Influence of the Great Cultural Revolution on Music of Contemporary Chinese Composers: Part I

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

Background of the Great Cultural Revolution

I. General Introduction to China

When considering the unique people, the basic culture, and the core traditional territory comprising the “Middle Kingdom” (China’s traditional name for itself), “China” has spanned a period of over 10,000 years.[1] This time period encompassed twelve dynasties and multiple periods of warring states.[2] Throughout its history, the traditional territory of China was only controlled by foreign invaders twice: namely, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368), established by the Mongolians;[3] and during the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1912), established by the Manchus.[4] Even during these periods, however, the Chinese culture largely remained supreme.[5]

II. The Fall of Qing Dynasty and the Rise of Communism

The last and arguably most powerful dynasty in China’s history, the Qing Dynasty, collapsed after a reign of almost 300 years due to a combination of several factors: primarily, overextension due to wars with neighbors; internal rebellions; invasion by Western foreign powers; and failed internal administration and policies.[6] The Warlord Era in China rose against the backdrop of a political power vacuum left in the wake of the Qing Dynasty’s collapse.[7] Mao Zedong, the figurehead and most powerful historical leader of the Chinese Communist Party, was raised during the ensuing era of chaos.[8]

Mao was known to be a headstrong and rebellious child with strong opinions.[9] Based on numerous writings during both his youth and while leading the Chinese Communist Party, it was clear that Mao attributed much of the collapse of the Qing dynasty to rigid adherence to China’s traditional cultural norms.[10] Ironically, after China’s culture withstood thousands of years of outward pressure, and even outright invasions, by foreign powers, the greatest instrument of change to Chinese traditional culture came from within.

After the Communists came to power, Chairman Mao Zedong, as its primary leader and figurehead, ultimately led a series of initiatives to eradicate many of the traditional customs and philosophies of China.[11] The two primary policies bringing about such changes were the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Revolution.[12] Out of the two, the Great Cultural Revolution had the most dramatic impact on China’s culture, and most importantly, for the purposes of this paper, on its music.

Society in Turmoil: The Great Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976)

III. Attacking the Four Olds and the Rise of the Red Guard

On August 8th, 1966, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, overseen by Chairman Mao Zedong, passed its “Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” [13] This act empowered students throughout the country to attack “the Four Olds:” namely, old things, old ideas, old customs, and old habits.[14] These students infamously became known as “the Red Guard.”[15] They were given free reign during this time, being encouraged, or at the very least, ignored, by government officials.[16] The scope of Chairman Mao’s reforms seemingly had no bounds, sweeping up all elements of society in its destructive wake.[17] The Red Guard became the vicious instrument to carry out these policies.[18]

IV. General Cultural Impacts of the Great Culture Revolution

Individuals who represented the Four Olds, such as Chinese traditionalists (i.e., individuals who refused to adopt modern ways, such as Chinese calligraphers, Chinese opera performers, etc.), Western educators, and other types of intellectuals, were attacked, humiliated, persecuted or killed.[19] Students from intellectual families were forcibly relocated to remote places, such as farms and factories to be “re-educated” in the work of the peasant class.[20] The Forbidden City, the traditional palace for the emperor and center of government for the imperial court, was closed.[21] The pursuit of religious practices was forbidden.[22] Traditional Chinese and Western art works and literature were banned.[23]

V. Cultural Revolution’s Impact on Education

Schools and universities were closed at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution; most of these universities did not reopen until 1972.[24] The university entrance exams were cancelled after 1966.[25] The students who had been admitted were recommended to work at factories, villages and military units, which were considered “good-class” occupations.

The Cultural Revolution did not end until Chairman Mao’s death in 1976. [26] By the end of the Cultural Revolution, seventeen Shanghai Conservatory professors or their spouses had committed suicide.[27] Others died in prison or in forced labor camps.[28] College entrance exams were not restored until 1977.[29]

Chinese Traditional Music and the Great Cultural Revolution’s General Influences

VI. Setting the Stage: Traditional Chinese Music Prior to the Cultural Revolution

A. Traditional Chinese Music in General

i. Distinctive Origins:

Traditional Chinese Music has distinctive origins. It draws heavily from the Traditional Chinese arts, especially Chinese paintings and the art of calligraphy, and possesses unique qualities in terms of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, and performance techniques.

ii. Distinctive Paradigms:

Traditional Chinese music is often in pentatonic scale. It sometimes, however, also uses a seven-tone scale. This is produced by modulation of the basic pentatonic scale, which forms microtones due to the mechanics of the instruments.

Chinese traditional instruments do not have perfect, or fixed, pitch. Chinese music offers a constant flux of differing sounds, with frequent changes in timbre, pitch, and dynamics. Chinese music is, in fact, well known for its elaborations and subtle sense of timbre (or tonal color), especially when compared to the harmony and polyphony of European music, or to the complicated rhythmic pattern found in African music.

iii. Adoption of Western Methods:

Prior to the Cultural Revolution, many of the most important composers in China were advocates of European classical music due to the lack of fixed pitch in traditional Chinese instruments, as well as to their relatively limited registers. Because of this, the cello and double bass were introduced to Chinese traditional ensembles during this period.

iv. Modernizing the Tools of Music:

In fact, the “improvement” of China’s traditional musical instruments was on the agenda throughout the 20th century. For example, more frets were added to the pipa during this time. Additionally, its volume was increased; its range was extended; and, among other changes, the silk strings on the pipa were substituted with strings made of metal or nylon. The pipa also slowly became incorporated into new orchestras patterned after European models of concert music.

B. Chinese Traditional Opera

Chinese Traditional Opera was firmly anchored in the world of literature. New operas were created by dramatists, not musicians. The performance was in the hands of the performers, who used considerable improvisational flexibility while singing a traditional set of tunes.

C. Traditional Cultural Attitudes: Music was Not Property

Traditionally, Chinese instrumental works bore expressive titles, highly descriptive of their content. Likewise, traditional Chinese music did not reflect the inspiration and emotion of a single musician, as contrasted to European classical music, which honors the genius of individual composers. Additionally, although several traditions of notation were established, much of China’s traditional music was transmitted orally, or by a combination of notation and esoteric instructions by master performers.

D. Chinese Traditional Music was Commonly a Lay Art

Chinese folk music has considerable regional variation. Folk music was most often performed by spare-time musicians, rather than by well-trained professionals. This gave Chinese music considerable flexibility, but also led to the criticism that it had low performance standards compared to Classical Western music, which strictly adhered to the professional criteria that emerged during the 20th century.

Stay Tuned for Part II, which addresses The Cultural Revolution's General Impact on Music...

[1] Wikipedia, China, accessed May 4, 2018,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Wikipedia, Yuan dynasty,

[4] Wikipedia , Qing dynasty,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. Boston:, 2005.

[7] Wikipedia, Warlord Era,

[8] Chang, Jung, and Jon Halliday. 2005. Mao: the unknown story. London: Jonathan Cape.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.


[14] Ibid.

[15] Melvin and Cai, Rhapsody in Red, chapter 7.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Andreas, Joel. Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of Chinas New Class. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

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