A New Cultural Revolution

China is in the grip of a piano passion, with superstar rivals and millions playing at home

Norman Lebrecht

In the tea rooms of the French Concession, they are discussing the interpretation of dreams. Not in the Freudian sense, though that may come in time, but in the tightly-focused Chinese way, at once philosophical and intensely practical.

China’s dream went public late last year when the incoming Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping offered it as a totem of his new era. Xi’s phrase was deliberately vague and philologists have been arguing ever since whether to render it in English as “China Dream”, which is nebulous, or “The Chinese Dream”, which begs comparison with the American Dream, a concept both craved and deplored in the Shanghai tea rooms. Either way, the term evokes collective aspiration — and aspiration, in modern China, strikes a mighty chord.

“How many children do you think play the piano?” I am asked by tea-drinkers, as if I, a foreigner, might hazard a better guess than theirs. The only ready reckoner is the number of instruments sold. China made 379,746 pianos last year, 77 per cent of global output, almost all of it for domestic sale. Multiply that by ten for second-hand sales and you are still nowhere near the popular estimate that 60 million Chinese children are currently playing the piano, equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom sitting down every evening and practising scales for two hours.

This dream does not come cheap, or easy. A new piano will cost a working couple several months’ wages, and then there are private teachers to pay, music to buy, competitions to enter. The expense is never-ending. But pass a Shanghai tower block in the early evening and you are likely to hear a clamour of Moonlight Sonatas and Clair de Lunes, the moon being a traditional focus of aspiration (the Tang poet Li Bai, it is said, died while trying to embrace the moon’s reflection in a lake). 

Everywhere I go, the talk is of piano playing. Executives in Shanghai tell me they have to rush home to supervise practice. With a one-child policy in force, mothers cannot afford to let their son or daughter fall behind. On a bullet train to Huangzhou, I meet a five-year-old Manchurian boy who is on his way to an international piano contest. A young woman in music administration tells me that, by taking up the piano as a child, she had fulfilled a parental frustration. “Both wanted to study music but in those times it was not possible,” she confides.

“In those times” brings you up against a bedrock of mass trauma: the Cultural Revolution. It is 47 years since Chairman Mao and his Gang of Four unleashed a state pogrom against the educated urban classes. Teachers were beaten up, musicians had their fingers broken, couples divorced to save their child from being snatched by Red Guards and transported to paddy-fields. It was a reign of terror that lasted ten years.

I remember the day it stopped. I was in Hong Kong at a conference of TV news producers when, flicking channels in my hotel room, I glimpsed through a snowstorm of interference on Central China TV, a symphony orchestra in full fig. A conductor came on and gave the downbeat to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was March 26, 1977, the 150th anniversary of Beethoven’s death. Running down the corridor yelling “The Cultural Revolution’s over!”, I burst into the bar, where seasoned China hands looked pityingly up from their drinks at the overheated news cub and poured a few shots of firewater down my inexperienced gullet. 

That week, I saw no press reports of the concert. But a history of China’s engagement with Western classical music that I am given in Shanghai confirms that my callow hunch was right — and that the whole of China’s engagement with Western culture flowed from this moment. The conductor of the Beethoven concert, Li Delun, was chosen by the Party soon after to escort Seiji Ozawa on an emotional return to his Manchurian birthplace. Ozawa would return with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, paving the way for Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin to make limelight tours.

None of these trailblazers was, please note, a pianist. It is widely believed that China’s piano boom stems from the success of a pair of pop-idol performers, Lang Lang and Yundi Li, each with posters ten storeys high. But the piano revolution began, in fact, outside the classical spectrum. The instrument of enlightenment was a million-selling French salon pianist, Richard Clayderman. 

In 1992, Clayderman opened his tour with Joseph Kosma’s soupy ballad “Les Feuilles Mortes”, theme song of the 1946 Yves Montand film, Les Portes de la Nuit. The tune, by a Hungarian refugee, Joseph Kosma, somehow joined Chinese and Western ideas of moonlight. Clayderman, on return tours, invited child pianists to join him on stage. In all, he has given 200 concerts across China and his influence is perceptible in the country’s twin superstars, the flamboyant Lang Lang and the more introspective Yundi Li. 

Both players project an educational dimension as an integral element of their act. Both interact with audiences, in the hall and online. Both aged 31, they are aggressive exploiters of China’s burgeoning social media. The pair are seen as sworn enemies, ever manoeuvring for advantage over the other, ever building a bigger fan base. 

On the world stage, Lang Lang poses as the winner. Back home, however, Yundi with his ambisexual good looks and dreamy eyes has cultivated the kind of early-teen fandom once owned by Michael Jackson and latterly by Justin Bieber. Yundi is on a 40-city solo tour of China, playing nothing but Beethoven sonatas. His fans dismiss Lang Lang as superficial.

Like much else in today’s China, the piano has gone from ban to boom with barely a pause for breath. Much about the phenomenon remains enigmatic, but its scale cannot be denied. China is in the grip of a piano passion, a mass pursuit which historians will surely regard as one of the transformational cultural events of the 21st century. As the West plays with cellphones, in China kids practise the piano.

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