their souls. For Chinese
critics, the songs of Kern, Berlin, and Gershwin provided only temporary and
corrupt relief, “like prostitution,” and catered to people’s “vulgar taste.”
In a later article on jazz, Chinese critics Tong Changrong and Wang Ying
adopted a similar view.
Musical characteristics associated with jazz were examined exclusively through
ideological lenses. Jazz progressions, for instance, were mocked as “make-up”
that disguised the simple beauty of traditional functional harmony; seventh
chords and non-harmonic tones were derided because they were perceived as
covering up the unhealthy vocal vibratos employed by many popular singers.
Nor did Chinese critics miss any opportunities to substantiate anti-jazz and
anti-American arguments by publishing translations of Western writers’ works
that expressed similar political-cultural convictions. An article entitled “Sweden’s Disapproval of American Jazz” was published in 1955 in Renmin Yinyue.
One American performer was however
singled out for flattering attention.
This was Paul Robeson (1898-1976), an African-American actor and singer who
launched his professional career in 1924. In 1958, CCP officials honored Paul
Robeson’s 60th birthday with high-profile commemorative ceremonies
similar to those lavished on Dvořák,
Handel, and Mozart. Guo Meiruo, president of the Chinese World Peace Council
and the Union of Chinese Literature and Art, gave a speech in Robeson’s honor.
Celebrated for his “resonant voice
and the ability to project a humane spirit” in his many and various roles,
Robeson visited the USSR in 1934 and was impressed by socialism as a political
and cultural system.Embracing
communism, however, all but ruined his career: for eight years his American
passport privileges were suspended and he was also banned from making public
appearances anywhere in the United States. Instead, during the 1950s, Robeson
was forced to move to Europe, where he was able to pursue his performing
career; he returned to his native land only in 1963.
Several articles were devoted to
Robeson in the April 1958 issue of Renmin Yinyue.
In one of these articles, the singer was hailed as a defender of world peace
and a fighter for racial equality.
Statements attributed to Robeson were also quoted or paraphrased in these
publications, including autobiographical accounts of his slave origins, the
suffering he endured on account of racial discrimination, and so on.
Robeson’s politicized and social-critical views were emphasized, and he was
praised especially for such pronouncements as “I serve the people; I shall
always serve them through art that is politically motivated. An artist cannot
be without political belief. . . . Music to me is a social weapon, and no
artist can work outside politics. As for me, I am always with the people and on
Robeson, in other words, was
publicly accorded iconic status in the PRC as a socialist hero “who used music
to serve people and fight capitalist imperialism.”
His popularity, origins, political struggles and temporary banishment from the United States made him an archetypical victim of American imperialism. No wonder he was
hailed as a “genuine American citizen” as well as “a friend of those who want
to fight against oppression and colonization, as well as world peace.”
In an article entitled “Learning from Paul Robeson,” Gong Qi went so far as to
challenge Chinese musicians to emulate Robeson by enlarging their repertoires
and letting “the masses” (in this case, audience members) call for their own,
favorite songs at concerts.
The PRC’s relations with Western
nations became increasingly strained after 1964 as China was moving toward
radical policies. In the face of the three directives introduced to the musical
arena in 1964 – compositions be revolutionary, nationalistic, and
masses-oriented – as required. Western composers, likewise, were no longer
acknowledged as socialist or proto-socialist heroes. The last commemorative
ceremony of any importance was held in 1961, in honor of the sesquicentennial
of Liszt’s birth. Two years later, the sesquicentennial of Verdi’s birth was
celebrated especially in Italy, but it was ignored in the PRC. During the
ten-year period (1966-1976) of the Cultural Revolution, not only Western music
but all other cultural forms went through the darkest phase in the history of
The Open Door policy introduced by
Deng Shaoping in 1978 put the country onto a new path. In recent years,
commemoration of Western composers was no longer on the national agenda. The
nature of the commemoration was also quite different from those of the past. On
the one hand, Chinese composers were much more often celebrated than Western
composers. On the other, elaborate “official” celebrations like those accorded
Mozart, and Liszt during the 1950s and 1960s were non-existent. In 1991, for
example, the bicentenary of Mozart’s death was recognized in China: a concert of the composer’s works presented in Beijing by the Central Philharmonic and
several academic conferences were devoted to Mozart’s career and legacy. Yet
politics played little part in these activities. Even the commemorative article
written in Mozart’s honor almost entirely ignored social and political issues
(except for the concluding paragraph).
In the past three decades, the PRC
has changed drastically, at least economically if not altogether politically,
witnessing enormous and important transformations. The Open Door policies and
economic reforms resulted in a relaxation of ideological controls, especially
in the cultural arena.
The Cultural Revolution had done enough damage to China, and the CCP had
learned its lesson: classical music, especially Western music, simply wasn’t as
important as other issues. Besides, since the late 1970s, China has repaired her relations with Western countries and cultural diplomacy was gradually
decreasing in importance. With the ascension of Chinese musicians onto the
world stage of Western music in the recent years, composers Tan Dun and Chen
Yi, pianists Lang Lang and Li Yundi, to name but a few of the most
representative, and the flourishing classical music scene in the PRC with
millions of youngsters learning the piano and other Western musical
instruments, the celebration of Western musical figures has become more an
artistic and musical event than a political one.
Nonetheless, the commemoration of
Western composers in the PRC during the early years of the country’s history
remains an important and intriguing phenomenon. There is no doubt that officially
sanctioned celebrations and publications provided effective ways of evaluating
the role of art in an emerging socialist society. Musical commemorations were
rituals as well as acts of political maneuver for diplomatic, ideological as
well as propaganda purposes. Equally, one argues, they were and still are
manifestations of cultural contacts and exchanges. In fact, the commemorative
activities in the PRC had helped a great many Chinese men and women gain some
sense of Western culture and its musical accomplishments— at a time when access
to Western music of many kinds was severely limited. Thus, in many respects,
the commemorations of Western musical figures in the PRC concord with Bohlman’s
assessment, “[the] belief in the power of music to represent in complex ways is
Schwartz, “The Social Context of Commemoration: A Study in
Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61/2 (1982): 374-402.
V. Bohlman, “Music as Representation,” Journal of Musicological Research
24 (2005): 205.
For more information
on musical exchange between China and the West prior to the 19th century, see
Chapter 2 in Melvin and Cai’s book Rhapsody in Red: How Western Classical Music Became Chinese (New York: Algora Publishing, 2004),
and TAO Yabing’s Zhongxi yinyue jiaoliu shigao [A History of Musical Exchanges
between China and the West] (Beijing: Zhongguo dabaike quanshu chubanshe,
For a more detailed
discussion on the development of Western music in China during the early 20th
century, see B.
Mittler, Dangerous Tunes. The Politics of Chinese Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China since 1949 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1997); LIU
Ching-chih’s Zhongguo xinyinyue shilun [History of Chinese New Music]
(Taibei: Yaowen chubanshe, 1998), and Melvin and Cai’s Rhapsody in Red.
Hevia, English Lessons (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 333.
For more information on the Left-wing
Musical Movement, see WANG Yuhe, Zhongguo jinxiandai yinyueshi [Music
History of Contemporary China] (Gaodeng jiaoyu chubanshe, 2006), 132-153; and XIA
Yan, Zhongguo jinxiandai yinyueshi jianbian [A Brief History of
Contemporary Chinese Music] (Shanghai yinyue chubanshe, 2004), 162-172.
The World Peace
Council (or World Council of Peace) was formed in 1949 to promote peaceful
coexistence and nuclear disarmament. Its active participants were the Soviet / Eastern Europe bloc countries.
A description of
the commemorative event can be found in a report by an author merely identified
as “Jizhe” (reporter), “Zhongguo renmin jinian Dewoxiake” [Chinese people
commemorated Dvořák”], Renmin Yinyue (June
ZHAO Feng, “Jinian
deguo weida de zuoqujia Qiao. Fo. Hengdeer shishi erbai zhounian” [In
commemoration of the great German composer George Federic Handel’s 200th
death], Renmin Yinyue (April 1959): 1-4.
Matter: The Politics of Commemoration in Northern Madagascar,” Ethnohistory
R. G. Boyd, Communist China’s Foreign
Policy (New York: Praeger, 1962), 6.
MA Sicong, “Jinian Mozhate dansheng erbai
zhounian” [Commemoration to mark the 200th birthday of Mozart], Renmin
Yinyue (July 1956): 6-7.
was one of the PRC’s foreign-policy ploys. Musical groups of befriended nations
such as Bulgaria, East Germany, and the USSR were invited to visit the PRC. In
exchange, China sent performing groups to take part in those nations’
festivals. In July 1951, for example, the Chinese Youth Art Troupe visited East Germany in order to participate in the Third World Youth Festival for Friendship and
Peace. Participants in such exchanges were introduced especially to the musics
of the nations of which the PRC approved politically and culturally. Throughout
the history of the PRC, music and diplomacy have close ties. For a better
understanding of the issue, see Richard Kraus’s Piano and Politics in China:
Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1989) and Chapter 8 “Music and Power” of Melvin and Cai’s Rhapsody
in Red. There are two excellent studies that particularly address the issue
of tours and cultural exchanges: Helen Rees’s "'Naxi
Ancient Music Rocks London': Validation, Presentation, and Observation in the
First International Naxi Music Tour," Ethnomusicology 46
(3/2002):432-455, and Nancy Guy’s "Brokering Glory for the Chinese
Nation: Peking Opera's 1930 American Tour," in Comparative Drama 35
XIE Yixian, Zhongguo dangdai
waijiaoshi: 1949-2001 [A history of Chinese foreign diplomacy] (Beijing:
Zhongguo Qingnian Chubanshe, 2002).
“Shoudao wenyijie yinyuejie jihui: jinian
Hengdeer shishi erbai zhounian” [Capital’s literary and musical circles
gathered to commemorate the bi-centennial of Handel’s death], Renmin Yinyue
(April 1959): 4.
Zhao, “In commemoration of the great German
composer George Federic Handel’s 200th death,” 2.
Barry Schwartz, “The Social Context of
Commemoration: A Study in Collective Memory,” Social Forces 61/2 (1982):
For further discussions on socialist
realism and its impact on the musical scene of the PRC, see the present
author’s “Socialist Realism and Music in the People’s Republic of China,” Socialist
Realism and Music – Colloquia Musicologica Brunensia, 36 (2001) (Praha:
KLP., 2004),135-144; and “The Making of a National Musical Icon: Xian Xinghai
and His Yellow River Cantata,” in Music, Power, and Politics, ed.
by Annie J. Randall (New York: Routledge, 2005), 87-112.
Ma, “Commemoration to mark the 200th
birthday of Mozart,” 6.
Zhao, “In commemoration of the great
composer George Federic Handel’s 200th death,” 2.
ZHAO Feng, “Shao
Pang – Polan renmin weida de geshou” [Chopin – A great singer of the Polish
people], Renmin Yinyue (Feb 1960): 5.
LÜ Ji, “Wei gongnongbing fuwu de yinyueyishu:
zai zhongguo yinyuejia xiehui dierci huiyuan daibiaodahui shang de baogao”
[Music in the service of workers, peasants and soldiers: a report on the 2nd
representatives' convention of the Chinese Musicians Association], Renmin
Yinyue (July and August 1960): 20.
Zhao, “Chopin – A great singer of the
Polish people,” 7-8.
Hsueh, China’s Foreign Relations,
Ibid., 21. The ex-USSR was the first to
have diplomacy with the PRC, on 3 October 1949, two days after the founding of
the country. After the Soviet lead, other socialist countries followed. See XIE
Yixian. ed. Zhongguo dangdai waijiaoshi: 1949-2001 [A history of Chinese
foreign diplomacy] (Beijing: Zhongguo Qingnian Chubanshe, 2002), 6.
information, see YE Chunzhi, “Sulian xuepai dui zhongguo yinyue meixue de
yingxiang 1949-1990” [The Soviet school’s influences on Chinese music aesthetics], in Papers and Proceedings of the International Seminar on Aesthetic of
Chinese Music (Hong Kong: Center of Asian Studies, The University of Hong
Jean-Luc Domenach, “Sino-French
Relations: A French View” in Hsueh’s China’s Foreign Relations.
The article appeared in Renmin Yinyue
(July 1956): 27-28. An article entitled “French Friends of China, Old and New”
by the French writer Jean Chesneaux, director of studies at the Ecole Practique
des Hautes Etudes at the Sorbonne, and editor-in-chief of the French bi-monthly
journal Paris-Pekin appeared in China Reconstructs 7 (7/1958): 20-22.
Regarding the movement itself, see Rene
Goldman, “The Rectification Campaign at Peking University: May-June 1957,” in
Roderick MacFarquhar, ed. China under Mao: Politics Takes Command (Massachusetts: the
M.I.T. Press, 1966), 255-270. A good
introduction on its impact on the musical scene can be found in JU Qihong’s Xin
Zhongguo yinyueshi [A History of Chinese Music: 1949-2000] (Changsha:
Hunan Meishu Chubanshe, 2000.)
LI Delun later became the PRC’s most prominent
conductor after the Cultural Revolution. Regarding Li’s career, see LUO
Yunyun, Li Delun Zhuan [The Life of Li Delun] (Beijing: Zhuojia
LIAO Fushu, “Chi meiguo yinyue” [Criticism
on American Music], Renmin
For jazz in China in the 20s and 30s, see
Andrew Jones, Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the
Chinese Jazz Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
WU Yongyi, “Ping meiguo jueshi yinyue” [Comments on American Jazz], Renmin Yinyue (Freburary
TONG Changrong and WANG Ying, “Meiguo
jueshi yinyue“ [American Jazz], Renmin Yinyue (April 1958): 36.
Renmin Yinyue (November and
December 1955): 56. Had CCP officials been cognizant of Theodore Adorno’s
devastating dismissal of American popular music, they undoubtedly would have
reprinted his article too. According to Theodor W. Adorno, pop music in
capitalist countries was a “catharsis for the masses, but catharsis which keeps
them more firmly in line,” inspiring at best a merely “mechanical
collectivity.” “On Popular Music,” [1941; with George Simpson], Essays on
Music, ed. Richard Leppert; trans. Susan H. Gillespie (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2002), 461-462.
See LIU Hong, “ ‘Masha’heiren gequ
he Fusite” [Masha the black singer and Stephen Foster], Renmin Yinyue
Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2005.
See GONG Qi, “Xiang
Baoluo Luoboxun xuexi”
[To learn from Paul Robeson], Renmin Yinyue (May 1958):29; LÜ Ji, “Baoluo
Luoboxun de gesheng shi chongbupo dabuduan de” [The song of Paul Robeson cannot
be stopped], Renmin Yinyue (April 1958): 2; ZHAO Feng, “Heping
Zhanshi, yishu dashi, weida de meiguo gongmin, zhongguo renmin de pengyou”
[Defender of peace, master of art, great American citizen, and a friend of
Chinese: a report delivered at the 60th birthday celebration of black singer
Paul Robeson], Renmin Yinyue (April 1958): 2-4.
Lü, “The song of Paul Robeson cannot be
of peace,” 2.
Gong, “To learn from Paul Robeson,” 29.
For Chinese musicians’ experiences during
the cultural revolution, see for example Y. R. Mao,
“Music under Mao, its Background and Aftermath,” Asian Music 22/2(1991):
97-125; A. Schimmelpenninck and F. Kouwenhoven, “The Shanghai
Conservatory of Music: History & Foreign Students’ Experiences,” CHIME
(6/1993): 56-91; Kraus, Piano and Politics in China; Chapter 7 of Melvin
and Cai’s Rhapsody in Red.
In WEI Min’s
article, Mozart is described as a “pre-revolutionary composer who succeeded the
humanism of the Renaissance and was affected by the Enlightenment of the
eighteenth century. . . . Although [Mozart] did not actively participate in
meaningful social revolution, his creative works were full of feelings [and]
written for those who fought for their own happiness, even though the conflicts
and dramas [in Mozart’s compositions] were not as well developed as those in
Beethoven’s.” “Mozhate youmei de yinyue yongliu renjian: jinian Mozhate shishi erbai
zhounian” [Mozart’s music will remain with us forever: commemoration of the
200th anniversary of Mozart’s death], Renmin Yinyue (December 1991): 37.
Bohlman, “Music as Representation,” 206.