World Views
4:07 pm
Thu May 23, 2013

Why the Piano is a Political Prop in China

Pianist Lang Lang performs at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert
Pianist Lang Lang performs at the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Concert
Credit Harry Wad / Wikimedia Commons

Art, culture, and politics are closely linked in China, and until the mid-1960s Cultural Revolution government officials viewed Western classical music as an unwelcome outsider.

“For a while the piano was regarded as the ultimate expression of the bourgeoisie,” says Richard Kraus, a University of Oregon political scientist and the author of Pianos and Politics in China: Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music. “[Then] Mao's wife decided she liked the piano, and there was then sort of the idea that you need to adapt Western technology and art to serve Chinese political purposes. So after about 1968 the piano was alright.”

Kraus says culture plays a more obvious role in Chinese politics than would be accepted by U.S. leaders. For example, every politician that has risen to power in the last few centuries has been expected to have beautiful handwriting.

“Even today the masthead of People's Daily is in Mao Zedong's calligraphy,” Kraus says. “Imagine if Barack Obama wrote The New York Times masthead. We can't quite imagine something like this.”

Because of these differences, art and culture has been seen as testing point between the United States and China.

A 2011 “incident” at the White House reflects the tensions in the two countries’ relationship. During a State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, acclaimed pianist Lang Lang performed the popular Chinese song “My Homeland.”

“After he performed, somebody discovered that that song was made popular in China from a 1950s movie about Chinese prisoners in the Korean War,” Kraus says. "And thus it was an anti-American song that Lang Lang had snuck into the White House and the Chinese were doing a secret victory dance; they'd trumped us somehow culturally.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On dissatisfaction with the piano and European classical music

It's a creature of Western high art; it was something that young Chinese middle class students would study. They'd learn to play their Chopin, their Beethoven, and, in a period of radical politics, this was seen as a very reactionary kind of art and there were efforts to get rid of it. One of the intriguing side-stories of the Cultural Revolution is that the radical side won't stop smashing pianos. The piano actually turned out to be a revolutionary instrument.

On finding Mao’s calligraphy on a mosquito net

I thought "This is odd…" And the more I started looking into it, I discovered it was fake. Mao had never written the inscription for the name of the university where I was working at the time, but they had pasted something together from other characters. And somebody then confessed that at one point they had wanted it to appear that Mao had been their patron.

On how intertwined U.S. and Chinese culture actually is

My hope is that we're economically entangled enough with China that well, gee, we can't really do more than snarl at one another. But, of course, people said that about Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I and that didn't work out. So, a lot of trade doesn't necessarily assure long-term peace. It's a help, and, as you know, our economic penetration of China is vast. And you all know, everybody knows, about Chinese investments in the United States, the amount of our foreign debt that is held by Chinese institutions, recently passed by Japan, I understand. Some things are a little less known. If you go to the movies in the United States these days, one of three chance you'll see a movie in a Chinese-owned theater. China bought the AMC theaters last year. And, of course, some people go "Are they going to start showing Chinese propaganda at the mall?" I think they bought them to make money and that Chinese propaganda's probably not a good way to make money. But, you know, it's an interesting indication of how interpenetrated we are and how culture's a part of it.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Professor Richard Kraus, welcome to World Views.

RICHARD KRAUS: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be here.

GRILLOT: Well, you have a really interesting background, the work that you've been doing on China and culture, and, in particular, all kinds of culture and culture relations. But I'd like to ask you about some of the books that you've written, Pianos and Politics in China. What do pianos have to do with politics in China?

KRAUS: Pianos have everything to do with politics in China because during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, for a while the piano was regarded as the ultimate expression of the bourgeoisie. You know, it's a creature of Western high art; it was something that young Chinese middle class students would study. They'd learn to play their Chopin, their Beethoven, and, in a period of radical politics, this was seen as a very reactionary kind of art and there were efforts to get rid of it. One of the intriguing side-stories of the Cultural Revolution is that the radical side won't stop smashing pianos. The piano actually turned out to be a revolutionary instrument. Mao's wife decided she liked the piano, and there was then sort of the idea that you need to adapt western technology and art to serve Chinese political purposes. So after about 1968 the piano was alright.

GRILLOT: So clearly China is such an interesting country and one where you really can't understand its politics unless you understand its culture. Is that right? I mean, the two really are ingrained so strongly. Is that different than any other country, would you say?

KRAUS: No. And, fond as I am of studying Chinese culture, I'd still say, well, gee, there're some things you can't really understand like, foreign trade statistics, or numbers of submarines...

GRILLOT: Currency valuation... Does any of that stuff reflect any kind of culture?

KRAUS: These things are really important and you don't really need to understand Chinese calligraphy to be able to understand what's going on here. But, having said that, every country has its cultural quirks. And because China is so large and so old, in Chinese politics culture plays probably a more obvious and accepted role than in American politics. And there're some moves that go on within the Chinese political game that if you understand where they're coming from it helps.

GRILLOT: So can you give me an example of how this kind of quirky cultural impact is reflected in political interactions in China?

KRAUS: Sure. A big deal is politicians' handwriting. Every great Chinese artist, in the past every Chinese that was educated well, was supposed to have pretty handwriting. And there's been a fetish of gorgeous calligraphy...

GRILLOT:  So obviously because of the characters...

KRAUS: Because of the characters...

GRILLOT: They're so beautiful; and they take that very seriously and how you brushstroke out your characters.

KRAUS: And the elite status that formal education would give you. And so for over a thousand years this has been a terribly important aspect and every politician that rises to a position of power is expected to have beautiful calligraphy. In the last hundred years or so, some of them haven't. And they hired ghost calligraphers.

GRILLOT: Is that right. I mean, this is interesting, right, we couldn't hold our own decision makers to having good handwriting, or our physicians for that matter.

KRAUS: Even today the masthead of People's Daily is in Mao Zedong's calligraphy. Imagine if Barack Obama wrote the New York Times masthead. We can't quite imagine something like this.

GRILLOT: No...

KRAUS: So it provides a kind of cultural signal for people who are paying attention to Chinese politics within China.

GRILLOT: So those who actually achieve some level of really beautiful calligraphy in their handwriting, you can make some assumptions about their positions in politics?

KRAUS: No, you can't. And the system breaks down in part because the assumption is that your calligraphy reflects your inner soul and that a beautiful hand shows a cultivated person. Every once and a while, of course, there's a politician who turns out to be a real rat whose handwriting was quite gorgeous. So there're some episodes where people's calligraphy has been posthumously destroyed.

GRILLOT: I love the title of one of your books, Brushes With Power. So is this what you're talking about in that book? Modern politics and the Chinese art of calligraphy and how those in power typically demonstrate some sort of gift when it comes to calligraphy and they've really cultivated that gift.

KRAUS: Yeah, that guided us. And one morning waking up in China and realizing that there was Mao Zedong's calligraphy on the mosquito net that was over my head in a bed in Fujian Province and I thought "this is odd." And the more I started looking into it, I discovered it was fake. Mao had never written the inscription for the name of the university where I was working at the time, but they had pasted something together from other characters.

GRILLOT: Of his handwriting?

KRAUS: Of his handwriting.

GRILLOT: And it's that detectable, that you knew that it was Mao's calligraphy?

KRAUS: Oh yes, it was immediately obvious whose handwriting it was. And somebody then confessed that at one point they had wanted it to appear that Mao had been their patron.

GRILLOT: So another one of your works that I think is very interesting is The Party and the Arty: China's New Politics of Culture. What does that mean, “the party and the arty?”

KRAUS: That's a study of the long-term relationship since 1949, since the Chinese revolution, of the party trying to organize artists and its successes and failures.

GRILLOT: So organizing the artists to promote the party line?

KRAUS: Sometimes to promote the party line. But artists have a high status in China, so it's a part of a broader, longer-term trend toward professionalizing artists: having more art schools, more conservatories, more art teacher training programs. It's not all political control, but that is obviously a part of it also. The question then is how much loyalty can you expect from an artist whose salary you're paying?

GRILLOT: Is this something also different in terms of that relationship between politicians and artists that you would find in China as opposed to the United States or other countries? Do you find a similar relationship, or a similar attempt to capitalize on the knowledge of, or the connections of, artists or their fame, basically?

KRAUS: I think the U.S. is probably the outlier here. We've had a historically powerful resistance to government art programs. We didn't have a national endowment for the arts until 1965, and, as you know, every Congress has endeavored to kill it off; its budget never grows by very much. And China has a tradition here that taps into the idea that "okay, the state should be a patron of the arts," for all the problems that may ensue from that that you can find in Russia or in Western European countries, as well with national arts academies. More generous state support.

GRILLOT: Let's step a little beyond just looking at culture in China and its relationship to politics there. Can you say something about cultural relations between China and the U.S.? We all know that there's friendship, but maybe one that is not necessarily the warmest of friendships. Is art and culture an area where we communicate with each other well, that we understand each other a little bit, that we engage with one another, or not?

KRAUS: The word that I think of to describe our relationship is "frienemies."

GRILLOT: "Frienemies."

KRAUS: You know that one.

GRILLOT: I have some of those.

KRAUS: Yeah, see, exactly. We all do. And the U.S. and China have that relationship. And art becomes a kind of testing point for us, where if things are going well, we'll have happy arts exchanges or we'll often use it positively: "Okay, gee, we'll send them some poets and then they'll love us more." But when things are not going particularly well, the arts become a flash point, where we have disagreements or, we'll say, they'll just reflect tensions in our relationship.

GRILLOT: So, for example, when things aren't going well how does it reflect? What is an example?

KRAUS: A relatively recent and kind of silly example, but it's real, is one of China's great pianists, a man named Lang Lang. He's had great artistic success around the world, and a couple of years ago, he was invited to play at the White House. Among the things he played that night was a popular song in China about missing his homeland, and after he performed, somebody discovered that that song was made popular in China from a movie, a 1950s movie, about Chinese prisoners in the Korean War. And thus it was an anti-American song that Lang Lang had snuck into the White House and the Chinese were doing a secret victory dance; they'd trumped us somehow culturally. I think that's really stupid, but it had a life of its own and there was an online debate about this that went on.

GRILLOT: So there was a response, the White House responded in some way about this?

KRAUS: Oh, yeah, we're not enabling the Chinese to laugh at us about Korea.

GRILLOT: They couldn't just see it for the music that it was; there was some sort of other message.

KRAUS: Sometimes the music is just music. Sometimes there is a barbed intent and it's difficult to tell one from the other. Our "frienemy" relationship means that we're both a little suspicious; what are they really trying to pull on both sides?

GRILLOT: So the United States... looking at China from the U.S. perspective now, the U.S. has at least rhetorically said we're making some sort of pivot toward Asia and paying more attention to China. Do you really see that happening? Are we paying attention to China more than the Middle East these days, or is it some sort of balance that we're going to have to strike?

KRAUS: We're certainly talking about it.

GRILLOT: We're talking about it.

KRAUS: We're talking about it. I don't see it yet. The Chinese, of course, hope that they never see it.

GRILLOT: I was going to say, how is that taken in China? So the Chinese don't want to see this pivot?

KRAUS: No.

GRILLOT: They don't want to be watched any more than they feel like they are already.

KRAUS: They think they're being watched just fine as it is.

GRILLOT: Plenty.

KRAUS: Yeah.

GRILLOT: So again, that suspicious relationship, that "frienemy" relationship. So what is it going to take to get us out of that? What's going to move us from being "frienemies" to friends, or, heaven forbid, from "frienemies" to enemies?

KRAUS: My hope is that we're economically entangled enough with China that well, gee, we can't really do more than snarl at one another. But, of course, people said that about Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I and that didn't work out. So, a lot of trade doesn't necessarily assure long-term peace. It's a help, and, as you know, our economic penetration of China is vast. And you all know, everybody knows, about Chinese investments in the United States, the amount of our foreign debt that is held by Chinese institutions, recently passed by Japan, I understand. Some things are a little less known. If you go to the movies in the United States these days, one of three chance you'll see a movie in a Chinese-owned theater. China bought the AMC theaters last year.

GRILLOT: This is definitely something we don't know. China owns quite a bit of American enterprises, and, in particular, entertainment enterprises.

KRAUS: Well, entertainment's important. And, of course, some people go "are they kind of start showing Chinese propaganda at the mall?" I think they bought them to make money and that Chinese propaganda's probably not a good way to make money. But, you know, it's an interesting indication of how interpenetrated we are and how culture's a part of it.

GRILLOT: So, I guess, at the end of the day what I'm hearing you say is that we just still don't understand one another. That there's not a significant amount of... Well, again, the suspicion. Are we going to start seeing Chinese propaganda? Well, they probably just want to make money. I know, having spent some time in China, they're all about making money, as are Americans. We have that in common. So we just don't yet fully understand one another's position.

KRAUS: There are other countries we may not fully understand. The critical thing with China is that, gee, they're a rising power and they're a rival to established American interests in the world and, whatever you think about the "ought to be" of that, it raises the stakes beyond, say, that we don't understand Nepal very well either. And that's not a geopolitical issue that most Americans worry about.

GRILLOT: So enhancing our awareness is a good thing all the way around.

KRAUS: Oh, sure, of course.

GRILLOT: Well, thank you so much Professor Kraus for joining us today on World Views. I appreciate it.

KRAUS: It's a pleasure.

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