China, for various reasons, has been a topic of conversation in my life lately. And one question that always comes up is why, exactly, classical music is so prevalent in China — though, it’s important to note, nobody quite knows how prevalent it is. Prevalent enough to be notable, in any case, and to produce some terrific composers and astonishing young instrumentalists.
So why is this? Maybe it’s linked to China’s emergence as a world power, and to its blinding increase in wealth. Now we have more people with money. Classical music (much as happened in the US toward the end of the 19th century) gives them extra prestige. It’s also a way for the nation to get more prestige, to show it has culture, as well as economic and geopolitical force. Maybe that’s one reason why Chinese students, as I’ve been told, have an easier time getting into universities if they play the piano or the violin.
But I’d add another thought. Why, given the tremendous worldwide reach of pop music, wouldn’t the Chinese encourage rock? The answers seem obvious. First, you can encourage rock all you want — give preferential university admission to kids in bands (wouldn’t that be fun?), or even give the best rock musicians stipends. But that’s no guarantee that Chinese rock will make any dent in the world.
Of course that’s partly, or even largely, because American and British rock acts dominate the scene. But it’s also because rock songs are supposed to mean something. And meaning isn’t something you can study. You have to embody it. China just might, if it tried, create some more or less empty chart-topping music, but another Dylan, or Springsteen? A Chinese Radiohead? It’s bound to happen, give what’s going on in Chinese culture, but nobody would know how to predict it, or who to encourage. It’s listeners who decide which band means something the world is going to care about.
And there’s one more inconvenient problem. Rock, again, has meaning. Which means it has content. Rock songs say something. So what if they say something the Chinese government doesn’t like? We can almost guarantee that this will happen, in fact, if China develops a healthy rock scene. Rock always has confronted authority. Would it be rock if it didn’t? And the same can be true in other pop genres, even dance music, which can be wildly subversive, even without any words.
Classical music, by contrast, has no such content. You can study Chopin, let’s say, without much chance that you’re going to explode on the scene playing his music in ways that threaten any government. You might threaten classical music purists, and that might even — conceivably, anyway — hurt your career. But you’re not going to be a political threat. I’m not going to say that classical music has no content, or that it can’t take on political meaning if it’s played in the right circumstances — after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, or, arguably, in East Germany before the Wall fell, when classical music was an implicit form of escape.
Or of course in the Soviet Union, when in the hands of Shostakovich classical music assumed some of the edge that rock can have for many of us now. But nobody’s going to pretend that Shostakovich has that edge now, or that the standard classical repertory — whatever profound meaning it might have — poses any threat to any government anywhere. That’s one reason why the New York Philharmonic could go to North Korea. Their presence might have broken new ground, but when they played the New World Symphony, well, that was safe.
From writing this, I’ve discovered that — whatever it means that classical music might be exploding in China — I’d be more impressed if China had some edgy, challenging rock, not just underground, where I’m sure it exists, but right in the forefront of Chinese culture, with some of the bands playing stadiums. (If this is really happening, someone tell me! My ignorance might be showing.)