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Western Art Music


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Western art music, colloquially referred to as classical music, was first imported to China by Jesuits in 1601. After mission work and school songs, the first conservatory was established in China in 1927.

Both the ROC (based in Taiwan) and the PRC (based in Beijing) favored Western Art Music, even though they didn’t always favor the same composers. Especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) most Western composers were banned in the PRC as bourgeoisie and reactionary, but Western art music was nevertheless a strong influence on the eight Model Operas that dominated the era.

With the growing wealth of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and later the PRC, more and more ethnically Chinese people started appreciating and studying Western art music. With an estimate of 30 million piano students and 10 million violin students in 2007 in China, Asia was already supplying  30 to 40 percent of students at America’s top music schools (New York Times).


  • Western art music represents modernity, rationality and an aura of scientific correctness. Already in the early 20th century Western art music was pitted against ‘backward’ and ‘unscientific’ local Chinese musics. Despite increasing patriotism in the 21st century, parents have not en mass encouraged their children to study Chinese musical instruments.
  • Not only in China, but also in South-Korea and Japan, the tradition of Confucianism stresses that education builds moral character. More so than sports, music education is generally believed to help children develop their mental and ethical abilities.
  • Western art music is prestigious and upper-class. Like becoming an Olympic athlete, becoming a successful soloist is seen by many Chinese parents as a desirable future for their child, and sometimes a ticket out of poverty for the whole family. In tune with this Olympic spirit, education and awards celebrate excellence and virtuosity rather than creativity and team-building. As a side remark, this is one of the reasons why China has difficulty producing a top-level symphony orchestra. It doesn’t lack soloists, but its wind and brass sections are often substandard.
  • Chinese governments sponsor Western art music directly and indirectly. In the context of the cultural and creative industries city governments all over the country have build costly theaters, often without properly considering both the programming or the market (see Cultural and Creative Industries Policy below). For instance the National Centre for the Performing Arts was build in December 2007 on a prime location next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It cost 3.2 billion RMB to build it and the operation cost alone are huge. The Dongbei University of Finance calculated that as much as 60% of the operation cost needs to be subsidized.


Successful artists

  • Tan Dun is part of the first batch of composers that enter the conservatories after they were re-opened after the Cultural Revolution. In 1987 he moved to New York. He has composed a range of opera’s, many of which include Asian and Chinese sounds and other references. He is most widely known for his composition of the film score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.
  • Yo-yo Ma was born in France to Chinese parents. He became a celebrated cellist in the 1980s. Next to Western art music, Ma established a Silk Road Ensemble in 1998 to explore the musical heritage of Eurasia.
  • Lang Lang’s career as a virtuoso pianist took off in the early 2000s. After he had some of his largest successes in America, he started profiling himself in China as a patriotic celebrity. With for instance a piano solo at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he became a household name.



For the complete chapter, please download the PDF below