Music lessons in China: a meander through memory with variations on themes ancient and modern

It must have been the Christmas of 1993. We were out for a family walk in a stretch of woodland just outside Lilongwe (in Malaŵi, one of Africa’s poorest countries). My two-year-old son, Jacques—tired out from digging up ants and fighting with his big brother, Enrique—was on my shoulders, and I was trying to bring a little festive jollity to the traipse home by singing Good King Wenceslas. Badly, for I can barely hold a tune, my main musical training having been a boyhood squeaking out hymns in stone pillared village churches of little England alongside my equally tin-eared mum. More melodic genes have somehow surfaced in my progeny, as Jacques now demonstrated by whacking me around the head with the stick he had refused to relinquish upon ascent to the paternal loft. “Stop! Stop it, Daddy!” He couldn’t bear the noise.

Six years later he got his come-uppance. By then, life had taken us to the city of Kunming, the capital of southwest China’s Yunnan Province. For a couple of years Jacques had been learning the violin there with an American teacher. He progressed rapidly and con brio under her firm but encouraging tuition, until she had a crisis of some kind and decided she couldn’t continue. She suggested as a substitute a veteran professor she knew in the Yunnan Academy of Music: a big cheese, the top strings man, indeed, in this province of 45 million people. We went along to his apartment in the dismal academy compound and Jacques romped through his pieces with his usual zest. In daily life he was prone to breaking things, crashing his bike, pinching fingers in drawers, but when he picked up the violin those fingers became remarkably deft. The distinguished professor, who sat impassive throughout the performance, then delivered his verdict. “Well,” he said, “As I expected, he’s going to have to start again from scratch.” It was both brutal and casual, like snapping a twig.

We had happier experiences with less eminent music teachers who were willing to modify their methods for foreigners, or just take the money and not expect much from their students. For the piano, we hired the elegant fingers of a young lady, Miss Shi, who was studying performance at some conservatory or other, but who then left abruptly for Barcelona, where her dad owned a Chinese restaurant.  To replace her we found Mr. Ma, a confident young man with spiky hair, fashionably cut, who was the choirmaster of Kunming’s protestant church. (There were at the time some 20 million formally recognised protestants in China, worshipping in ostensible freedom although monitored by the state’s Bureau of Religious Affairs. Chinese Catholics were fewer and had a harder time, as the Communist Party disputed the Vatican’s authority to appoint bishops.)

Teacher Ma was quite a thumper, who enjoyed crashing out chords to glorify the Lord, but he was also quite good with our boys, assuming a mock severity that they ridiculed yet respected enough to at least grasp some basic theory. For a year or so I took lessons with him too, but I had to give up eventually because I was annoying the family with my incessant practicing and glacial progress. Enrique, by contrast, has since become an accomplished pianist, but first had to unlearn the thumping technique.

Kunming, like the rest of the country, was in a frenzy of ripping down and rebuilding itself, to the general enrichment of government and Communist Party cadres who both authorised and, at the same time, held commercial stakes in real estate development. Twice we had to move apartments and watch our chunky, heavily lacquered upright piano being hoisted up six flights of concrete stairs on the shoulders of stunted migrant peasant labourers, whose farmland may well have been grabbed by the property developing class, and whose escape from death by  piano crushing seemed little short of miraculous.

Enrique, two years older than Jacques, chose the trumpet as his second instrument. His teacher in Kunming was a kindly, middle aged man who rode a clapped-out motorbike wearing an old army helmet. I think he had seen action in the 1979 China Vietnam war, but I may be mixing him up with some other auld acquaintance a bit forgot. Enrique’s subversive irreverence, his joy in the loud, weird and rude noises that coil of gleaming brass could produce, at first perplexed the teacher, but he soon relaxed enough to laugh and bear it as he struggled to impart the basics of embouchure.  

When, after five years in Kunming, we moved on to Beijing, the military connection continued in the trumpet lessons, for the teacher we found there was a retired People’s Liberation Army bandsman. On countless Saturday mornings Enrique and I spent an hour in a taxi crossing the traffic-clogged city to the band’s “work unit”, where musicians’ families and retirees still lived together in the old Maoist style. It was a delight finally to arrive and walk through the compound’s dozen or so dusty, red-brick apartment blocks, especially on winter mornings, for the bitter, coal smoke air was rinsed clean by scales and arpeggios blown on reed, wind and brass instruments, emanating from every stairwell. And Teacher Zhang was a sweet, gentle man, about as martial as a rabbit.  While he played duets with Enrique in the tiny living room, his wife, a lithe sixty-year-old, gave dancing classes to cute little girls in the bedroom. Their only child, a daughter, had emigrated to Canada, or maybe it was the U.S.A.

On the violin Jacques ended up in Beijing with an American Taiwanese teacher, Vikki Chan (or Chang?), svelte and serious, who played viola in the Beijing Philharmonic and had permanent bruising to her chin and collarbone from the hours of daily practice.

A shifting cast of piano teachers passed through our spacious but decrepit Beijing courtyard home, where none of the rooms connected and you had to skitter across the frozen yard in winter to reach the toilet. Longest serving was another Mr. Ma, “Jack Ma” according to his English language business card, which suggested cosmopolitan ambition. (This, coincidentally, was also the name used by the now immensely wealthy founder of the Alibaba group, China’s equivalent of Amazon.) Eventually he went off to Canada to do a PhD in Musical Pedagogy, but before that he managed to polish up his students enough for a public coming-out performance that swelled their parents’ hearts well enough. Jacques played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata; Enrique the Turkish March from Mozart’s piano sonata 11. I always thought of the latter, with some bemusement, as “Turkey March”, since that was what our Jack Ma had written in English above the Chinese script in the sheet music. Sheet music for pretty much the entire classical repertoire was available in cheap, probably pirated, editions from the Xinhua bookstore down the road from us in Wangfujing.

Jack Ma & students

Jack Ma (back) and students at coming out performance, 2004

Growing in age and confidence, the boys formed a high school rock band and played a number of  paid gigs in bars and at parties, including a U.S. embassy do for a bunch of marines who happily and drunkenly punched the air while Jacques, barely sixteen, sang lead vocals on cover versions of Otis Redding, Pink Floyd, Richard Thomson, Bob Marley. It was interesting, I thought, the longevity of those songs from my own youth. In China, of course, longevity is of an entirely different order.



The Yunnan violin professor’s putdown of Jacques’ early enthusiasm remains sharp in my blurring memory, for it was a perfect cameo, almost a caricature, of magisterial authority: teacher knows everything, and only by following the master with total dedication can the poor student hope to rise from the pit of ignorance. Perhaps this show, for that is what it felt like, owed something to the grumpiness of age and gallstones, but I couldn’t help seeing it as the stamp of the past on the puzzling, messy present.

More than a thousand years before European states started to professionalise their administrations, imperial China began appointing scholar-officials through rigorous exams to test the candidates’ knowledge of classical texts. The rewards of office were rich. Study, harnessed to orthodoxy, was one of very few ways to rise in a system centred on hierarchy and stability. The system was shaken up profoundly by the calamities of the 19th century, the ferment of new ideas it brought, the revolutions and wars that followed. But, even when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ostensibly turned everything on its head, it ended with the parroting of new orthodoxies: Marx, “Mao Zedong Thought” and, in our time, the mysteries of “Deng Xiaoping Theory.”

Deng had famously pronounced that “To be rich is glorious.” The desire to get ahead, after decades of enforced levelling, was now palpable, intense, and permitted. For those with initiative and connections, serious money was to be made. For the great majority, the only option was hard, sweated labour.  Under Deng’s “reform and opening” policies, peasant farmers were no longer herded into collectives, and could in the main grow and sell what they chose, or the men could leave their small plots to labour on the booming construction sites, or carry pianos up middle class stairwells, while young women could head off to the new factories in export processing zones, or skivvy as housemaids in the growing number of better-off, urban homes.  For children of school age, government at every level renewed the ancient promise of meritocracy with the slogan, painted on public walls: 知 识 改 变 命 运, “Knowledge changes fate.” Teachers, reviled and spat on during the cultural revolution, were back in fashion as the presumed custodians of knowledge.

Picture: knowledge changes fate

“Knowledge changes fate.” Wall slogan on outskirts of Xining in (predominantly Tibetan) Qinghai province, 2002.



In teaching of all kinds there was great emphasis on mastering fundamentals. We learnt this early on in Kunming when we sent the boys for gong fu (aka “kung fu”) classes, hoping a bit of martial artistry would burn off some noisy energy. They soon gave up because it was so boring: they were barely allowed to move a muscle until they’d learned to stand with their weight properly distributed on their feet.

Yet our closest encounters with Chinese pedagogy came through our daughter, Tian Tian, born a year after we arrived in Kunming. (The name on her birth certificate is Nicolette, but the pet name conferred by one of her mum’s Chinese colleagues stuck permanently. The first Tian, 甜, means sweet, the second, 恬, peaceful.) Before her third birthday she was desperate to go to school, so we enrolled her alongside several hundred little classmates in a kindergarten attached to Yunnan Normal University. (Almost nothing was freestanding in China: everything had to be “under” the “supervision” of some larger part of the bureaucratic complex).

Regimentation was the first lesson. At the gate, every child’s temperature was taken every morning, and any child with a fever was excluded. Much of every day was occupied with classes lining up in scheduled rotation for bathroom visits. (Fair enough when dealing with so many small bladders, and useful for us because, within days, Tian Tian became a scrupulous hand washer at home.) From my office window I could watch the children assemble for morning exercise routines on the kindergarten’s rooftop garden: neat rows stretching, bending and jumping in unison, with one little blonde head weaving rather randomly among them. I was relieved to see the supervising ‘aunties’ (as the teachers were called) allowing some leeway to that blonde head. 

In Beijing, things got more serious. For two years, Tian Tian attended a kindergarten attached to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Her memories of it, I hope, are largely happy, but include an outraged ‘aunty’ one day throwing to the floor her picture of a chicken because the little artist had ignored the prescribed procedure for drawing a chicken, as previously demonstrated in the art class. Creativity permitted only many years later, after you have mastered all the rules.

Tian Tian and kindergarten friends

Tian Tian (front right), Beijing kindergarten friends and Liu Xiaojing (front left) at TT's sixth birthday party, 2002

More than a teacher’s wrath Tian Tian dreaded open days for parents. Her school life was not that of the privileged expatriate but of an immigrant eager to fit in, and she burned with shame at the pidgin Chinese her parents spoke. The open days weren’t much fun for us either. Rather than having a chance to discuss our daughter’s progress, we had to sit with dozens of other parents on rows of low stools, listening to the kindergarten principal deliver an interminable lecture on what we must do to support our child’s development. A key point was the importance of feeding them plenty of fish, because it enriches the brain. Questions were not expected or welcome. This was normal, as many acquaintances who attended or taught at Chinese universities affirmed: to ask a question was not only to expose yourself to the suspicion that you had not understood, but to challenge the teacher’s authority, to imply that the lecture was not perfect and entire unto itself. Copy down those words. Repeat them in exams.



First, though, comes literacy, the great fundamental. Children start by learning pinyin, a Romanised script for replicating the phonemes of written Chinese characters (as in “Tian Tian” to render 甜 恬.) It was developed in the 1950s to aid mass literacy campaigns and supplant earlier such systems devised by foreign scholars. But pinyin is a mere footpath leading to the mountain of Chinese characters, and there is no easy ascent. Twelve years of sporadic effort with private tutors did not get me past the foothills. I spoke Chinese with immigrant pidgin fluency but was at peak able to read only short news items and write simple emails.

Even for Chinese people, literacy is far from child’s play. Any afternoon in Kunming’s older quarters you could see children as young as five squatting at low bamboo tables on the street outside their cramped houses, copying out line after laborious line of characters on day after laborious day. Ahead lay laborious years, in tower blocks that would replace the squat houses, pushed by parents into hours of nightly homework and, for the growing number of families who could afford it—the nouveau not yet riche but getting there—extra classes in the evenings and weekends: English; piano; violin. Entry to a top university. A Master’s overseas. A PhD.  Education changing fate. If you could afford it.

Tian Tian coped okay until the end of first year in primary school. This was 2003, the year of SARS, a killer virus that emerged in China and threatened to spread worldwide. To contain it, China went into lockdown for several weeks: most workplaces and all schools were closed. Almost immediately, to keep the pupils on track, Beijing TV began to broadcast daily distance-learning programmes for all grades, but Tian Tian was a less than assiduous viewer, preferring to spend her days swinging from the poplar tree in our courtyard, or scampering round the lanes outside. Some evenings her friend from next door, Liu Xiaojing, came over to play schools. Xiaojing was two years older so would always be the teacher, imperiously pointing to a list of characters she had chalked on the toy blackboard and, in perfect mimicry of magisterial might, screeching “cuo!”, “Error!”, every time Tian Tian failed to identify a character, as was often the case. When real school reopened, Tian Tian was clearly falling behind. Reluctantly we moved her, first to a ‘bilingual’ school that fell short of its sales pitch, and finally into the international school her brothers attended, where English was the teaching medium.



I used to wonder how China, like Japan before it, was managing to produce so many world class performers of a classical repertoire that evolved in another continent. There was no clue at all in the caterwauling from rows of grubby karaoke bars around the Kunming Workers’ Cultural Palace, nor from apartments near us where people with home karaoke systems wailed into them late at night, murdering trashy pop songs or love-the-motherland ballads in blithe disregard of neighbours’ desire for sleep. This seemed a nation of people even more tone deaf than me.

And how could that be for speakers of a tonal language whose very phonemes must sing—to distinguish, for example, between the shi meaning poet, the shi meaning city, the shi meaning stone, the shi meaning lion?  I never really grasped those inflections, relying mainly on context to understand and make myself understood.  Which is to say, I never really grasped that way of hearing, much less that way of singing.  

The human voice must have been the first instrument of our music (and remains, for me, the most intimate). It is easy to imagine prehistoric ‘songs without words’, a music without language, cries of grief and joy and war, the purring vocal cords of a homo not quite sapiens clutching an infant to the rhythm of the heart. Less easy to imagine a complex music evolving in communities without language. (Yes, there is birdsong, whale song, but it takes an anthropomorphic leap of faith even to call this “song”, however much it moves us.) And if human language and music have grown up together, I am left wondering how the patterns and inflections of a particular language relate to musical heritage.

China’s heritage of poetry and song stretches back at least three thousand years. Written versions of hundreds of poem-songs from the ancient Zhou dynasty were extant in the sixth century BCE, when a definitive collection was compiled, the Classic of Poetry (Shi Jing), which is widely attributed to Confucius. (This was one of the texts that, many centuries later, scholar-official candidates would need to know virtually by heart.) Some of the pieces are ceremonial hymns or incantations for ritual use; others are a kind of ballad form, recounting Zhou mythos-history, while yet others are airs, probably drawn from folk traditions. Here’s a snippet from one of the latter, translated into English—a language that did not exist, not even in early form, at the time of the original composition—by the American scholar, Stephen Owen:[i]

Chilly is the north wind,

heavy falls the snow;

if you care and love me,

take my hand, we’ll go.

Don’t be shy, don’t be slow,

--we must leave now!

Owen’s translation is purposely ‘aggressive’—aimed more at making the work accessible to newcomers than at faithfulness to the original—which helps to account for its strikingly modern feel. This approach risks understating the foreignness of the past, but it does make clear that the lyric was very much a song. According to Owen, classical poetry was often sung, not merely spoken, until the end of the Tang dynasty, 1100 years ago; but ‘popular’ song styles had begun to emerge several hundred years before that, leading over time to divergence between poetry and song.

Yet even my dull ear eventually came to hear song still locked up not just in poetry but in other kinds of speaking. One example was the declamatory style of political oratory (often combined with the effort to encapsulate ideas, even specific policy initiatives, in four- or eight-syllable phrases that seemed designed to emulate the dense, allusive brevity of the Tang poets). Similar were the cadences of public announcements, in a country where public address systems were still widely deployed to guide and cajole the citizenry. At first I found the style absurdly histrionic but with growing familiarity it felt much less so, and now at times I find myself nostalgic for the familiar, airport refrain—in airports across the country that in the course of our twelve years were transformed from waiting halls that stank of cigarette smoke, garlic and pot noodles, to gleaming glass and marble emporia of jewellers, perfumiers, and purveyors of get-rich-quick self-help books—and, above it all, that banal yet strangely lilting call: Gewei de luke, qing zhuyi (各 位 的 路 客 请 注 意: “Attention all travellers, please.”)



If spoken words still sang, Chinese music without words seemed more limited.  The plucked strings of the guqin and guzheng—zithers with a venerable ancestry—produced pleasantly contemplative soundscapes, as did various kinds of equally venerable lute and flute. This music had its fans, connoisseurs and highly skilled performers, but during our time seemed mainly to serve as background for upmarket hotel elevators or sauna bath changing rooms, or in events dedicated to celebrating heritage.  

People who understand such things told me that traditional Chinese music was limited to the pentatonic scale (five notes) and largely monophonic (one note at a time): melodic but not harmonic (and certainly no interweaving of distinct melodies). All of that would come from the world beyond.

In the early 17th century, the Italian Jesuit missionary, Mateo Ricci, presented the Ming dynasty emperor, Wanli, with a clavichord which several court eunuchs learned to play. The 18th century Qing emperor, Qianlong, kept an ensemble of European trained musicians, but it’s unlikely that such exotic entertainment reached beyond the imperial court.  It was in the disruption of the 19th century that European music began to penetrate further, after China’s defeat in the Opium Wars at the hands of a couple of British gunboats. Opium traders established expatriate enclaves in the coastal ports while missionaries flocked into the upstream interior with their harmoniums and hymn sheets.  And, verily, new scales, chords and polyphony began to spread across the land. With more success, interestingly, than the Word of God.  (Those 20 million protestants, after all, were not so numerous in a country of 1.3 billion people.)

Today, the website of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra traces its founding to 1879. In fact, it was originally a European-only band: several decades were to elapse before the appearance of Chinese musicians in the orchestra and Chinese listeners in the audience. But in the modernising cosmopolitanism of Shanghai between the two world wars, classical music took root, alongside early jazz forms in thriving dance halls and night clubs. The classical roots survived not merely Japanese occupation, civil war and communist revolution but also the ten years of ‘cultural’ revolution, during which classical music was equated with bourgeois decadence, instruments were smashed or hidden away, and musicians like the old Yunnan professor persecuted.

Our time in China coincided with a period of vigorous regrowth and expansion. It was not, I think, especially refined taste that led so many urban, middle-class parents to press their only children into piano and violin classes. Aspiration to gracious living seemed to be grounded in a more median musical sensibility. The great favourite of the age was Richard Clayderman, a French maestro of ‘easy listening’ piano arrangements for ballads and popular classics. These were the standard fare of hotel lobby pianists, along with the theme tune from the 1997 movie, Titanic, and, perennially, Beethoven’s Für Elise (which was so ubiquitous that I once heard it played, in electronic beeps, as the reversal warning signal of a limousine; it’s probably now installed as the ringtone on at least ten million phones.) Clayderman pieces were also widely used in intermediate piano lessons, including our Jack Ma’s.Yet, with so many young students, innate talent was bound to emerge and reach more demanding levels: enough talent, now, to flood European conservatories and stock dozens of Chinese orchestras.

To this story, I’m inclined to add a dash of linguistic determinism. My small theory is that the complexity of Chinese script and the effort needed to master it engender not only rigid pedagogy but also transferable habits of methodical endeavour. With a clear system to follow, most Chinese students would become passably competent, and some would excel, at almost anything.

And those karaoke wailers?  They were just people like me, deficient in natural talent and remedial training. The real mystery was not their inability to sing in key, but their lack of embarrassment at the noise they were inflicting on others. A similar lack of diffidence was daily visible, more charmingly, in the public parks, where old and not so old people did tai qi exercises or gathered in small groups to practice Peking opera (a relatively new cultural form, with only a few hundred years of history; more painful yowling, to my ear); or in more sizeable groups for ballroom or fan dancing.

Ballroom dancing, Pingwu County

Dancing at dusk in the public square of Long'an, Pingwu County, Sichuan, 2003

This openness to public view seemed curiously at odds with the enclosed design of courtyard homes, like ours in Beijing and like most homes in China’s million villages, which showed only their windowless outer walls to neighbours, allowing family life to go on unobserved inside. It was hard to discern the boundaries of public and private, to unweave the recent and the ancient past from the puzzling present. The messiness of things confounded tidy minded efforts at understanding. So perhaps my dash of linguistic determinism is poppycock.

I hope so, in a way.



During our time, a commonplace view among Western pundits and corporate expatriates was that “the Chinese” (and “the Japanese” before them) could imitate almost anything—cars, computers, weapons, genetic engineering—and wouldn’t think twice about stealing “intellectual property” to imitate; but they could not innovate.  I disliked the smugness of this view, the old smack of Enlightenment conceit. (The Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, declared in the early 18th century that only white people were “inventive”[ii];  a century later the English literary journalist, Thomas de Quincey, was deriding the Chinese people as “a monkey tribe, capable of mimicry, but of no original, creative act.”[iii]) And that same conceit found something of an echo in what more tuneful expatriates than me tended to say about music in China: yes, performance was technically proficient, but it so often lacked musicality; classical music might be flourishing, but not jazz, or blues, forms that require improvisation and spontaneity. China, in short, was stuck in a rut of methodical but uncreative endeavour. I disliked hearing this too, but who was I to contest it?

There was quite a nice jazz club out on the east side of Beijing’s third ring road, with a competent cast of Chinese and expatriate performers. Next to it was a cavernous disco, the modern equivalent of the Shanghai dancehalls of the 1930s, where DJs scratched records—a blend of techno and hip hop, I think, but what would I know?—for a mass of awkwardly gyrating youngsters, including a sprinkling of foreigners, Australians on world tours and the like, for whom Beijing had become quite a cool place to hang for a while, with recreational drugs readily available. For a couple of summers some of the more adventurous pleasure seekers went off to raves under the stars by the Great Wall. Other genres also had niche followings. There was a fair turn-out at the yugong yishan (The Old Fool Who Moved A Mountain) venue for a concert by Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy. (Enrique was at the time corresponding with the Jamaican artist, Barrington Levy, and trying to persuade the Jamaican Embassy and Captain Morgan rum to sponsor a China tour for Levy; this, alas, did not work out.) And we once went to a dank cellar somewhere near the fourth ring road to watch a punk band whose lack of taste and talent was a fitting tribute to the originals, and gave the handful of fans, with their pierced cheeks and ripped clothes, the chance to look mean and wasted.

So, yes, while top Communist Party cadres and the expatriate corporate elite were shelling out hundreds of dollars apiece to watch Zhang Yimou’s staging of Turandot in the Forbidden City, and migrant workers were yowling out their homesick hearts in grimy karaoke shacks, the children of the middle classes were flirting with a wider range of genres. But I could see little sign of China producing outstanding talent in any of these, let alone developing new forms that might travel beyond their own borders.  Perhaps attachment to my own cultural heritage simply deafened me to what was going on.



Does creativity have cultural parameters?  In some lights, China’s default emphasis certainly seemed to be the backward look: reverence for ancestors, respect for the canon, mastering and working within received forms, following the correct procedure for drawing a chicken.  It’s noteworthy, and in my view rather admirable, that in the second year of primary school Chinese children are introduced to work by the Tang dynasty poets, Du Fu and Li Bai, whereas I doubt there’s more than a handful of anglophone kids that young who have even heard of, say, Chaucer or Milton.  And no Chinese tour guide fails to repeat, often ad nauseam, the claim that China has “4,000 years [in some variations, 5,000 years] of continuous civilisation.”  In these lights, it is tempting to think, as at times I did, that China’s past weighs too heavily for fleet footed invention.  (Above all in dance, given the ponderous legacy of footbinding, which hobbled so many women among the better-off population from the 10th century until the Communist revolution of 1949.)

Yet the “continuous civilisation” mantra is obviously a reductive absurdity given so much change and discontinuity across the millennia: the syncretic assimilation of Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Islam; the often vigorous contest between competing philosophies; the expansion and contraction of imperial borders; even long periods of domination by foreign powers (the Mongols during the Yuan dynasty; the Manchu during the Qing). And the same guides who insist on Chinese continuity will also show off Beijing’s Birds Nest stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics, and other prestige architectural extravagances, many designed by Europeans. The tour may well proceed to a show in one of the handful of theatres still performing Peking Opera, but cinema is an incomparably more flourishing form, and one in which China, like Japan and Korea, has produced outstanding work. Meanwhile, foreigners trying to get their heads around China might, like me, still puzzle over translations of Confucius’ Analects, the Daoist texts of Laozi and Zhuangzi, or Sunzi’s The Art of War (a particular favourite of corporate strategist bullshitters), but these venerable texts are now easily outpaced by Liu Cixin’s science fiction trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, translated into 26 languages with sales of more than 8 million. In short, China, like pretty much everywhere, is living both in the past, the present and the putative future.

In fact, the trope of an unchanging (and eternally despotic) China is also in part a Western creation. In its early modern period, Europe was awed by the fabled wealth and magnificence of Cathay (Marco Polo and all that), but new perspectives followed the self-proclaimed Enlightenment.[iv]  By the time of De Quincey’s “monkey tribe” jibe, such sentiments were  commonplace. The young Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps polishing up a witticism for use on a later occasion, observed in his journal that “The Chinese Empire enjoys precisely a Mummy’s reputation, that of having preserved to a hair for 3 or 4,000 years the ugliest features in the world.” He added that “Even miserable Africa can say I have hewn the wood and drawn the water to promote the civilization of other lands. But China, reverend dullness! hoary ideot! [sic] all she can say at the convocation of nations must be – ‘I made the tea.’”[v]

These distinguished gentlemen doubtless saw Europe’s rise to global pre-eminence, with America waiting in the wings, as the natural flowering of a superior intelligence and civilisation. With hindsight, we are better placed to understand the “great divergence” between Europe and China in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as stemming from Europe’s violent extraction of raw materials and energy from other parts of the globe.[vi] And that process, surely, also slowly but steadily expanded musical horizons.

China’s silk roads reached the Mediterranean, a major fulcrum of cultural exchange, more than two thousand years ago. However, by most accounts, the empire became more self-contained from the start of the 15th century, preoccupied with regional challenges after a century’s rule by Kublai Khan’s Mongols.[vii] This was the very time when Europe was gearing up to expand, conquer and enslave, sweeping the New World and Africa into a long storm of creative destruction that laid hybrid sound and rhythm tracks across the western hemisphere, developed new instruments, and was to culminate in the creative ferment of a twentieth century so powerfully catalysed by the advent of sound recording. Jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel and soul, ska, reggae and rap: all emerging from history’s violent cultural blender. In music, as in dance, and the interplay between them, China has centuries of cultural appropriation and hybridisation to catch up on. Under Communist Party rule, progress has been less than “continuous”, given occasional bouts of official hostility to imported “decadence”.  But the classical repertoire, at least, now seems permanently appropriated.



A small irony in all of this was that Kate, my wife (and the prime suspect for delivery of melodic genes to our brood), had taken us all to China in her role as country representative of the NGO, Save the Children. One of the many, fertile programmes she managed, alongside producing another rootless child of her own, was a project to support basic education in ethnic minority areas of Yunnan.

Primary school in rural Yunnan, 2004

The province, ranging from the tropical rainforests of South East Asia to the Himalayan foothills in the north, contained a large share of both China’s botanical and human diversity, being home to 25 officially recognised ethnic minority groups—from Miao people with kin in neighbouring Vietnam and Laos, to Tibetans in Shangri-La.[viii] Most members of these groups were still living in relative or absolute poverty, with few prospects for changing their fate. Central government officials routinely referred to the ethnic minority areas as “backward” and to their people as of “low cultural level,” even as Yunnan was becoming a tourist destination for Han Chinese from coastal provinces, drawn by the promise of exotic ethnic costumes and customs, folkloric song and dance—for ethnic minorities had been too backward for the sophistications of footbinding—and in not a few cases drawn too by rumours of sexual opportunity. (A Yunnan Academy of Fine Arts professor we knew both encouraged and cashed in on this trend by turning out oil paintings of big breasted girls bathing naked in an Edenic state of nature, although research conducted in the tourist hotspot of Jinghong for an HIV/AIDS project that Kate also oversaw found that its numerous brothels and karaoke bars relied mainly on itinerant sex workers from Sichuan.)

Primary schoolchildren prepare to dance

Yunnan rural primary students prepare ethnic minority dance show, 2004

The schools project involved training teachers and trying some simple interventions to make classrooms more interactive: rearranging desks so that children sat in groups, instead of rows facing the teacher, and worked on some tasks together; introducing games and practical activities to vary the diet of rote learning.  Local teachers and education officials were sceptical at first, but they warmed to the project when the new methods improved exam results.

Middle school classroom in Yunnan education project

Middle school classroom in Yunnan education project (with visiting dignitaries), 2004


If only, we thought, I thought, there could be some compromise between Chinese and Western approaches to education: more play and creativity in the Chinese; more effort and application in the Western.

We’d read and heard plenty about diminishing returns in British and American schools. Friends and acquaintances who taught in anglophone universities complained that many students wouldn’t bother to read set texts, struggled to write a coherent essay and wanted complex thinking boiled down to “bullet points.” After more than a century of compulsory, free education, many state primary and secondary schools were reporting declines in functional literacy and numeracy. There were some  dodgy developments even in the Beijing international school where Tian Tian had ended up with her brothers, and where few pupils needed to worry much about their fate because nearly all of them, as children of corporate executives, diplomats or UN agency staff, were already part of the global elite.

Reproduction antique Chinese furniture reposed decorously in the school hallways, thanks perhaps to the corporate sponsorship that supplemented the fat fees, and after September 11, 2001, the U.S. State Department paid for the entire campus to be glazed in shatterproof glass. Yet the exercise books that came home in the kids’ backpacks seemed remarkably empty. Pinned to Tian Tian’s classroom wall was a poster offering guidance on the writing process: “Research; Draft; Edit; Publish”. This struck me as rather sententious for nine-year-olds, and perhaps accounted for the dearth of actual output. Besides, I prefer essays as exploration, an attempt to think something through, discovery through writing, not the marshalling of arguments to underpin opinion. Not that either method counts for much now that Twitter etc. encourage us all to opine first and think later, if ever.

One open day, I sat with other doting parents watching a series of PowerPoint presentations given by ten-year-old pupils on their MacBooks. (A deal the school brokered with Apple meant we could buy these for our kids at the knockdown price of just 200 dollars, the company doubtless being alert to the advantages of grooming a cohort of elite millennials.) Each child had been tasked with choosing a creature in a tropical rainforest, harvesting a few relevant infobytes and pictures from the Internet, and adding, as a final flourish, an “author’s bio.” One girl, whose bio informed us that her favourite singer was Britney Spears—same as all the other girls in her class—had chosen The Lion as her favourite animal. A lion in a rainforest?  What were the teachers thinking, allowing this nonsense to play out before the paying customers?  I guess manipulating the tech in the exercise of free expression was considered a more important skill than any elementary grasp of zoological fact.

That girl must be 30 years old now. Perhaps she works shifts in the U.S. Air Force, flying drones around the Middle East. I hope she doesn’t kill any lions by mistake.



Back in 1995, in my early months in Kunming, I had a presentiment that I would live to see a war, a real one, between China and the U.S.A.  I pushed the thought away: it was too intuitive, emotional, unreasonable.  It stemmed, I think, from awe at China’s momentous scale and forward momentum. Nowhere before had I seen ordinary people, so many people, work so hard, or highways and buildings go up and cityscapes change so fast, and nor have I since. Not that this conformed to any simple model of collective endeavour: it was a chaotic and highly individualistic place, everyone looking out for themselves, trying to game the system. (As an American friend quipped, this was “a country where twelve men in a room make up all the rules and 1.3 billion people work out ways to get round them.”) Yet somehow it was also unmistakably a place on fast forward, and one with a very strong sense of itself: unified, if by anything, by an unshakeable belief in the uniqueness of Chinese civilisation. Most Western pundits were decrying China’s growth as unsustainable: without the sacred rule of law, the “reform and opening” process would go off the rails, the banking system would collapse, the people would rise up and demand democracy, China would descend into anarchy, blah blah blah. But it didn’t feel that way to me.  And what would America do if China kept “rising”? An America that believed it had “won” the Cold War and could bestride the world in virtue of its superior values. How long would it take for condescension to give way to anxiety and then hostility?

I pushed these thoughts away. Common interest and common sense must surely prevail. Better to work, as we did in our small ways, for mutual understanding and respect, that kind of thing. For sure, we saw plenty of bad stuff.  But, overall, it felt like a time of progress. Perhaps we were just romantic dreamers.

Nowadays, with things so much uglier on both sides of the Pacific, I worry that my first, gut feeling might have been right after all. Maybe that just flows from the accumulating anxieties and impotence of age, the feeling that the world is out of kilter and there’s next to nothing we can do to right it, or even make much sense of it.  Best to stick to simpler tasks, like trying to make a patch of level garden on the Cantabrian mountainside where we have ended up. Enrique persuaded Kate’s siblings to buy her a piano (with the not entirely ulterior motive of playing it when he visits). Perhaps I’ll resume my struggles with it too, as we hope, rather forlornly, for a global outbreak of decency.


[i] This appears in Owen’s extensively annotated, 2,012-page tome, “An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Beginnings to 1911” (1996, W.W. Norton)

[ii] Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist now celebrated by Wikipedia as “the father of modern taxonomy”, kicked off racial stereotyping in a 1735 treatise that coined the term “homo sapiens”. Dividing humanity into four classes, Linnaeus claimed that only one of these classes—comprising white Europeans—was “acute” and “inventive.” Asians were “haughty” and “avaricious.” Native Americans were “choleric” and “obstinate”; Africans “indolent” and “negligent.” Systema Naturae,cited by Ezra F. Tawil in The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance (2006, Cambridge University Press) pp. 42-43.

[iii] China: A revised reprint of articles from Titan, with Preface and additions (1857, Edinburgh: James Hogg, London: R. Groombridge and Sons), p 12.

[iv] Colin MacKerras recounts this shift in Western Images of China (1987, Oxford University Press)   

[v] April 6, 1824 entry in The Journal and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1822-1826 (1961, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, edited by William H. Gilman and Alfred R. Ferguson) pp. 378-379

[vi] How Europe came to “industrialise” before China has been a perennial topic of debate among Western historians and sinologists.  For a recent, level-headed account, see Kenneth Pomeranz’ The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World (2000, Princeton University Press). Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology (2020, Harvard University Press), emphasises the role of early modern fiscal policies in Europe, where intense military competition between states led to taxation regimes that garnered a high proportion of national income, enabling imperial conquest.

[vii] The (Mongol) Yuan dynasty was succeeded by the (ethnic Han) Ming dynasty, during which haijin edicts notoriously banned private overseas shipping and trade, and substantial extensions were made to the Great Wall  (parts of which had existed for many centuries). Economically, this autarchic turn should not be overstated: licenced international trade continued (along with a great deal of smuggling), and it is generally recognised that the influx of gold and silver from Spain’s American colonies led to greater monetisation of the economy and expansion of China’s merchant class. My point, however, is that this period perhaps reinforced a certain cultural autarchy.

[viii] “Shangri-la” was the idealised fictional setting of a 1933 novel by James Hilton, Lost Horizons, which was likely based on ethnic Tibetan areas of north western Yunnan. In 2001, Yunnan’s Zhongdian county was renamed Shangri-la County.