Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Mao to Mozart: China embraces the West

Recently I watched "From Mao to Mozart” an Oscar winning documentary about the historic visit of American Violinist Isaac Stern to China in 1980. The timing, the choice of Western Classical musician, the ethnicity of Stern etc all make it very interesting. Isaac Stern, a Jew born in Ukraine, migrated to USA as a child and trained in violin. Amongst the lovers of Hollywood Musicals he is known for his contribution to “Fiddler on the roof” (a nice musical set in the backdrop of anti-semitism and pogroms in Czarist Russia).

The "cultural revolution" started by Mao ended completely only with his death in 1976 and left thousands dead in its wake. The terror it unleashed on the intellectuals, in typical communist fashion, crippled Chinese intelligentsia for decades. The documentary features a violin teacher who testifies how he was imprisoned and how his family was threatened. Deng Xioping is often credited with pushing China to embrace the West unlike Soviet Russia, albeit in a very controlled manner especially on political matters. Unlike Kruschev's famous speech to the Russian parliament denouncing Stalin and laying bare the horrors of Stalinism, Deng left Mao's halo untouched but reversed critical policies.

What surprised me about the documentary was why did China decide to invite a Western Classical musician and have him perform to packed halls across China and allow this critical documentary to be made. The Chinese, unlike Soviet Russia, did not have any traditional linkage to Western Classical music. China did not have a Stravinsky or a Tchaikovsky. Western Classical is as alien to Chinese as it is to Indians. Why would the Chinese government promote something that has no roots to the country's cultural ethos that too barely 4 years after the death of its founding father? I don't know.

Isaac Stern goes to China with a very open mind that is typically American. He is curious, he is wary too but he is ready to embrace the country and goes all out to charm his chinese audience. The best part of the documentary is when the teacher in Isaac Stern emerges. He chides a performer for not using the bow on a violin completely along its length. He tells the student how to use the bow along its entire length like a flowing motion used in table tennis, a sport most chinese are familiar with. It is during this tour that Stern identifies Wang Jian who would later become a world famous cellist.

Unlike Soviet Russia that not just viewed the west with suspicion but made any contact with west dangerous for its citizens, China allowed western ideas to seep in and eagerly engaged with the west. Of course they are two very different countries, different intellectual traditions and at 1950 very different in their economic situations. 

Today the NY philharmonic and other opera houses go to China to hunt for talent. Whether its Lang Lang or Yo Yo Ma or budding star of Metropolitan Opera Shenyang the Chinese have arrived on the scene of west's most prized bastion, western classical music (See my earlier blog 

Li Cunxin China's most famous Ballet dancer and a product of Mao's cultural revolution, later emigrated to USA (where else) and wrote his autobiography, aptly titled, "Mao's last dancer", its now a major motion picture of the same name. 

Isaac Stern's sense of humor, the total absence of any condescension, the teacher in him etc make the documentary very watchable. I mentioned his Jewish heritage as a surprising factor in his visit to China because Indian communists would have howled from the rooftops if a Jewish musician came to India.

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