Playing the politics of the piano

In 1929 the Beijing opera star Mei Lanfang embarked on his first tour of the US. Mei soon found himself showcased as little more than a musical oddity and, on arrival in Seattle, was promptly arrested as an illegal immigrant. Several decades later, Sino-US relations are very different. In January 2011, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang was invited to a White House state dinner in honour of China’s President Hu Jintao. That evening, Lang Lang performed the song ‘My Motherland’, written for the 1956 Chinese film on the Korean War, Battle on Shangganling Mountain, and whose original lyrics include the line ‘we deal with wolves with guns’, a direct reference to the US. Lang Lang’s performance immediately provided ammunition for conservative American commentators, who accused the pianist of seeking to further ingratiate himself with the powers that be in Beijing, channelling the Chinese government’s political intent and directly humiliating the US. Writing on his blog the following night, Lang Lang described playing ‘My Motherland’ as a performance in which ‘I was telling them about a powerful China and a unified Chinese people.’ There’s a whole mix of emotions in that, and all of it political.

He certainly delighted the Chinese delegates present, but beyond the immediate controversy, Lang Lang’s performance spoke of something far deeper – a reversal of a long one-sided exchange of music. For decades China had imported Western music while Westerners mocked China’s. Even China’s early introduction to classical music was humiliating, spread via Christian missionaries flooding into the country after the Opium Wars.  

In 2009 Lang Lang was listed in Time’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ – an incredible accolade for a classical musician. How does he feel about being one of China’s most influential ambassadors? ‘I am very interested in presenting Chinese culture and doing work for cultural communication,’ he enthuses. Born 30 years ago in the industrial city of Shenyang, Lang Lang’s musical upbringing in many ways embodies the volatile relationship his country holds with classical music. While Lang Lang has devoted his career to the piano, the instrument par excellence of the Western tradition, his father is a master of the erhu, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. ‘I grew up practising piano every day and listening to my father’s erhu playing,’ Lang Lang recalls. ‘The erhu fascinated me. It has an extremely emotional sound.’

From the start, Lang Lang was brought up in cultural complexity. The piano is an industrial instrument, forever associated with the European bourgeoisie, and its Western 12-note chromatic scale is far removed from any traditional Chinese aesthetic. Lang Lang is keen to stress his inheritance of both traditions, ‘I studied Western music as a foundation, and was influenced by Eastern music in some ways. I think it somehow made my playing characterized.’ How does Lang Lang think China has managed to straddle its traditions, and the reception of Western classical music? He offers some typically optimistic advice. ‘There are ways of making better understanding between West and East. People should never fear to open themselves.’

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There are many ways of looking at Lang Lang, and by far the most popular one is to see the story of an incredible musical talent. Lang Lang’s career is grounded in a highly pressured musical education. His father took the five-year-old Lang Lang to Beijing, leaving behind his job as a policeman and Lang Lang’s mother, and instead devoting himself to getting his son into the Central Conservatory of Music. The pressures of life in slum conditions soon took their toll, with Lang Lang’s father at one point demanding that his son take his own life, after he missed a few hours of practising. Looking back at his hot-housed upbringing, Lang Lang is understandably guarded about his relationship with his father. ‘He was strict but my career is based on interest. I chose the career by myself, and I had the motivation to practise.’ The success of Lang Lang’s career is well documented. He enjoys endorsement contracts stretching from Adidas to Montblanc. Even his name is trademarked.

Lang Lang’s most celebrated cause lies in China’s classical music education, with the recent mass turn to the piano by 30 million Chinese children being labelled ‘the Lang Lang effect’. Lang Lang is well aware that classical music’s future essentially lies in the Asian market. ‘China is a new hope for classical music, where there are millions of children learning instruments.’ And it is the piano above all others that they are turning to. ‘The piano is usually people’s first choice,’ Lang Lang agrees, ‘it has a rich sound, it has orchestrated character, and there are countless great works for the piano.’ Lang Lang’s passion for education is far more than rhetoric. ‘I hope to enlarge the population of classical music listeners in the next generation,’ he says, ‘and I opened up my first school “Lang Lang Music World” in Shenzhen, China, at the beginning of this year.’

Significantly, Lang Lang attaches this national musical enthusiasm to a more traditional inheritance. ‘Chinese people traditionally love music,’ he explains, ‘their Confucian system had set music education as a basic education since ancient times.’ But the piano’s history in China has been one of instability – an object open to hostility during the Cultural Revolution where it was the instrument of intellectual urbanists caught up in a society rejecting Western cultural imperialism. Revolution severed ties between China’s musicians and the cultural heart of Western Europe. Instead it was the Soviet Union which deeply influenced China’s musical development, with Chinese artists caught up in an effort to search for an aesthetically national music. China’s relationship with the art of its former oppressors is a deeply troubled one. The shifts are extreme; what looks like stability today rests on shallow foundations and feelings of insecurity abound. Mao’s anti-western, anti-classical music campaigns are not much more than three decades old.

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I ask Lang Lang why he thinks China’s middle classes in particular are now so fascinated by Western classical music, despite the country’s narratives of historical humiliation and Chinese nationalism. ‘Music is a universal language’, he claims, ‘Chinese people may speak it in a Chinese accent, but Western classical music has a grand tradition with a beauty that people everywhere can love.’ Like many classical musicians, Lang Lang presents his art as universal, despite this idea being historically perpetuated by a Western perspective on power. 

To fully understand the future complexities that classical music faces, we need to be wary of politically naïve approaches. It is striking how the Chinese government controls its arts policies almost as closely as its military secrets. Classical music in China may be an art form that sits on the margins of national culture, yet it is also tied to the country’s politics – Lang Lang is already a proven ambassador. The state is inextricably involved in music in China, discouraging dissent but handsomely rewarding those who play the game through prizes, prominent posts and payment. Music journalists are caught up in China’s daily performance of musical politics, with the perpetual pressure to deliver favourable coverage when necessary.

Two weeks ago I watched Lang Lang deliver a speech to the Oxford Union. The Union may like to advertise itself as a bastion of free speech, but it was quickly made clear to all of us in the chamber that no political questions were to be allowed. What is left when you take the political out of Lang Lang? The pianist rattled off a polished speech about his belief in a musical education, and at the end students were allowed to ask him about his memorable performances, why he prefers the piano, and whether he likes hip-hop. Lang Lang may not have wanted to talk about politics in Oxford, but his White House performance shows he is quite ready to play politics himself.

Lang Lang is clear on one thing. ‘I grew up in China with Chinese traditions and morals. Even if I am not in China, I still feel a special connection – it is where my roots are and my dreams start.’ Today it seems easy to separate music from politics in the West, where most of our prominent classical musicians appear to us to be essentially apolitical. But China has long seen cultural prowess as central to the validation of power. While the music scene in China is becoming ever more rich and diverse, the creative climate is critically handicapped not just by commercial pressures, as in the West, but also by omnipresent political pressure. Beyond its homeland, classical music’s aesthetic attraction has long been bolstered by the West’s superior political and economic power. Now that power is shifting, classical music’s fate lies increasingly in the East, and its future there looks far from simple.