Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

Pianos and Politics in China

First published: 1989
Found: Part of my second masters’ research reading
Pages/read time: 380, one frantic day of research


Richard Curt Kraus opens this book with a rather extraordinary paragraph:

During the cultural revolution the piano was likened to a coffin, in which notes rattled like the bones of the bourgeoisie This harsh assessment of an instrument which has been one of the proud carriers of Western musical culture has been attributed to Mao Zedong’s widow, Jiang Qing. In fact, Jiang had a soft spot in her heart for pianos, which she helped save from Red Guard destruction, although she felt no affection for the music written for the piano by European composers.

…and so it goes on. One music-loving political scientist’s take on the tandem rise of the piano and the middle class in twentieth century China. This non-musicological approach to art is refreshing. Though artists, classical musicians well and truly included, may often like to feel their medium as above and beyond the world of economics, Kraus astutely observes that materialism is inescapable.

Much writing on the politics of culture in insufficiently complex because it is politically naive. Materialism may sometimes be a vulgar way of looking at art, but it is never inappropriate when seeking to understand art’s political and social context.

Kraus, self-admittedly, is not a musicologist.  His attempts at objective opinions of music and musicianship clearly show this. However, as a political survey of individuals and institutions forcing and benefiting from the boom of the piano’s popularity, this is a fascinating text. Also of note is the publication date. This book itself is now almost three decades behind politics in China today and could not have foreseen the future of music and culture in China after its year of publication. This is an accessible text mercifully lacking  in musical jargon. At once a fascinating insight into the political pressures behind cultural change but also the individual’s ability to enter and challenge the system using music alone.

Reading suggestion: Would recommend ‘wrapping your ears around’*  Yellow River Piano Concerto and The East Is Red before you start.

*New favourite musical recommendation expression, thank you Ezcapades

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This entry was posted on August 13, 2017 by in China, Non-Fiction, political and tagged , , , , , , , , .

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