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China's Embrace of Western Classical Music: A Timeline

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Entwined with national politics, the story of Western music in China is surprisingly modern. This timeline highlights the major developments:

1879: Western-Style Orchestras Appear

Traditional Chinese orchestras, comprised of percussion instruments with a few stringed instruments, are centuries old. In 1879, the first Western-styled orchestra appeared in China, with Chinese instruments in a Western formation – groups of strings, woodwinds, and percussion.

1907: The Shanghai Public Band Forms

Later to become the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, this group was led by Italian conductor Mario Paci. As an orchestra, it trained young Chinese musicians and promoted both Western and Chinese orchestral works.

1912: Dynastic Reign Ends and China Looks Westward

Famine, war and rebellion brought the last dynastic era, the Qing Dynasty, to a close. As the newly established Republic of China embraced global values and aesthetics, exploration of Western harmony, notation and instruments gained momentum.

1920: Blended Forms Emerge in Popular Music

Composer Li Jinhui blended "common" Chinese folk songs with hierarchically-favored Western classical music and jazz into an entirely new style of song, ‘Shidaiqu'. Li’s music was controversial, but popular on the radio, in clubs and films. Li’s music incorporated Western instrumentation and form with unprecedented creativity and success.

1927: China Embraces Western Music Education

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music was founded by a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory, Xiao Youmei, and was the first music school in China to teach Western techniques. In the 1930s, Chinese conductor Zheng Zhisheng, trained in Europe, returned to China to become the first Chinese conductor to lead a Chinese orchestra, the Chongqing Symphonic Orchestra.

1939: The Yellow River Cantata

China was at war with Japan when composer Xian Xinghai wrote this piece for choir and a version of orchestra. Inspired by and named for the patriotic poem Yellow River, the piece is an early, enduring example of Chinese aesthetics within Western musical form. Xinghai composed nine pieces for orchestra during the second Sino-Japanese War, advancing Chinese orchestral music with very limited access to instruments and players.

1950s: Conservatories Grow

Despite political upheaval upon the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, conservatories in China produced more and more instrumentalists and composers. The Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing fostered pianists who competed in European and the Soviet Union. Piano, violin, and cello music composed at the time shows a developing knowledge and application of Western techniques like counterpoint to Chinese melodies.

1966: China's Cultural Revolution

Under Mao Zedong, Western music was banned altogether, in favor of Chinese traditional music. Conservatories closed, and many artists and teachers were sent to do physical labor in remote areas. All musical creations were to be modeled after eight works, mostly operas, approved by Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, or to serve as revolutionary propaganda. The ban on Western music was lifted after Mao’s death in 1976.

1976: Western Classical influence Grows Again

Founded in 1950 but closed during the Cultural Revolution, the Central Conservatory of Beijing re-opened in 1978. Contemporary classical composers like Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long attended. Notably, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra began touring the world in the 1970s, increasing exposure to contemporary and traditional Chinese music.

1980s: Chinese Composers Study Abroad

With conservatory educations under their belt and a greater degree of political freedom, Chinese composers traveled and began to absorb influence abroad. Chen Qigang studied with Olivier Messiaen in Paris; Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long emigrated to New York.

1990s: Commercial Success

Composers like Zhang Yimou and Tan Dun enjoyed particular success in the 1990s and 2000, composing works such as Ghost Opera for pipa and strings, and various feature film soundtracks.

2000s: Musical Ambition on a World Stage

The National Centre for the Performing Arts, also known as "the Egg" (pictured above) was completed in 2007, featuring an opera house and concert hall. Lang Lang performed during the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Thousands of students flooded the conservatories and raised technical standards for classical performance worldwide.

2012: The Chinese Classical Market Grows

Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang embody the immense popularity and skill of Chinese-born classical musicians. Indeed China’s appetite for classical music appears to only be growing; recent articles like this one characterize China’s interest in classical music to exceed that of Americans.