Remembering Ma Sicong

Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) will mark the centennial of violinist and composer Ma Sicong’s birth with a May 12th commemorative concert.

This is another of those bittersweet occasions honoring an esteemed, then persecuted, then once again esteemed Chinese artist/intellectual.  Ma’s story, however, is particularly dramatic – almost the stuff of Hollywood.

Born into a prosperous intellectual family in Guangdong Province – his father was treasurer for the provincial government – Ma was smitten by the violin as a child, when his older brother brought him one from France.   The 11-year-old Ma begged his parents so persuasively that they let him return to France with his brother to begin formal music studies.  In 1928, Ma became the first Chinese accepted to the Paris Conservatory.  Back in China, he became conductor and soloist of the first all-Chinese orchestra, the Zhonghua Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in wartime Chongqing (Chungking) with money from Sun Yat-sen’s son.   After the Communists came to power in 1949, Ma was approached by Premier Zhou Enlai (who had also lived in France).

“Mr. Ma, new China has been created on rubble,” Premier Zhou told him. “ I would like to hear your thoughts on how to develop music in new China.”

Mr. Ma shared his thoughts and Zhou concurred with all of them – and then told Ma that he hoped he would become the first president of a new Central Conservatory of Music.

“You can bring to it everything you learned in France.  It’s time for you to show us what you’ve got.”

When Ma hesitated, Zhou sweetened the offer by promising him almost any house in Beijing and a salary nearly as high as that of Chairman Mao himself.  Things went well in the 1950s and 1960s – but then the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 and Ma’s own students turned on him with unfathomable vitriol.  As Sheila wrote in a recent article in Caixin, for the first few months, Ma was merely locked up in the Communist Party School, with 500 other members of the capital’s intellectual elite. But in August of 1966 he was carted back to the Conservatory in a truck labeled “Black Gang.” Students were assembled to “criticize” Ma and several of his colleagues; they dumped glue on his head, forced him to wear a dunce cap that said “ox-ghost and snake-demon,” and hung a placard around his neck that said “Ma Sicong, agent of the bourgeois opposition.”  So attired, Ma – the concert violinist – had to march around the conservatory courtyard banging on a pot with a stick while students spat at him and hurled abuse.

Unfortunately, this was just the beginning.  Over the coming months, Ma was locked up in a piano storage room and mentally and physically tortured by the same students he had once tried to nurture. Each day was a blur of labor, abuse and obligatory self-criticism that began and ended with “The Howling Song”:

I am an ox-ghost and snake demon…

I am guilty, I am guilty.

I committed crimes against the people,

So the people take me as the object of dictatorship.

I have to lower my head and admit to my guilt.

I must be obedient.

I am not allowed to speak or act without permission.

If I speak or act without permission,

May you beat me and smash me.

Beat me and smash me.

After the initial insanity faded, Ma was allowed to move home, but his family had fled and sixty Red Guards occupied his house; he attempted suicide.  Unable to bear her father’s suffering, his daughter hatched a bold plan: escape.  Clothed in the uniform of a Red Guard, she returned to Beijing and convinced Ma to disguise himself as a worker. They took the train to Guangzhou, where his wife and son waited, and hired a smuggler to row them to Hong Kong on a moonless night.  When they arrived, a relative informed the US consulate, which provided them with haircuts, new clothes, travel documents – and first class tickets to Washington, DC. Once word of Ma’s escape got back to Beijing, Red Guards mercilessly persecuted his family members and friends – the litany of resulting imprisonments and suicides is almost too painful to contemplate.  (It’s hard not to think of this story when one considers the angst of the blind human rights lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, who seemingly became overwhelmed by fear for his extended family after his bold escape to the US Embassy in Beijing.) Although Ma’s case was deemed complicated, he was finally rehabilitated in 1985 and invited to return to China – but he never did.  Instead, he died in Philadelphia in 1987; a memorial hall was built for him in Guangzhou in 2002 and his ashes were repatriated in 2007.

Ma’s most famous song is the violin piece “Nostalgia,” written in 1937, during the Japanese occupation of China when many people were forced to become refugees, including Ma himself.  Always popular, it was played even at the outset of the Cultural Revolution; some say that it was after he could no longer hear “Nostalgia” on the radio that Ma decided to flee.  The poignant song will certainly be played at Ma’s memorial concert. You can hear Lu Siqing perform it here, watch a very brief clip of Ma performing it here, or purchase it here.

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