The Piano in China: From a Royal Gift to International Superstars

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A Steinway piano at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Brook Ward (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.

I once read that when pianos first started arriving in China in the 19th century, people were afraid of what they heard; it sounded like bones were rattling inside. Actually, the first keyboard arrived in China in 1601, when an Italian Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci brought a clavichord (a precursor to the modern piano) with him to Beijing. Later Jesuits also brought keyboards to various Chinese monarchs. There were no keyboard instruments in China before these, and the royal courts loved the large exotic instrument from the West.

The piano eventually became very popular, especially in cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1920’s. The Shanghai Conservatory, founded in 1927, invited top foreign piano teachers from the Soviet Union and other countries to join the faculty. Boris Zakharoff and Alexander Tcherepnin ran the piano department there, writing primers on how to compose and play piano music that sounded Chinese. A great article by Sheila Melvin of Caixin Online details the history of the piano in China. Today, Chinese pianists like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Yundi Li, and Xiayin Wang, are superstars touring the world. It’s certain that more upcoming Chinese pianists will enter the international arena as well.

And now the iconic Steinway & Sons brand is being promoted in China. Countering slowing sales in America and Europe, China is a market ripe for these fabulous instruments. According to a recent article in the New York Times, China has invigorated Steinway sales. In fact, China is now Steinway’s largest market outside the U.S. Owning, even playing, a Steinway is a success symbol for both wealthy patrons and aspiring pianists. And there are far more young piano virtuosos than there are Steinways. Low-end pianos are the norm, but a Steinway is like Bentley or Hermès, luxury brands that confer status. Steinway salespeople in China are hoping to convince elite customers that a Steinway is a good investment. When the new Steinway Spirio was unveiled in China, it carried a hefty $147,000 price tag. It’s an acoustic grand with a digital brain which enables it to play without a pianist tickling the ivories.

Here is Yuja Wang playing the Spiro, which replays what she plays, followed by a nice encore on a regular Steinway D Grand:

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