Is China a Cultural Superpower?

Warming up for the NY Phil in Central Park -- Yu Long with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, NYC, July 14 2010; courtesy New York Times

Tonight I experienced one of the possible billion encounters which could be called a true “Taipei moment”: walking down the street, weaving through fortune tellers and shoe sellers, and dim sum corner kings, I heard a strain of Beethoven.  It was the “Für Elise,” stringing electronically along like a children’s toy from (what else?) a huge yellow garbage truck doing its 10 p.m. rounds.  As I stood there watching a happy group of merchants help load up the trash before they donned pink helmets and sped away on their scooters, I thought a bit about the meaning of Beethoven in Taiwan.

In a country where Beethoven was never mothballed by Jiang Qing, where Lin Biao never tried to kill the head of state, where the parts for the Seventh Symphony did not need the pressure of Soviet tanks resulting in Henry Kissinger’s appearance which in turn led Zhou Enlai to release the parts to the Shanghai Symphony, this kind of encounter is commonplace.

A few minutes later, I was awash in an immaculately-recorded Mozart symphony, merely by virtue of seeking out some baked goods, rifling through a program of cultural events for the month of July in Taipei that almost — almost — made me think that this city is about as vibrant in terms of classical music as Berlin.  (Unfortunately for Asia, in the free agent battle that really matters, Daniel Barenboim has chosen to remain in der Hauptstadt.)  As I parsed through the program’s biographies of the various guest artists, enjoying the fact that all the Korean violinists coming to play recitals provide their names in glorious hanja, making them difficult to separate from the Chinese and Taiwanese artists, I had a thought:

Is it possible that little Taiwan and doubly large, yet still relatively small, South Korea are cultural superpowers?

The South Korean government started a Hallyu (Korea-Wave) Research Institute in 2002 and is wondering if that wasn’t a bit arrogant and premature, but why not?  And why not recognize (as I am only barely beginning to) that state investment in, and individual achievement in, classical music is a significant element in the measuring of cultural power.  If you’re exporting classical music, in colloquial terms, you’re kicking ass.  It indicates economic strength, high levels of education, and cultivated (perhaps even multilingual and well-traveled) citizens: a culture, in short, of achievement.

As I tore a taro bun into little purple bits as Mozart perforated my ears and I realized how many Beethoven sonatas were going to resound in Taipei this month, before the lady who owned the shop reminded me that I should watch out for bandits in Beijing, I wondered again to myself: is China a cultural superpower?  Is it even a classical music superpower?

The New York Times says probably not, but they’re working on it.  Kurt Sassmannshaus, artistic director of the Great Wall Music Festival in Beijing, says “maybe.”  And me?  Who am I?  What the hell, say I, let’s listen to some Tchaikovsky!

But before we do that, note just a couple of more things: China is sprouting symphony orchestras, and performing halls, in prodigious abundance.  (Yes, not just prodigiously or abundantly, but in prodigious and adjective-heavy abundance.)  The arms race may not be completely over (Taiwan media have embedded reporters at the RIMPAC drills near Hawaii, even as Huanqiu Shibao hyperventilates from Beijing), but if only Orange Country Republicans got so excited about the ass-whuppin’ the United States is receiving in terms of cultural investment, we might actually be able to keep concert halls open in the United States and not get so exercised when a single company loses $5.6 million US dollars on a single immense iteration of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.  (That’s L.A., folks, not the fantastic and economically saavy Ring cycle in my hometown Seattle.)

So, to Guiyang:

I learned about the existence of the Guiyang Symphony via its principal cellist, Charles Brooks, who I ran into on YouTube when trying to figure out how to fix my own bow hand in the last movement of the Schumann Cello Concerto.  (Yes!  Schumann 200th birth anniversary!  Go, feel the love in Düsseldorf and enjoy the Ruhr valley in this mighty year of 2010!  Recognize the magnetic beauty of Clara Wieck!  Get into those Haushaltbücher!  Remember how beautiful everything was before Kafka wrote “Der Strafkolonie” and the war destroyed everyone’s hearts, such that Alban Berg had to knock out Wozzeck!  Think deeply on the key of A minor, and the reason why widows would burn unpublished works!  Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!)

Well, please excuse that rude interruption.   Bound to happen every so often.   Blame it on the taro and the fact that I have become completely besotted with cheap pomegranate juice and readily available Mozart g-minor symphonies.

Anyway, this Guiyang symphony orchestra is based in Guizhou province (what would Li Zongren say?  really, what would he say?) and was founded only in 2009.  The players are young, and the string players are all playing on really substandard axes, which is why, in spite of their decent techniques, the cello section does not sound like the luscious Cleveland Orchestra or the Berlin Philharmonic.  You can buy an orchestra, but until the individual players can afford instruments that run about $50,000 USD a piece, you’re not going to approach even rebuilding orchestras like the San Antonio Symphony.

But, in any case, a new orchestra and a new hall is nothing to sniff at.  And if they sound this good in 2009, how will they sound in 2109?  Anyone who thinks Chinese classical musicians in China represent just the thin edge of new money and a shallow culture of Westernization in a country engaging in acts of brazen human rights violations and charging West under a banner of ethnonationalism and environmental catastrophe only needs to read the first ninety pages (of the last 1200 pages of volume 4, of the total 5000 pages) of the Gustav Mahler biography written by Henry-Louis le Grange to realize that 100 years ago, American orchestras were doing about the same.  (And, like China, were about 40-50 years out from their own civil war!)  Using passages from Wharton’s The Age of Innocence as well as copious music reviews from the time and reading that is wider than any spelunking I can ever claim to have done, le Grange describes the classical music scene in New York City exactly 100 years ago as a vivid and wild melangé of new money, new institutions, social climbers, touring orchestras, big budgets built on big egos, and fresh ideas brazenly imported from abroad and appropriated for the native transplanting.    Which reminds me in some important ways of China today, but with Jiang Zemin as the primary patron rather than Andrew Carnegie.  (Fortunately for all of us, Jiang Zemin can recite the Gettysburg Address, in English, from memory, which should help you to get rid of those lingering ideas that deep down, he is a creepy guy who is probably frozen in a compound under Mao’s sarcophagus when he isn’t at flute recitals, People’s Congresses, and international sporting events in Beijing.)

Sorry for all that extraneous information, dear and intelligent readers.  Now, I will silence my keyboard.   Let’s just listen to Tchaikovsky, the man who edged out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall in the late 1880s, much like American movers and shakers today wander out into the klieg lights of Beijing, or Guiyang, and wonder what the hell it all means.  But in the end it’s just about 12 cellos, and a young guy trying to pull some sound out:


  1. Is China a cultural superpower?

    If the standard is newly built concert halls – then perhaps yes.

    If, on the other hand, the standard is sold-out performaces and attentive audiences – then the answer is definitely no.

    I’ve attended a dozen or so very nice performances at the “Big Egg” 国家大剧院 this past year. I’ve been to 6 or 8 more at 中山公园 (just west of Tiananmen Gate). None was sold out, and the audience in each case seemed at least as interested in sending/receiving text messages as in enjoying the performance. At a recent Chopin recital featuring a talented Israeli pianist, for example, a Chinese woman and her male partner in seats 2 rows in front of me spent the entire hour and a half playing Bejeweled on her iPhone.

    Just goes to show that you can lead a Chinese horse to the symphony but you can’t make it listen. What puzzles me most is why these buffoons even bother to attend. The tickets aren’t cheap.

    1. YWX, thanks for the comment — which is an important one, since, after all, audiences are at least supposed to the intended target for the auditory art “on display.” It has never appeared quite to me that Chinese audiences are going to symphony orchestra concerts or piano recitals merely to prove their bourgeois bona fides, and of course you do tend to see more kids at the concerts (which can also add to the chaos), but the idea of sitting around just hanging out and texting with the orchestra as a backdrop might be partially generational as well.

      As in the States or anywhere else, it’s going to take a while for norms of audience behavior, and the level of musicological fluency of the audience, to reach the optimal point. After all, China has yet to find its equivalent to the Bernstein televised Young People’s Concerts of the 1950s…

      As to the digital problem, perhaps orchestras and recitalists need to adapt (here as well as “there”) and give the audience something like a centralized Twitter feed about the performance to which they can contribute and interact with during the performance. I wouldn’t particularly relish trying to slug through a memorized Bach suite on stage while all this was happening (as we do after all have to conform to a minimum standard of 19th century self-delusion of the sanctity of the romantic/individual mind of the interpreter in communion with the composer) but I suppose it would at least keep the text-o-holics “on task.”

      A couple of weeks ago I was at the final Berlin Philharmonic concert of the year, and the assistant concertmaster actually took about 30 seconds before the downbeat (as the conductor watched patiently) to wag his finger repeatedly at a lady in the fifth row who was trying to record the proceedings with a digital camera. They then went on to absolutely destroy (I mean this in a good way) Brahms’ 2nd Symphony, whose easy composition in 1873 after the long and frustrating blockage that accompanied the gestation of the First Symphony might be a nice metaphor for the post-pre-digital age of concert going.

      In other words, we are at a crucial point in the concert experience and are going to probably have to go through some uncomfortable experiments with digital technology until a happy medium is achieved. Personally, I like the idea of storing one’s communication device in a small individual soundproof box somewhere in the lobby. Orchestras are competing with instant messages just as much if not more as they are competing with Lady Gaga, I suppose…

      Of course none of this means anything to the over-70 crowd that I sat with a month ago at a coffee concert in Minneapolis (same Bruckner 5/Beethoven 5th piano concerto which was played in Berlin later by Barenboim), who only seemed to experience problems with wildly screeching hearing aides. Pick your poison, orchestras!

      San Francisco Symphony seems to have found a happy medium by encouraging lots of digital interaction before and after (and maybe at intermissions) of their concerts by turning the symphony into a big mingling party for young and mostly single people.

      But asking Chinese people to part from their phones in order to watch something that (let’s face it) is hardly as exciting as Peking Opera to the uninitiated, and in the name of some highbrow idea of a Westernized culture that has yet to really arrive, probably isn’t going to happen.

      Or, to be pessimistic, maybe this all has to do with some Occidentalized view of the West which includes digital drawings and construction of places with names like “Cesar Plaza” and “Paris Villa” and all that: just standing in front of it seems to be enough. And that Egg is very beautiful indeed.

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