The Piano in China: From Superstition to Superstars

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I once heard that when the piano was introduced in the 19th Century in China, people were spooked:  they thought there were human bones rattling around inside.  A piano was definitely a foreign instrument at the time.  This was also around the time that the British were making money off the opium trade, enslaving countless Chinese to the perils of addiction, and leading to the Opium Wars 1840-1860 when the Chinese revolted and tried to stop the trade.

In 1958, a 19 year-old Chinese pianist named Liu Shih Kun won the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, the most prestigious award a pianist can win.   He returned to China as a national hero, and soon was performing for Chairman Mao and other top political figures.  But during the Cultural Revolution that followed just a few years later, he was imprisoned for six years, forced to live on a diet of two bowls of brine with worms gathered from rotting vegetables as the only protein.   Ironically, he also had to clean toilets at the Central Conservatory, the same institution that nurtured his precocious talent a decade earlier.  His crime:  He had shaken hands with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and played Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

How things have changed in China since those awful times.  Today the piano is much in demand, with one factory manufacturing 100,000 pianos a year.  A new piano can be had for $1500, a lot for most but within reach for the burgeoning urban middle class.

Today’s top pianists include the flashy Lang Lang, the sexy Yuja Wang–who wowed Hollywood Bowl audiences with her red minidress last summer–the elegant Yundi Li–who won the Chopin Prize at 18– and the eloquent and comely Xiayin Wang (no relation to Yuja). They are all formidable technically and can compete favorably with any world-class pianists.  Yuja Wang has a new album, Fantasia, featuring works by  Rachmaninov, Albéniz, and Chopin;  Yundi Li’s new cd The Red Piano features an all-Chinese music program.  Xiayin Wang has a gorgeous cd of  pianist Earl Wild’s arrangements of Gershwin classics, and Lang Lang has tackled the fiendishly difficult music of his hero, Franz Liszt.

With such popularity in the once-forbidden Western instrument, there will surely be more world class pianist coming from China in the next few years.  The music world is better for it.

Here’s a youtube of Yuja Wang performing the mystically beautiful music of Scriabin: