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The Direct Line From Confucius to Lang Lang

A Chinese-American pianist and scholar argues China’s embrace of Western classical music is rooted in Confucian values.
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Classical music has taken off in China, which is producing more musical instruments, more music students, and, increasingly, more superstar players, such as Lang Lang, than any other nation. While Western musicians fearing for the art form’s future have welcomed this trend, the reasons behind it have remained unclear.

Why have so many Chinese embraced an art form that is, after all, the product of a foreign culture? A prominent Chinese-American pianist and scholar has proposed an intriguing answer: Confucius.

Hao Huang, an internationally renowned pianist and professor of music at Scripps College in Claremont, California, sees a sublime convergence between Western classical music and Confucian philosophy. He points out there are profound “trans-cultural affinities” between the musical tradition that produced Bach and Beethoven and “Confucian traditional values of artful self-cultivation and virtue.”

For young Chinese, he writes, studying classical music is a way of embodying those deep cultural values while simultaneously signaling one’s “modernity and individual creativity.”

Huang lays out his argument in an article just published in the International Journal of Music Education. In it, he points out that while the Chinese government’s attitude toward Western music has swung back and forth wildly over the decades, the underlying values spelled out by Confucius — who was himself a musician — have continued to guide popular attitudes and behaviors.

“Confucius’s vision of music’s role is that it serves to create a harmonious union between heaven and earth,” Huang writes. “Claims of music’s emotional and spiritual benefits, beyond mere entertainment value, constitute an affinity between Confucian musical aesthetics and Western classical music.”

“The Confucian concept of virtue, attained by creating a harmonious order through self-cultivation of discipline, deeply influences Asian musical aesthetics,” he adds. “Performing beautiful sounds on an instrument is believed to demonstrate personal virtue; developing artistic skill and sensibility is essential to becoming an ethical human being.”

Huang further argues that the traditional one-on-one teaching method used to train young singers and instrumentalists is quite consistent with Confucian philosophy.

“Participation in Western classical music requires memorization of details of model compositions through disciplined practice and intense concentration,” he notes. “This offers opportunities not only to master technique, but also to become imbued with the spirit of the music.

“Development of these skills by means of close contact with a private teacher coincides very well with Confucian scholarly tradition, which values music study as an indispensible way to train the mind.”

Huang strongly rejects the notion that the surge of interest in classical music in China is simply “an exercise to gain status in Western-dominated global culture.” He notes “there are easier and less time-consuming ways to integrate into Western cultural practices.”

Rather, he argues, becoming proficient in this profound music puts young Chinese in touch with their own philosophical heritage in a deep and gratifying way, even while identifying them as sophisticated citizens of the world.

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