An estimated 50 million Chinese kids are now furiously studying classical piano. A look at China’s modern-day piano-mania.
Barely half a century ago, Chinese classical composer He Luting was tortured on live television, and still refused to denounce Debussy as degenerate music. Lu Hongen, conductor and timpanist of the Shanghai Symphony, a known critic of the Cultural Revolution, was sentenced to death after publicly tearing up a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. According to witnesses, Lu often hummed Beethoven’s Missa solemnis during his incarceration. Before he was executed, he told his cellmate, “If you ever get out of here alive, would you please do two things: One is find my son, and the other is go to Vienna, go to Beethoven’s grave […] and tell him that his Chinese disciple was humming the Missa solemnis as he went to his execution.” At the Shanghai Conservatory, in fact, you will find photographs and other artifacts that commemorate 20 students, professors, and their spouses, who lost their lives to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Debussy and Beethoven were dangerous business during China’s notorious cultural purge.
That was then, this is now — and when it comes to Western classical music, times have changed in a big, big way.
From 2013 to 2017, the number of orchestras in China leaped from 32 to 82. In 2019, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 140th season, and the orchestra, along with its conductor, was recently signed to the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label for a multi-year deal.
It’s an unprecedented explosion of appreciation for Western classical music, and for one instrument in particular. There are many internationally prominent Asian violinists like Korean Kyung-wha Chung, but for the Chinese public, the influence of superstars Lang Lang, Yundi Li, and other pianists has created a tremendous momentum for the piano in particular. It is estimated that over 40 million Chinese kids are studying the piano today, with some sources going as high as 50 million.
With direct government involvement, the Chinese strategy to conquer the world of classical music includes a coherent strategy that operates from the ground up, including building the infrastructure for their booming classical musical sector. There are stunning new concert halls in Shanghai, Beijing, and Harbin to showcase classical music.
The inaugural China International Music Competition (CIMC) was held at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts in May 2019. Out of the three finalists, 18-year-old Canadian Tony Siqi Yun took home the $150,000 first prize, along with a three-year artist management contract with Opus 3 (Europe and America) and Armstrong Music & Arts (China). Prizes of $75,000 and $30,000 went to the runners-up. There were murmurs of criticism about the award swirling in the media. While Canadian born, Tony Siqi Yun has received most of his musical training in China, and was the hometown favourite going into the competition. Whether true or not, it’s clear the organizers mean to establish Beijing as a significant presence in the world of classical music.
There is something of a competition among Chinese conservatories to launch prestigious competitions. After President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Poland in 2016, the Central Conservatory of Music created the Beijing International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition for Young Pianists. The China Conservatory, also in Beijing, created the CIMC in response. The generous prize money and organization of the competitions are government-funded.
The importance given to classical music at the upper echelons of government is part of a national strategy. Wang Liguang, president of the China Conservatory and the China International Competition, is a member Chinese Communist party member and editor of several state-run newspapers. He told Financial Times reporters, “The government is using music to purify the souls of the people. This is the message that we send to the world: that we are nurturing our local traditions but harnessing the essence of the advanced western culture [to] make Chinese culture shine more brightly.”
The one area where China may still lag behind the West is in music education. Lang Lang and other notable international stars did their advanced studies in America and Europe, not at any of the country’s 11 conservatories. But, there’s a strategy for that too. Yoheved Kaplinsky, chair of piano at the Juilliard School in New York, was the jury chair and artistic director of the CIMC competition. She spoke to reporters for the Financial Times.
“There is a definite attempt to raise the level of the teaching. They want to bring real artistry into the mix, to show the difference between technically sound playing and really expressive playing. More and more Chinese players are coming back from the west to work as professors. That is really helping raise standards.”
Naturally, the giants of the classical music industry are taking notice. Deutsche Grammophon held its 120th-anniversary celebrations in China in fall 2018, and recently signed a contract with conductor Yu Long, music director of the Shanghai Symphony, the China Philharmonic and the Guangzhou Symphony orchestras. Julliard has opened a campus in Tianjin — its first international location.
Benjamin Steiner, CFO of Steinway & Sons, spoke to China Daily about the company’s plans for expansion. “Thirty million to 40 million children in China take piano lessons, compared to less than 10 million in the rest of the world. So, 60-80 percent of kids playing the piano are in China.” While sales in China have traditionally made up about 5 percent of its annual tally, Steiner said he expected that number to rise rapidly to about 50 percent within the next decade. “400,000 pianos a year were sold in China, compared to 30,000 in the United States, so the Chinese piano industry is enormous.”
With all that demand for piano lessons, where do students find teachers? One of the answers is provided by technology, in the form of an app called VIP Peilian, an online piano learning platform. It’s based on an Uber-like model that links its users link up with available piano teachers at any time. With 700,000 users so far, it clearly fulfills a need.
Report after report from China notes that it’s not only the musicians who represent a younger generation. Audiences are routinely filled with under-30s who have grown up with a reverence for the music. Despite its rather spectacular rise in recent years, the love of Western classical music actually goes back centuries in China. In fact, Chinese emperors were known to employ European-trained classical musicians as far back as the 17th century, and the interest and appreciation flourished throughout the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912).
After the Cultural Revolution, once relations were restored with the West in the 1970s, classical music was one of the first cultural elements used to bridge the gap. The Philadelphia Orchestra toured China in September 1973, leaving a lasting impression on audiences and the general public. The orchestra still tours the country today to sold-out concert halls.
With many in Europe and North America — classical music’s traditional strongholds — talking about the decline of audiences and appreciation for the art form, the huge and healthy Chinese market is a breath of fresh air. Deutsche Grammophon president Dr. Clemens Trautmann told a Gramophone reporter, “China is now among the top ten markets for recorded music in the world — legal, that is.” It is expected to enter the top three within a few years.