Chinese National Symphony Orchestra: A case study in balancing Western influences and national pride

裴儒克 (Rourke Pattullo)

The Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, originally founded in 1956, has long been a tool for China’s global cultural exchange. Traditionally used to exhibit the expertise of China’s premier musicians on a global stage, today, that Symphony has taken on a larger role. Progressively the Symphony is used to not only serve as an example of Chinese musical expertise abroad, but as a way to influence foreign cultures and bring Chinese composers, Chinese musicians and Chinese instruments to the foreground of the International Community.

However, in order to understand the role of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, one must understand its history. The history of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra largely mimics the history of the Communist party itself. Before the Cultural Revolution, the modern symphony is most closely aligned with the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra. Originally created as an artifact of British and German influences in China the works most often performed by the Orchestra were Western scores of traditional symphonies. These performances would most often be attended by wealthy foreigners or the existing ruling class in China. As a result, following the Cultural Revolution, attendance at the Orchestra’s concerts plummeted. Tracking the values of the Cultural Revolution, after Mao’s rise to power the Orchestra was restructured to showcase nationalist values. This included reducing foreign influences in China and using the Orchestra as a cultural tool to project the values of the party.

Yet, the implementation of those values continued to fluctuate.  Lau writes, “All agreed that China should have its own national music but opinion varied as to what that should be. To resist the adoption of Western music, some traditionalists proposed a new Chinese national music by restructuring the practice of traditional Chinese music using only Chinese instruments. Others were in favor of using European music instruments as the foundation of a new national music.” (Music in China by Frederick Lau) This debate can be seen in changes in cultural focus of the National Symphony. During Mao’s leadership the Orchestra largely played a supporting role to the state sponsored model operas. The intention being that the state would showcase a performance where the glory of the Communist Party was projected in the acted scenes of Chinese Nationalism. As a result, the Orchestra was subverted to play the score and supporting music for the performances rather than be the center of the performance itself. This allowed the Orchestra to survive the Cultural Revolution and prepare for a rebirth.

Chinese National Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (1959)

After the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Symphonic music nationally undertook a dramatic cultural shift. Once again, Orchestras became the center of performances while still simultaneously echoing the new Chinese Nationalist fervor. The new version of Chinese nationalism embodied a globalized Chinese identity that tracked the political and economic success seen by the rest of the country (Luo). In addition, the role of Orchestral music began to shift. Leadership within the Chinese Orchestral community was challenged to refocus their efforts on the education of the Chinese population as a means to advance the country with a newfound populist message. As a result, the larger population became more familiar with Orchestral music and the genre became associated with modernity and the advancement of the Chinese civilization. 

This process only continued throughout the remainder of Deng Xiaoping’s administration and into expanded under Deng’s successor Jiang Zemin. A supporter of the arts, and particularly Orchestra itself, Jiang made arts education an important part of compulsory education. However, this increased openness also posed a threat to the highest levels the Chinese Orchestral Community. During this time period many Chinese musicians found opportunities to leave China and pursue careers abroad. This created a talent vacuum in the Chinese Orchestra world and forced major Chinese Orchestras to search abroad for new members. This began the process of integrating significant Chinese cultural works with foreign influences.

In 1991, Bao Yuankai composed “Yanhuang Style: 24 Chinese Orchestra Themes”. Yanhuang style was a response to the overwhelming influence of Western composers in the Chinese Orchestral world. Yanhuang became quickly adopted by the Chinese music scene and rapidly gained the appreciation of the global music community. Similar to the success observed by Jay Chou in his integration of Western musical influences with a sense of pride in incorporating Chinese influences, Bao Yuankai used much of the same model.

While developed on opposite ends of the world, the science of sound is universal. Therefore, the same tones developed in the classical folk songs of China, mirror the same artistic tools utilized in Western Orchestral works. As a result, Bao Yuankai is able to merge the two cultures into one cohesive piece. This mirrors Lin’s analysis of Jay Chou’s work in modern pop culture. The work of both Bao Yuankai and Jay Chou create music that “is more akin to a nostalgic recollection of the history of China and the sense of taking pride in one’s own heritage”. Today, because of the conscious decisions in the composition of 24 Chinese Orchestra Themes, the piece has become the most popular Chinese piece played by professional orchestras around the world.

Throughout 24 Chinese Orchestra Themes there is a call and response between Eastern themes performed on Western instrumentation, and the integration of Chinese instruments to reference the original source material. While distinct in the unique timbre of the Chinese dihu (低胡) juxtaposed with a western string instruments, the two are able to tonally complement each other. In Chen’s paper he explains why these two distinct cultures can support the melodies of the other. ” Though current Chinese music is based on a pentatonic scale, (used by some of the western composers of the Romantic period), a tonal system similar to that of the west has been confirmed as being used by the ancient Chinese instrument, “Ching,” which was structured in two octaves, including twenty-four semitones.” (The Development of Western Orchestra in China by Chen)

While developed on opposite ends of the world, the science of sound is universal. Therefore, the same tones developed in the classical folk songs of China, mirror the same artistic tools utilized in Western Orchestral works. As a result, Bao Yuankai is able to merge the two cultures into one cohesive piece. This mirrors Lin’s analysis of Jay Chou’s work in modern pop culture. The work of both Bao Yuankai and Jay Chou create music that “is more akin to a nostalgic recollection of the history of China and the sense of taking pride in one’s own heritage”. Today, because of the conscious decisions in the composition of 24 Chinese Orchestra Themes, the piece has become the most popular Chinese piece played by professional orchestras around the world.

In addressing the influences of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra on the rest of the global community, one must also evaluate the role of Western Music in the performances of the Chinese Orchestras. Today, there is a reemergence in the prestige associated with the Orchestra. Largely stemming from the emphasis on Music Education in China in the post-Mao era, today’s populations has developed a strong affinity for classical Western orchestral works.  Evidence of this can be seen in the National Symphony’s 1999 performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony Number Five. Of the ways that Orchestras are often compared against their competitors around the world is through a combination of critics of their interpretations of widely performed pieces, the rosters of that specific orchestra and the experience of their conductors. For the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra, the 1999 performance is an example of all three.

With regard to the piece itself, Shostakovich Symphony Number Five is widely performed throughout the world and is a good barometer for the experience of the Orchestra itself. Throughout the piece, the audience can listen for the nuanced ebbs and flows of the music. If an orchestra can both showcase its ability to delicately combine the solos of individual instruments with a cohesive sound of the entire orchestra, it highlights its role as an elite ensemble. For instance, juxtapose the fluidity of the combined orchestra at 9:40 and the physical weight impressed upon the listener. Conversely, at 13:06 the greater Orchestra fades away and distinct expertise of the flutist and principal horn player creates a sense of lightness. The ability of the National Symphony to do both is a crucial component of playing any major Western symphony. 

Moving to the roster of the Orchestra itself, the 1999 performance can be highlighted by its leadership. A product of the widespread return of Chinese musicians, composers and conductors during the 1980’s, the National Symphony Orchestra’s conductor is Maestro Chen Zuohuang. Chen was the first person to receive a degree from the University of Michigan as a Doctor of Musical Arts in Orchestral Conducting. Similarly, upon his return Chen became the first Doctor of Musical Arts of the People’s Republic of China (Medici). Chen’s expertise in western music shows during the performance by his ability to both understand the composition itself, but more importantly translate that into expressed emotion from the Orchestra’s members. 

Today, the history of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra continues to develop. Increasingly, there is an emerging generation of young music consumers that revere Western Orchestral works. Similar to the time before the cultural revolution, attending the performance of a Western piece is seen as a status symbol (Mengyu Luo). Simultaneously,  the Orchestra must balance serving as one of the living representations of the Ministry of Culture of the PRC. As a result, there has been a progressive adoption of the Western Symphonic orchestral management structure. The role of an Orchestra is to convey culture to the greater population, but also to serve as an ambassador of the state. While subsidized by the PRC, there is a recognition of the balance between serving the needs of the party, while maintaining profitability. Today, the National Symphony Orchestra for instance will balance recording the musical score of major cinemas in order to maintain profitability, while simultaneously performing in concerts abroad as a means of diplomacy. Two key examples of this are the diplomatic missions of the National Orchestra to perform in Berlin and in Sydney. Each of these performances were to celebrate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Germany or Australia respectively. In each case, the pomp and circumstance surrounding the performances was rooted in symbolism. 

In the case of the performance in Sydney, the Orchestra performed two key examples of Chinese Symphonic Music. The first being Farewell My Concubine and the second piece being The Butterfly Lovers. However, what makes those two pieces significant is the inclusion of the third piece as Tchaikovsky Symphony Number 4. By aligning two domestically written Chinese pieces with a Western piece so widely regarded as an Orchestral classic the National Symphony is projecting how it views all three pieces as equivalent in prestige. By performing all three to their fullest potential the National Symphony is able to serve as a projection of the PRC’s soft power, but also to expand the influence and relevance of the Chinese Orchestral works on the greater global music community. 

Chinese National Symphony Orchestra Performs “Farewell My Concubine” in Sydney, Australia (2017)

Similarly, the performance in Berlin mirrors the performance in Sydney. In addition to playing Farewell My Concubine in Berlin, the National Symphony Orchestra also performed the domestically written Dream of the Red Chamber. Originally written as the music for a Chinese television show, the score was expanded to its own concerto. By combining the performance of a recognizable and respected piece of Chinese Orchestral work with a relatively unknown piece in the Western world the National Symphony Orchestra is able to broaden the potential Chinese works that could be repeated by other respected Western Orchestras. In addition, by showcasing domestically written works the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra is able to gain wider recognition for domestic composers and artists performing them. Particularly in a culture as immersed with classical orchestral pieces as Germany, the olive branch of music is deeply symbolic to the German people and valuable asset to the PRC abroad. This sentiment was expressed by Xie Jinying, the director of the Ministry of Culture’s Bureau for External Cultural Relations saying, “The program demonstrates the long friendship between China and Germany, and will build a new platform for further cooperation between the two countries” (China Daily). This use of the Orchestra as both a means of diplomacy for the PRC, as well as a conduit to increase global awareness of Chinese Orchestral not only advances the mission of the government, but also increases the prestige of the symphony on a global scale. 

The history of the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra is ever changing. Originally formed as a means to entertain Western foreigners in Beijing, the Orchestra became emblematic of China’s political transition. The National Symphony Orchestra’s ability to adopt the nationalist and populist values of the CCP while transitioning away from Western influence paved the way for a new and organic form of Orchestral music. Both rooted in the auditory similarities between the development of Western and Eastern style music Chinese composers and musicians were able to bridge the gap between both cultures. Today, that pioneering effort is being expanded to showcase the talents of the Chinese Orchestral community to the rest of the world. The Chinese National Symphony’s Orchestra’s ability to artfully develop a new national sound original in China while serving as an ambassador of culture to foreign cultures not only advances the objectives of the Orchestra and the Central Government, but diversifies the makeup of the modern global Orchestral community.


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