Western Artistic Influences in the Cultural Revolution (Primary Source Analysis of “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality” in the Peking Review, 1968)

Poster from the Cultural Revolution. Collection of Victor Robert Lee I Image: medium.com


The Cultural Revolution is widely considered to be a time when cultural life in China was dark and stagnant, with nothing but the eight model operas. In particular, orthodox historical interpretations see the era of the Cultural Revolution as a xenophobic era that rejected any cultural influences and ideas from the foreign, especially Western, world. An article from the 1968 Peking Review on the model opera “Red Lantern with piano accompaniment” brings these orthodox interpretations to question. This primary source reveals the greater political significance that art and culture took on during this era and in turn sheds light on the innovative and creative aspects of the Cultural Revolution.

Keywords: Mao, Cultural Revolution, Piano music, Red Lantern.

The period of the Cultural Revolution is often labeled as a “cultural desert,”[1] a time during which cultural life “descended into a dark and obscurantist age.”[2] One aspect that contributed to this orthodox perception was China’s rejection of all foreign cultural and artistic influences, for example, by “shutting the door completely to foreign music.”[3] In the 1979 documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, Stern asked the striking question, “the very young people here are remarkable, but the eighteen, nineteen, and twenty year olds are different. It seems like something happened to them. What happened in between?” A teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music responded, “the Cultural Revolution – it was an attempt to change the cultural format of the country into a closed, inward looking society that rejected any information, accomplishment, recognition of foreign influence”. Another teacher recalled, “Western classical music playing was a crime”.[4]

Primary media sources from the decade of the Cultural Revolution suggest a more nuanced story. The article “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality” appeared in the Peking Review in 1968. Appearing alongside many other Chinese articles praising the production of the model theatrical work Red Lantern with Piano Accompaniment,[5] this particular article is an English-version commentary directed towards international observers. As a primary historical document, it offers valuable insights into the official attitude towards Western music and art at the height of the Cultural Revolution. A close reading of this commentary uncovers the complex realities beyond a xenophobic rejection of all foreign influences as traditionally assumed. Part of this complexity derives from the historical circumstances under which piano music took on a broader political significance. Delving into the contradictions surrounding The Red Lantern with Piano Accompaniment, this work is a demonstration of Mao’s principle of making foreign things serve China, and ultimately sheds light on the artistic forces during an era that is traditionally known as being culturally destructive and stagnant. This analysis will in turn provide a more complete and balanced understanding of cultural life in China during the Cultural Revolution.

The primary purpose of the selected article is summarized in its opening sentence: “Praising the piano music The Red Lantern with Peking opera singing, a new, recently created form of proletarian revolutionary art.”[6] The mere appearance of piano music in this iconic Peking opera is sufficient irony to question the general contention of China’s rejection of all foreign influence. The commentator of the article further develops this irony by claiming that “the success of this new work foretells that the storm of the revolution in Western musical instruments and symphonic music is beginning to spread wide, that the torrent of the revolution in musical accompaniment to Chinese opera is going to sway forward on a broad front.”[7] This sentence suggests cultural exchange rather than cultural rejection. Had China really shut the door to foreign music, how did the symphonic composition style make its way into The Red Lantern? Had the era really been a xenophobic era that rejected all foreign influence, why would Jiang Qing deliberately integrate piano music into a Chinese model theatrical work?

To the credit of orthodox historians, foreign music and art was blatantly criticized, and this article was no exception. While describing the integration of piano music into The Red Lantern, the commentator stated that the work “critically used the traditional means of expression of the piano and swept away all the decadent, demoralizing, formalistic or corrupting elements of bourgeois piano music.”[8] The commentator made the central point that the use of piano music in the West is often in the service of the ruling elite, stating that “for hundreds of years, piano music was dominated by the feudal landlord class and the bourgeoisie. Even a glimpse through the names of the ‘hero’ to whom the bourgeois ‘masters’ of piano music dedicated their work is revealing: devils, nymphs… countless compositions for the piano, but how few were made for the working people!” [9] More revealing than this general criticism of elite piano music was a specific critique of how this Western influence has penetrated Chinese society and the Chinese Communist Party. The commentator pointed specifically to the Chinese counter-revolutionaries in the cultural sphere:

“China’s Khrushchev and his agents in the field of literature and art such as Chou Yang and others did their utmost to oppose Chairman Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line and stubbornly pushed a counter-revolutionary revisionist line in this field… they made use of the weapon of literature and art to serve their aim of capitalist restoration, to ‘encourage’ enthusiasm for capitalism among the world and to make socialist China ‘evolve peacefully’ on to the capitalist road… In contrast to the deterioration of piano music in the bourgeois West, where a chimpanzee was asked on to a stage to smash the piano to win the cheers of the audience, the art of the piano in socialist New China has taken a glorious road…”[10]

Delving into the historical and political circumstances of this time, it is possible to make sense of this critical attitude as more than merely groundless accusations and propaganda. It is possible to trace the roots of these accusations to an event in 1958 that was significant both culturally and politically. At the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition held in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, Van Cliburn, an American pianist from Texas, took home the gold medal. Cliburn’s victory in piano performance at a Soviet competition became a symbol of Khrushchev’s revisionism, the thaw of the Cold War, the possibility of peaceful coexistence between the US and USSR, as well as Khrushchev’s more flexible attitude towards American culture and capitalism. This was also the landmark event of the artistic liberalization and opening-up of the Khrushchev era. Considering the political context of deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations, it is possible to match the figurative language used in the commentary to people and events. The chimpanzee can be interpreted as a metaphorical description of Cliburn, and the “smashing of the piano to win cheers of the audience” [11]  is likely to have been a figurative description of his victorious performance of Russian composer Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, especially with this work’s characteristically loud percussive and chordal piano opening.  The worries of using piano music and other artistic means as a path to the acceptance of American capitalism was thus a real and imminent concern. During this time, one’s artistic expression often took on a broader political significance. The idea of art for art’s sake was the basis of Khrushchev’s approval of American Van Cliburn’s victory, yet Khrushchev’s very statement that art is not subject to national and political boundaries was political in nature, reflecting the USSR’s willingness to pursue peaceful coexistence with a capitalist America. Ironically, this act also used art as a tool to signify ideological and political compromise. The important takeaway is that the resulting Chinese criticism of foreign music and art was not a xenophobic rejection of its influence and artistic qualities, but rather of its political and ideological implications.

Building on this criticism, the Chinese response included elements of cultural exchange and artistic creativity. The creative process of integrating Western piano composition into The Red Lantern as indicated in the Peking Review commentary demonstrates the Maoist principle of make foreign things serve China. First, an optimistic and accepting attitude towards foreign artistic influences was evident, as the commentary stated, “foreign artistic forms [have] their good points… in order to develop a new socialist literature and art in China, we must critically assimilate and inherit fine foreign artistic forms. It is entirely wrong to reject indiscriminately all foreign artistic forms and adopt a nihilistic attitude.” [12]  Second, a selective but creative process of transformation and innovation was employed. The commentator wrote to this point; “Foreign artistic forms must undergo a transformation if they are to express our new socialist content and become well liked by the common people of China. Blind worship of Western artistic forms, the view that all things ‘foreign’ are fine, not carry out reforms in [them, this] is also entirely wrong.”[13]

Motivated by this critical but optimistic attitude, the composition process sparked a series of creative artistic innovations. The commentary claimed that as a result, the “new composition has both retained the basic characteristics of Peking opera singing and percussion music and brought into full play the wide range, great power and varied means of expression of the piano.”[14]  Much more than baseless praise of the Maoist line, this claim is built on concrete examples offered throughout the commentary. For instance, different tonal qualities of piano music came to symbolize the different characters in The Red Lantern. Li Yu-ho, the hero of the story, is symbolized by deep, steady bass notes on the piano. Hatoyama, the Japanese captain and main villain of the story, is symbolized by “grating and dull” tones. Li Tieh-mei, the young heroine, is symbolized by a “tumultuous piano accompaniment.”[15] Furthermore, progressions in sound and piano-playing techniques also took on important roles in advancing the plot and structure of the opera. For example, a solo piano passage replaced the original interpolation of the Peking opera. Vigorous melodic playing was associated with Li Yu-ho’s heroic acts against the Japanese. The piano accompaniment’s rhythmic progression paralleled the character development and maturation of Tieh-mei, and the piano cadenza was associated with the story’s climax. [16] As a result, the 1968 production of The Red Lantern with Piano Accompaniment marked the first time in Chinese history where the piano shared a stage with Peking opera singers. In a recent interview, Yin Chengzong, the composer of the piano accompaniment to this work, confirmed these creative processes. Yin recalled,

“…to accompany Peking opera, I first need to understand it… so I began to modestly study it, deeply study it, and after understanding it thoroughly, I found that these seemingly different genres of art actually had many commonalities… I discovered that both Peking opera and its accompaniment have no overlapping harmony, and the harmony of piano music can thus fill in this gap; from here [piano music can] enrich the performance of Peking opera. Using modern words, it’s called complementary advantage, a win-win.”[17]

Bringing to surface the dynamic, interactive, and creative artistic forces in the production of The Red Lantern with Piano Accompaniment, the selected article paints a more nuanced picture of the the Communist Party’s  official attitude towards Western artistic influences at the time. Features of Western music – its symphonic composition style and the expressive abilities of its classical instruments, specifically – were adopted and integrated into traditional Chinese art forms and revolutionary stories to create an innovative art form termed “proletarian revolutionary art.” Returning to the documentary on Isaac Stern’s visit to China, rather than understanding Mao to Mozart as a metaphor for the abrupt change from the dark cultural era of Mao to an era in which Mozart’s music can once again be enjoyed, one should recognize that even Mozart’s operas were a response to the politics of his time, rife with references to the class inequalities and revolutionary ideas during the Hapsburg Empire[18]. To brand the work of the latter as artistic masterpieces and the former as mere propaganda with no artistic merit misses the fact that both were, at the most basic level, a reflection of their times. Thus, this analysis brings attention to the innovations and creations of the Cultural Revolution era, calls into question the commonly presumed darkness of this period, and arrives at a more complete and accurate understanding of cultural life in China at the time.

The content of this article does not represent the positions, research methods, or opinions of the Synergy Editorial Committee. We are solely responsible for reviewing and editing submissions. Please address all scholarly concerns directly to the contributor(s) of the article.

Alissa Wang is a fourth year student in the international relations program. She is interested in modern Chinese history and politics, as well as China’s role in global governance.


[1] Barbara Mittler, A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012), 6.

[2] Maurice Meisner, Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 368.

[3] Mittler, A Continuous Revolution, 39-96.

[4] Murray Lerner, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, Documentary (1979; United States: Docurama).

[5]  Chinese articles on this topic were very similar in content, no discrepancies were found between commentaries in Chinese publications and this English one.

[6] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” Peking Review Volume 38 (1968): 28-32.

[7] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[8] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[9] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[10] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[11] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[12] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[13] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[14] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[15] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[16] Unknown author, “Creating the Socialist New, Fostering Proletarian Originality,” 28-32.

[17] Personal translation, “1968 piano accompanied ‘Red Lantern’”, 163 News/Made in China, Accessed 8 July 2016.  http://ent.163.com/special/00033JI5/1968hdj.html

[18] Peter Culshaw, “Mozart was a political revolutionary,” Telegraph, Accessed 8 July 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/classicalmusic/3653580/Mozart-was-a-political-revolutionary.html

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