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Influence of the Great Cultural Revolution on Music…Part II

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

I. The Cultural Revolution’s General Impacts on Music

Even though the European classics were banned during the Great Cultural Revolution, the music underpinning the Cultural Revolutionary was in fact highly Western in its technique, harmonic structure, instrumentation, and emphasis on choral singing. In fact, the Cultural Revolution leaders played a vital role in adapting and replacing the old music with this new art.

A. Model Operas

During the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing (Mao’s fourth wife), also known as Madam Mao, took control of China’s musical stage and introduced revolutionary Model Operas under her direct supervision.[1] Shangjiabang and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy are two of the representative symphonic Model Operas produced under the supervision of Jiang Qing.[2] Both were scored for a larger mixed orchestra and included Chinese instruments and Western classical orchestra instruments.[3]

Traditional operas were banned during this time, as they were considered feudalistic and bourgeois during the revolution.[4] Revolutionary Opera, however, based on Peking Opera, but modified in both content and form, was promoted.[5] The Western elements and the use of the Western instruments were allowed as long as they served the goals of the Communist state.[6] Starting in 1967, eight Model Dramas (six operas and two ballets) were produced in the first three years. The Model Operas were broadcast on the radio, made into films, blared from public loudspeakers, taught to students in schools and workers in factories, and became ubiquitous as a form of popular entertainment and the only theatrical entertainment for millions in China.[7]

B. Revolution-Themed Songs

During the Cultural Revolution, most of the popular music (Yellow Music) was condemned. In fact, a major thrust of anti-Western musical propaganda that developed during this time was a vigorous campaign against “music without titles.”[8]

Revolution-themed songs instead were promoted, such as "Ode to the Motherland", "The East Is Red," and "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China."[9]

"The East Is Red," in particular, became one of the most popular songs, broadcasted on the radio on a daily basis.[10] Most of the Revolutionary songs were intended to inspire the Chinese population to achieve ever greater production goals.[11]

The music style employed during this time was a combination of Chinese folk melodies and Western compositional techniques.[12] Examples of successful compositions using such approach were the violin concerto Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, composed in 1959 by Chen Gang, as well as the piano concerto Yellow River Concerto, composed in 1970 by Yin Chengzong, which was based on the Yellow River Cantata, composed in 1939 by Xian Xinghai.[13] These were all inscribed using Western notation.[14] Western harmonies, compositional forms, and cadenzas also appeared in these compositions.[15]

C. A Massive Quantity of Musical Works were Produced during the Cultural


The Shanghai Musicians’ Association set the pace in song writing to inspire the masses.[16] Having an initial goal of 1000 songs, they raised this to 1500 in short order.[17] The Shanghai Conservatory quickly followed suit, increasing their original goal of 600 songs to 1734.[18] The Song and Dance Troupe of the Army’s General Political Department likewise increased their initial quota of 500 pieces to 1545. Finally, but not exhaustively, the Central Experimental Opera Theatre planned to produce 1379 works in one year.[19]

D. Cultural Revolution’s Influence on Young Musicians

Due to the high demand of capable singers and instrumentalist, thousands of young Chinese who had studied Western instruments used their bourgeois skills to join existing song-and-dance troupes.[20] Under such encouragement, many local units established musical ensembles in the 1970s, and many young Chinese tried to join the ensembles to become performers to avoid working as peasants.[21]

II. Chinese Composers Interviewed for in the Paper

In accordance with the principles of supply and demand, the destruction of the old ways over this period led to new opportunities for the rarefied group of composers who persisted through this difficult period.

For this paper I conducted extensive interviews of five music professors who witnessed and experienced the influences of the Great Cultural Revolution first hand. Four of these composers immigrated to the West after the Great Cultural Revolution. These are, namely, Bright Sheng (盛宗亮), Chen Yi (陈怡), Tan Dun (谭盾), and Zhou Long (周龙). One remained behind: Xu Zhen-min (徐振民). They are all professors today. They also all attended a Central Conservatory of Music, either in Beijing or Shanghai.

Professors Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Tan Dun, and Zhou Long are part of what is known as the Third Wave of Chinese immigrants after the death of Mao in 1976. The “Second Wave” were involuntary immigrants who fled to the United States for refuge after the Communist takeover in 1949.

Professor Xu Zhen-min is widely regarded as the leading and most influential composers living in China today.

III. Common Benefits after the Great Cultural Revolution to this Particular Group of

Composers (After the Conservatory Re-opened)

As the same events experienced by these individuals inevitably left different impressions and impacts on them based on their distinct personalities, before going into specifics about each composer’s unique experiences, I will first begin by listing the common benefits they all experienced after the Great Cultural Revolution’s end

A. Smaller Class Sizes and Enthusiastic Faculties Eager to Teach

Shortly after the Great Cultural Revolution’s end, only a limited number of students were admitted after the Conservatory finally re-opened. The Professors were also hungry to teach. This led to an ideal environment for faculty and students alike.

B. Strong Government Support

In 1979, the Ministry of Culture began a massive Anthology of Chinese Folk Music aimed at documenting folk songs, operas, narrative songs, instrumental music, and dances. Traditional groups also re-emerged, often embracing enlarged instrumental resources. Additionally, folk tunes were re-introduced back to the popular culture.

C. Easily Adapted to Different Mixed Instrumental and Vocal Work

Composers were exposed to the Model Operas, permitting them to become acquainted with Chinese and Western mixed-ensemble writing at a relatively fast pace due to the massive production requirements of the Cultural Revolution.

D. Variety of the Curriculum

i. Various Folk Music Classes were Restored and Enhanced in the Conservatories

The compositional styles and compositional language of these composers were influenced by the training they received from one of these Central Conservatories even up to the present day. They have all written folk tunes for numerous settings since that time and all often use folk-song themes in their instrumental and vocal works.

ii. Systematic Traditional Chinese Music Training: Three Years of Intensive


The formal curriculum of the Central Conservatories was dramatically impacted by the Great Cultural Revolution in the following ways:

· Folk songs from all provinces and nearly all minority groups were introduced to

their music curriculums.

· The Conservatories additionally supplemented the academic study of folk music

with field trips to rural villages for about two weeks during vacation periods. Most

of the composers interviewed were exposed to music genres / styles that had not

been introduced prior to their admission to the Central Conservatories.

· Students were required to memorize four folk songs per week, analyze various

styles and techniques, and write original compositions for voice and piano in which

the pitches and diction closely mirrored the folk declamation. Each of the students

in the class learned nearly a hundred songs.

· Quyi were taught. Quyi, or musical storytelling, is a “half singing, half talking” music

genre that is commonly heard in tea houses. The Central Conservatory students not

only wrote articles about this genre, but also composed their own works to given

lyrics. One of the interviewed composers, Professor Chen Yi, has used this training

in her own compositions, such as in her Chinese Rap for orchestra (2012). Professor

Zhou Long has adapted this idea to his composition as well, such as in his Beijing

Drum for orchestra.

· Chinese operas from various regions were taught, including music analyses and

recitations, as well as relevant accompaniment styles.

· Students were required to participate in Chinese music ensemble rehearsals on a

weekly basis to learn the techniques of various Chinese instruments and

compositional techniques for standard Chinese music ensembles. Students also

learned the techniques of the various instruments and the theory of folk ensemble

music to compose idiomatically.

Stay Tuned for Part III, which compares and contrasts the influences of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1967) on five contemporary Chinese composers.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lu, Xing. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture and Communication. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

[8] Kraus, Richard G., Sarah Chapman. Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon. Gottschild. History of the Dance in Art and Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Alan R. Thrasher, “The Sociology of Chinese Music: An Introduction,” Asian Music 12 (1981):42-43.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Keep Apace of The Stride of Six Hundred Million People,” Renmin Yinyue (March 1958):3-5

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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