“We are at cultural war.” During my music learning and teaching in China, I heard viewpoints like this from time to time. Small (1996) believes that people might not be aware that they are unconsciously educated to have a certain value in the context they live. In such a relatively peaceful era, the narrative of “war” sounds out of season, and, sounds a bit unfamiliar to you. Whereas to us Easterners, after going through the tremendous social transition of the past 150 years, every time there are Western “staffs” imported into China, there must be cultural and ideological conflicts in Chinese society.

In the late 19th century, the Qing government – the dominant Chinese class at that time – were forced to change their exclusion policy and started to trade with western countries because they lost some wars with them (Yamamoto, 2002; Shi & Huang, 2005). The thousand-year-pride in Chinese’s minds collapsed. They suddenly realized that China already fell behind western countries not only economically militarily and systematically (Huang, 1987). A series of reforms were proposed and implemented in order to chase after the development of the world. In terms of education, many young people were sent abroad to learn sciences, engineering, and arts from Western countries (Li, 1987).

When the students returned, they contributed to Chinese development in many fields. Zhan Tianyou, for example, worked as the chief engineer and designed the first Chinese railway after graduating from Yale University. Regarding Chinese education and music, the modern schools and colleges were established (Sang, 1989), with the Shanghai National Conservatory of Music (now named the Shanghai Conservatory of Music) being the first music institution in China in 1927.

The Jingbao Railway, the first Chinese railway. Constructed between 1905 and 1909
The Concert Hall in Shanghai National Conservatory of Music

Western music, being called as new music, was imported, including its foundation – tonal harmony system, just as Small points out in his book (Small, 1996) – and instruments, composing methods, as well as the course settings, and so forth (Ren, 2007).

In the preliminary stage of this import, at the beginning of the 20th century, some musicians and educators, such as Shen Xingong and Li Shutong used the melodies of foreign songs combined with their written Chinese lyrics to form a kind of music which is called school song (Wang, 2002). Then, some folk popular tunes were used into school songs as well. School songs were widely sung in Chinese campuses at that time, and gradually became a sort of school culture. Some school songs, like The Farewell Song are still considered as classical nowadays (Wang, 2002). The development of school songs was the representative of the new music and China modern music history in the early 20th century.

In 21st century, the spread of Western music into China still exists, along with the strong economy of western countries. Without the developed economy, other aspects like culture, philosophy, and politics… wouldn’t have influenced so overwhelmingly around the globe. Nowadays, on the one hand, there is still a “piano craze” among Chinese families (Wang, 2006) which definitely impacted my piano learning during my childhood. The Western music system is so well-structured that a tremendous amount of Chinese see a sort of “superiority” in it. A great amount of Chinese people believe that learning Western music is the way to get a decent job and higher social status. American culture, for instance, influence Chinese aesthetics widely. Hollywood movies and Disney cartoons have tens of millions of Chinese fans because of their exquisite technologies, and so do American pop music.

The growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in China: 2006-2016

On the other hand, western countries, especially the USA, see the great consumption potential in China. This is due to the rapid economic growth after the Chinese government implemented Chinese economic reforms. Chinese cultural elements are used in some American cultural commodities, such as movies like Kungfu Panda, Kill Bill, and the famous online role playing game World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria. However, under the Chinese elements, there is still an American core in those cultural commodities. That means, those commodities widen their consumer groups – they are accepted by both in West and East much more easily. Like Small (1996) argues, music and the other arts are “to be treated as a commodity then clearly it had to appeal to the widest number of people and antagonize the fewest.”

With this cultural spread, conflicts are inevitable in such context. In China, there are often public debates based on people’s (especially young people’s) pursuit of Western culture. The anxiety of abandoning Chinese traditions is shown and discussed widely in Chinese society. Those who have very strong national identity believe that this spread of Western culture is like a war without smoke of gunpower – just as I mentioned in the beginning, a cultural war – so that the Chinese young generation will be more and more used to accepting Western culture and values and gradually forget Chinese music and the other arts. Whereas western countries are worried about China’s rapid development on economy. Chinese human rights and democratic issues are frequently criticized by western media. For example, western countries believe that the Chinese Communist Party suppresses Tibetans and the Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama, who even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 because he fought for “freedom in Tibet.” However, a Chinese perspective of the Tibetan situations asserts that the reason why the Dalai Lama fought against the Chinese government is that the Chinese army ended Tibetan slavery, which violated the interests of Tibetan dominant class.

This situation resembles western judgements towards “what is good music” (Small, 1996), which means both Westerners and Easterners are used to unconsciously judging each other based on their respective rules and habits, and don’t know how to truly understand the others’ histories and developing traces, or to see the differences in it. Economy determines the spread of culture, but information asymmetry and lack of deep research prompt incomprehension and conflicts between them both.


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