Jindong Cai, associate professor of performance at the Center for East Asian Studies, first heard Beethoven at age 12. In the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, the German composer’s music managed to survive the government ban — leaving Cai to savor the 78-turntable record in secret.
In their new book “Beethoven in China,” Cai and China expert Sheila Melvin trace the unlikely Chinese obsession with Beethoven throughout the last century. The fascination, they argue, stems from the way his life story struck a chord with Chinese audiences and the reflection of his personal circumstances in his music. This influence lingers today in China’s flourishing classical music scene.
A resonating life story
According to Cai and Melvin, Beethoven’s life story was the critical entry point for Chinese audiences. His continual struggles — going deaf in his 30s and remaining single — seemed to mirror the circumstances of the country in the early 1900s.
At the time, Western powers mostly controlled China, and people were overcome with fear for the future. In 1906, writer and intellectual Li Shutong penned a biographical essay of the composer that became wildly popular. Chinese people immediately connected with Beethoven’s resilience in the face of difficult times.
“He suffered, yet he became the greatest composer,” Melvin said. “They really admired that. He exemplified what they wanted to do.”
In their previous book, “Rhapsody in Red,” Cai and Melvin detailed the rise of classical music in China beginning in 1600. Throughout their research, the pair was struck by the significance of Beethoven and decided to investigate further.
They found a number of touching stories demonstrating dedication to the composer: during the Cultural Revolution, for example, one Shanghai conductor protested publicly against Mao for his Beethoven ban, and was executed while humming Beethoven’s famous mass, the “Missa solemnis.” Before his death, he asked his cellmate to visit Beethoven’s grave for him if he ever made it out of China. Twenty-five years later, the cellmate was able to honor his wish.
In a broader context, Beethoven surfaced in China around the same time as Darwin and Shakespeare, contributing a musical element to an influx of Western influences. According to Melvin, culture is extremely important in China, and artists and intellectuals blamed their “weak” culture for the country’s woes. Chinese intellectuals thus welcomed Beethoven as an opportunity to import more Western music to bolster the country’s status.
Strangely, the public did not hear Beethoven until the 1920s, well after his heroic image had solidified.
Reflection of the personal and political
Part of Beethoven’s appeal also came down to his accessibility. Cai notes that before Beethoven, classical music was reserved for nobles and the bourgeoisie, not the general public.
“Even in the Western world, Beethoven was always revered as a revolutionary,” Cai said. “He did something nobody did before: he liberated music.”
Likewise, Chinese culture expects that art should mirror one’s personal circumstances, experience in society and class status. As Cai put it, artists cannot escape the societies in which they live, and their work will naturally reflect the experience of existing in a shared world. In this sense, the composer’s life story is always related to the kind of music he or she produces. Beethoven’s music, easily interpreted through the lens of his harrowing personal life, seemed to fulfill this criterion.
Beethoven’s music also reflected the political backdrop at the time. During the 1950s, the Soviets brought new conservatory models and orchestras to China as part of their relationship. Lenin loved Beethoven, meaning that even Chinese people who denounced classical music as bourgeois were exposed to his music. After the Sino-Soviet split and the introduction of the Cultural Revolution, Western music was forbidden, leading people to share his music in secret.
Composers today must also tiptoe around the Party line while connecting with the people.
“The fundamental idea that culture really matters is still very, very strong,” Melvin said.
Future of classical music in China
Chinese families believe that classical music provides an important pathway to character development, and make musical education a top priority. Cai, former conductor of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, noted the large proportion of East Asian students involved in classical music in the United States.
“[These families] are the engine that keep classical music going,” Cai said.
As orchestra audiences in the U.S. are aging and the repertoire dwindles, classical music in China attracts ever-younger attendees and a wide range of new compositions. Teens and young adults commonly attend concerts for fun, a concept alien to most young Americans.
Chinese students also study traditional musical forms starting from a young age, typically beginning with piano or stringed instruments. Students are introduced to classical repertoire as they age, gaining wide education in both traditional Chinese and classical genres. Middle schoolers even read Beethoven’s biography in school, while conservatories, for their part, send composers to rural areas to learn folk music.
“Kids don’t go through the sports system, they go through the music system,” Melvin said.
According to Melvin, the Chinese government now has five-year plans for cultural development, just like they do for economic development. Two new conservatories opened in China last year alone, and Juilliard will open a campus in Tianjin in 2018.
“China really, really wants to become a cultural superpower,” Melvin said. “The idea is to get Chinese culture out in the world, but it’s very pragmatic… [through] telling Chinese stories.”
This does not come without challenges, however. Training top musicians takes time, money and experienced instructors. Concert tickets remain expensive and disorganized in distribution, and filling China’s new concert halls with musicians remains a challenge. According to Cai, the next step is building the infrastructure of training and personnel.
As for Beethoven, Cai and Melvin have no doubts his music will continue to thrive.
“No one can compare,” Cai said.