Support the news
Imagine you're a teenager in Beijing in the 1960s and '70s, during the Cultural Revolution. Everything that's deemed Western and bourgeois is banned — so listening to a 78 rpm recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, powerfully transformative as it might be, is off limits.
Jindong Cai, now a conductor and professor at Stanford University, was a teenager during those repressive days. He and his wife, the writer Sheila Melvin, have written Beethoven in China, a book about the tumultuous relationship China has had with the composer and his music. Cai and Melvin spoke with NPR's Robert Siegel about that relationship; hear the full conversation at the audio link above.
It may be surprising to Westerners, but Melvin says that Beethoven was extremely important in 20th century China.
"His music and his personal story are really deeply woven into the country's cultural, social and political fabric," she says. "They've inspired revolution, rebellion, reform for over the past 100 years and really brought comfort to people who were suffering and inspiration for people who want to move ahead. He means a lot to a lot of people."
On one level, Beethoven's personal struggles, with his deafness and his music, appeal to some Chinese cultural norms. "Chinese people believe you have to go through hardship and triumph; that's what our parents told us," Cai says. "Beethoven's life story — just like that."
But there's more to the story. In Communist China, music had to meet political as well as aesthetic standards, and Melvin says some Chinese began to reinterpret Beethoven to fit those standards. "People started saying, 'Beethoven was the original revolutionary,'" she says. "They recreated him as Revolutionary Beethoven, who was the man who freed music and could help free the masses of people, too."
In 1959, the People's Republic of China celebrated its 10th anniversary. The occasion featured the Central Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with Friedrich Schiller's poem translated into Mandarin.
For the time being, Beethoven was synonymous with everything China aspired to be. But within a few years, he'd fallen out of favor. In the 1960s, leftist forces began to take more control and to criticize Western classical music. "It was considered bourgeois, and anything bourgeois was bad," Melvin says. "A lot of Chinese traditional music was also banned; you couldn't do most traditional Chinese operas. It was anything old ... they were going to build a new socialist China with an entirely new culture."
Lu Hongen, who was a timpanist and conductor of the Shanghai Symphony in the 1960s, was an outspoken critic of the Cultural Revolution. Like many musicians at the time, he faced dire punishment for sympathy with Western culture and for his political criticism. After he was arrested, Melvin says Lu took to humming Beethoven's Missa solemnis in his cell.
"Finally, they decided to execute him," she says. "And he said to 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.'"
The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, and in March 1977 the Central Philharmonic Orchestra performed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The last two movements were broadcast across China, in a moment that Cai and Melvin say many Chinese people remember as confirmation that the Cultural Revolution really was over. "They wouldn't have heard foreign music played on the radio for 10 years," Melvin says.
These days, Melvin and Cai say, Beethoven is just as beloved in China as he is anywhere else in the world.
"Classical music is booming in China," Cai says. "So many new concert halls being built, opera houses being built. A new orchestra is created every year, a new conservatory is created every year. But Beethoven remains the most popular composer, and his music is being performed the most."
And it's not just Beethoven's music that endures. "His life story is still taught in schools," Melvin says. "People still read about Beethoven's life and his struggles, and it inspires them."