No content, no controversy

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.)

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  1. says

    I find your comments about Classical music lacking meaning and content in comparison to rock music to be quite perplexing. It seems to me that the distinction you’re making isn’t a Rock/Classical distinction, but a differenct between instrumental music and music with text. An art song could have lyrics that would get it banned in China just as much as a rock song. The key is that text makes explicit (if literally or metaphorically) what the piece of music means, whereas instrumental music is much less explicit. It still means something and it still has content, but it’s content that is not textual, that is not definitively expressible in words.

    This is not to say that every piece of music with text is somehow completely transparent and unambiguous in its meaning, but words allow non-musicians to interpret what the piece “means” and what its “content” is in something other than purely musical terms.

    David W. Fenton

    First: classical pieces (from the standard repertory) are often instrumental, and those with text have texts from far in the past, which don’t raise contemporary issues. So it hardly matters whether, at bottom, the issue might be instrumental music vs. music with text. Since rock songs have texts (and contemporary texts), rock — in practice; forget about theoretical points — immediately raises issues that classical music doesn’t.

    Second: the sound of a pop or rock song is often just as important as the text — often more important — in establishing a song’s meaning. If you go back a few decades to the rise of disco, the rock fans who burned disco LPs weren’t upset by disco lyrics, or at least not at first. It was the sound of disco that bothered them. Pop music thrives on sound, and the cultural position of any song can almost immediately be pegged simply from the sound.

    Beyond that, there are pop and rock instrumentals. Especially now, in the era of dance music, but also in the past. (Booker T. and the MGs, anyone? Surf music?) And this music, too, stakes out cultural ground because of its sound. I’m not saying that a techno track, let’s say, might immediately strike the Chinese government as subversive, but possibly a full-scale dance music scene, complete with drugs, wouldn’t be too popular there.

    If classical concerts routinely featured new pieces with texts about current life, then classical music might be as unsafe as rock. But surely everyone can see that this isn’t the case.

  2. richard says

    I wonder if Adams’ “Nixon in China” would be acceptable to Chinese censors, or if Messiaen is performed there (I have my doubts) whether any mention would be made of his Catholicism. I also think modern music is probably not played there very much. I don’t know if this is do to an “offical” acceptable compositional style. (Remember the god-awful “Yellow River Suite” written by a comittee.)I think the Chinese like the “trite” like most western “Music Lovers” (God deliver us!).

  3. Melissa says

    Just an anecdote:

    I sang in a metal band that 2 years ago, was invited by our label partner in China for a tour. While our lyrics werent explicit, we still had to go through many hoops to get our lyrics approved by the government in order to play the shows. In fact, in one city, we had to cancel our show because the lyrics werent approved in time for the show. At every concert, there were guards in the venues watching us carefully and listening to us to be sure that we werent going to overstep and say something against the government. We didnt realize they were there until the bands that were opening for us (Chinese metal bands, underground) said this was why their presence was there. Censorship is rampant there, even in their own media.

    I imagine that classical music is much safer in the eyes of the government so it wouldnt come up against the same kind of scrutiny. So it isnt surprising. PLUS, have you HEARD Chinese opera before?? Its a little hard on the ears. So it isnt a shocker that our classical music might be making some headway. 😉

    Hi, Melissa. Thanks for this. I’m not surprised. But reading it in a first-person account gives some reality to the understanding of censorship. It’s chilling.

    But about Chinese opera — it’s hard on western ears, but maybe not on Chinese ears. I think the reasons for western music coming into a dominant position in China has to do with an evolution we’re seeing in many, if not all, non-western countries. As they become part of a globalized, and at least initially western-led world, their traditional culture starts to recede. It gets replaced — but not wholly by western culture. A mixture gets created. That’s very familiar to anyone who knows current African music. It’s a mixture of African tradition and western pop (which itself derives partly from African tradition, so — parenthetically — the cultural mix is all the more fascinating). There’s quite a lot of Chinese music of a more or less traditional kind in China, and Chinese composers write a lot for Chinese instruments. So I don’t know that they’ve completely given up, even on traditional Chinese opera.

  4. says

    My take on it would be that China is going through a part of the cycle that Japan (and to some extent South Korea) did over the past half-century, except (in line with what seems like the general exponential acceleration of history) they are going through the cycle at a much more rapid pace. You were on the money when you mentioned “prestige.” They are now at a stage where the study and mastery of Western instrumental technique and styles is considered a prestigious and noble undertaking. We’re getting waves of Chinese students into American music conservatories and university music departments now much as the 70’s and 80’s saw big waves of enrollment from Japan and South Korea. Now in Japan that sense of the “prestige” of classical music study has not penetrated the current generation of young people as much as the previous couple, i.e., that part of the cycle may have run its course. Conversely, the rock music scene in Japan has really evolved from the generally insipid and derivative into the emergence of some really fascinating, innovative, and yes, subversive acts. (These are all gross generalizations, of course…) Of course the nature of the state is very different in China, but even so I’m betting that you will see a quasi-explosion of rock music in China in a few years or so, with the state perhaps attempting to “channel” the movement by promoting some of the less-controversial acts, allowing a rock “mainstream” that would let off a little steam, while keeping a tight rein on more subversive groups.

    Thanks, Philip. That all makes sense, and it’s quite enlightening.

    I want to add something I thought the moment I saw your name in my comment inbox. I always value your contributions here, even when I might not agree with you. Thanks for your many comments!

  5. Steve Soderberg says

    Hi Greg,

    The underground scene has been active in China for at least ten years. You may be interested in these two web sites:

    The first largescale emag on the Chinese “Heavy Music” scene is:

    But the website (spawned by painkiller) most active in getting the word out internationally is Rock in China at:

    A bit about RiC from their web site:


    Rock in China’s vision is to become the world’s and the web’s largest online knowledge base about Chinese underground music.


    The team of ‘Rock in China’ is committed to present the underground music scene of China and to show the English speaking world that Chinese underground music is existent and living. But we’re not stopping at plain rock! Whether it’s rock, metal, punk, jazz, electro or hiphop, is dedicated to give a clear picture about what is happening in the contemporary music scene of China.



    A. To completely map the Chinese underground music scene

    B. To make the music of Chinese underground available to listeners worldwide

    C. To provide a knowledge base to global

    Invaluable! Thanks so much. You’re a mine of information, on so many things.

  6. says

    I wonder if the Western Classical music “boom” in China has to do with the severe weakening of their own Classical culture as a consequence of the so-called “Cultural Revolution.” Western Classical music traditions don’t have the same inherent baggage; the layers of meaning aren’t there yet. Seventy years of study does not compare to several thousand years of tradition.

    Chinese musical traditions/techniques, much like their heavily tonal language(s), are rife with meaning. The slightest variation in pitch, rhythm, instrumentation alters the message conveyed to the audience. Differing character traits and ideals were associated with, say, the pipa and the qu’in; if the pipa takes over the theme from the qu’in (or vice versa) that had special implications.

    Before the “Cultural Revolution,” these nuances were part of the common culture and needed no explanation–people could tease out the shades of interpretation post-performance with the same relish that online forums dissect tv hit Lost.

    It may be true that Western Classical music is “safe” right now because it is a beautiful emptiness, void of Chinese cultural significance. But how long can it stay that way? In a country where a quarter-tone inflection up or down is the difference between “I love you” and “I think nothing of you,” how can Western Classical music remain free from subtext for long?


    Some nuances: It’s not at all clear that traditional Chinese music is dead. And if there’s less of it in the Chinese mainstream, that would resemble what’s happened in other non-western countries, where traditional music also has receded during the past generation. The cultural revolution is probably not to blame, or at least not wholly to blame, since the evolution away from traditional cultures appears to have happened just about everywhere.

  7. says

    Words? Who needs text to ferret out the unmistakably bourgeois class nature of Schubert? A Chinese interpretation, c. 1974:

    “Take for instance the representative work Symphony in B Minor (the Unfinished Symphony) by Schubert (1797-1828), an Austrian bourgeois composer of the romantic school. The class feelings and social content it expresses are quite clear, although it has no descriptive title. This symphony was composed in 1822 when Austria was a reactionary feudal bastion within the German Confederation and the reactionary Austrian authorities not only ruthlessly exploited and oppressed the workers and peasants, but also persecuted and put under surveillance intellectuals with any bourgeois democratic ideas. Petty-bourgeois intellectuals like Schubert saw no way out of the political and economic impasse, and lacking the courage to resist they gave way to melancholy, vacillation, pessimism and despair, evading reality and dreaming of freedom . . . ”

    see the rest of the quote at

    Brings me back to the old days. The old Marxist days, that is.

    Though you don’t need to be a Marxist to find political and cultural meaning in the sound and structure of music. See the writing of the new musicologists, so-called, though they’re no longer so new (Susan McClary, Rose Subotnick, Robert Fink), or Jacques Atali’s classic book Noise.

  8. says

    Richard comments:

    “I think the Chinese like the “trite” like most western “Music Lovers” (God deliver us!)”

    I find that borderline offensive. It’s so easy to dismiss something with the word “trite” because it doesn’t fit someone’s idea of progressive, but I think there’s something much more genuine in the real affection that Chinese musicians, as well as musicians from Venezuela, Palestine, inner-city NYC, etc. find in music of the Western classical tradition.

    It’s much too complicated to just boil this affection/interest down to just one political cause or a simple predisposition towards the trite. I find it odd, Greg, that you don’t even mention the degree to which real love for this music plays a role in its importance to Chinese musicians. (I’m not saying you’re unaware of it; just that you seem to downplay it.) People don’t spend hours a day investing themselves in an artform like this just because the government told them to.

    At any rate, I’m honestly wondering what you would mean by having the Chinese government “encourage rock.” Are there examples in other countries of systematic support for a rock music tradition? I think even in this country, many would say that the strength of pop/rock traditions (which I fully acknowledge as important and strong) comes from not being encouraged by the government.

    By the way, my intent here is not to defend the Chinese government, but rather to suggest there’s something deeper and more genuine about the degree to which many Chinese musicians have embraced the Western music tradition.

  9. says

    Hey! I ran across this post by accident.

    Being a Chinese, there are some thoughts that I’d like to share:

    I honestly don’t think Chinese Government’s fear of the meaning/content of Rock music is what prevents Rock from being big in China…Maybe it plays a small role, but its impact is much much smaller than the reason I stated below.

    In my opinion the big record companies’ lack of interest in Rock is what keeps it from being more popular.

    The so-called “golden era of Chinese rock music”(a little funny if you consider the short history of rock music in China) happened about 15 years ago, when 4 leading Chinese rock musicians hosted a extremely successful concert in the famous Hongkan stadium in Hongkong. Behind these 4 musicians (one of them is a band) was a rich Taiwan record company (politically irrelevent) who investigated quite some money in promoting rock music. For some reason, the record company withdrew its financial support eventually. Since then, to my knowledge, no other bigger record company has signed any Chinese rock musicians (some rockish pop musicians…maybe). Rock musicians rarely get coverage by the media, which is closely connected to the big companies.

    However, both western and chinese rock music are thriving underground(I understand “underground” as not being covered in the traditional media) among the yonger generation. I won’t go into detail on this topic, though.

  10. Jiaao Yu says

    Still me…

    I want to make some comments on the comments before mine.

    “I wonder if Adams’ “Nixon in China” would be acceptable to Chinese censors, or if Messiaen is performed there (I have my doubts) whether any mention would be made of his Catholicism. I also think modern music is probably not played there very much. I don’t know if this is do to an “offical” acceptable compositional style.”

    –erh…There isn’t an “official acceptable compositional style”. All modern composers are well respected here in China and their music are studied and played often. AND…since this commentator mentions Catholicism…I’d like to point out that there IS Freedom of Religion in China. Being a westerner, you may not believe this (I understand why you don’t. I’ve been studying in the US for two years and all I heard on the media is how there isn’t religious freedom in China), but it is true. This is the biggest lie about China circulating in the western world.

    “(Remember the god-awful “Yellow River Suite” written by a comittee.)I think the Chinese like the “trite” like most western “Music Lovers”

    –I’m not sure what exactly is “Yellow River Suite”? There are two famous and popular Classical pieces that have “Yellow” in them. One is the original Yellow River Cantata, the other is the Piano Concerto derived from the cantata. I (and almost all the other Chinese people) love both of them. I do think that the instrumentation or the harmony of the concerto could be more exciting but I still love it. I love the music and I love its meaning and content, so do billions of other Chinese people.

    “wonder if the Western Classical music “boom” in China has to do with the severe weakening of their own Classical culture as a consequence of the so-called “Cultural Revolution.””

    –During the Cultural Revolution, all music except for 8 pieces of Revolutionary Model Opera was considered bad, evil, unrevolutionary, etc.. “Western Classical music” was weakened as much as China’s own Classical culture was.

    Concerning Melissa’s experience of censorship in China:

    —Strict censorship does exist in China (however, Chinese government doesn’t mute whatever is against it. The actual censorship may be much ligher than someone may expect. The reverse may also be true, depending on who you are.). The censorship of foregin musicians is a somewhat special case: foreign musicians love to advocate the Independence of Tibet in their concert (as Bjork did in Shanghai last year), which is absolutely intolerable by the Chinese Goverment and disliked by Chinese audience. Well…I decided not to go into detail on this topic either since the Western World sees Tibet in a completely different way and I’m not interested in talking about politics.

    This’s all I want to say for now. :-)

  11. Cathy Barbash says

    Rock scene in China is exploding. Contact Charles Saliba at D-22 for more details than I could provide. I’ve also got much to say about classical music in China. For that, you’d have to contact me directly…..

  12. says

    Greg wrote:

    classical pieces (from the standard repertory) are often instrumental, and those with text have texts from far in the past, which don’t raise contemporary issues,

    I think a performance of any of a setting of Super Flumina Babylonis by any of the Renaissance composers who set it (almost all of them did it) in Iraq in January 2002 (or, for that matter, in the US), would have had very intense political meaning.

    We tend to concentrate on the wonderful imagery of the begining of Psalm 137, and forget the last verse:

    9: Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

    Interpreted in the modern context in 2002, the whole text could very easily be interpreted politically, despite the fact that it is ancient and the musical settings are 400-500 years old.

    So, I really don’t buy the argument that because they are old they can’t be politically potent in modern contexts.

    David W. Fenton

    Just about anything can be given a contemporary meaning. And that meaning might even have real emotional force for whoever finds it.

    But that doesn’t mean that the meaning has any real force in the world. You’ve theorized nicely about that Renaissance text. But does the text in actual fact resonate with millions of people? Obviously not. When my wife’s cousin came back from combat in Iraq with the Marines, he brought a DVD his platoon had made, recounting their experiences. There was lots of music on it, music that they felt connected to what they’d seen and done. But no Renaissance motets. You might reply that most Marines don’t know these motets, and if they did, who knows? They might make the same connection you did. But that simply echoes my point! They don’t know the motets, so for them — as for virtually everyone alive in the US right now — the motets don’t connect with contemporary life.