I recently watched the PBS Great Performances program, “Beethoven in Beijing.” I love seeing film from the early days of the US/China rapprochement, but this turned out to be something very special and, for me, very moving.
I was a Foreign Expert in English at South China Teachers University in Guangzhou from 1982-83. I would have stayed longer but I mistakenly thought my marriage was a higher priority and my then husband was very miserable, then sick, in China so when my contract expired we came back to the States. I remained homesick for China for many years afterwards.
My students had grown up in — and the older ones had likely participated in — the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution which was an enormous and deadly debacle. During this time schools were closed; education was drastically devalued and any western thing was considered evil. Many scholars, writers and artists “got the suicide” (the words of a friend in China). In 1972 when Nixon went to China to meet with Mao, the door opened a crack and then, slowly, more and more. Early in the opening,1973, the Philadephia Orchestra went to China.
I didn’t know about that. Why would I? I was 21 and dealing with university and various other things. That I would EVER go to China was beyond even my wildest imagination. I didn’t — at that time — know where I was going, but as far as I could see I had to graduate from university first.
In 1982, I was among the earliest group of American teachers in Guangzhou. When I was there, the city housed about 100 foreigners including diplomats. I was an attraction.
In this program there are several of the members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic who had gone to China in 1973. That was wonderful to see, but what touched me most deeply was my realization that…
My students had no chance to fulfill their dreams. Not for the most part, anyway. When the Gang of Four fell and things began to “normalize” they were still in school and woefully behind in everything. Teachers were hard to find. Many didn’t trust Deng Xiao Ping to actually DO what he was doing. They’d been lied to before and drastically, tragically.
The government at that time had a plan for what it needed to do to modernize China and it controlled much of the peoples’ lives. My students were told by the government where they would go to school and what they would study. They would be English teachers. Middle school English teachers. A few would teach high school. A very very very few who showed unusual promise would teach college. It didn’t matter where their gifts or interests lay. Most were accepting and resigned. Some were elated even to have the chance to attend university (that year my school was upgraded from a teachers college to a university). Some were frustrated and angry. A very few came to America. It was difficult to do this. The US wasn’t accepting refugees from China and any Chinese who hoped to study in the US had to be accepted by a university before they could get a visa. They needed a sponsor, also, who could put up $20k/year for them.
Their lives were full of traps, though, because of what they’d been told to study. Still worried about Western influence on the minds of the young, the government did what it could to make sure these students never had a high opinion of themselves. Individualism was synonymous with selfishness anyway. The example of this that struck me as I watched this beautiful program was when my students put together a show for a music competition. They had to perform music in English and because they had two, new, American teachers they were told to perform American music. I wasn’t invited to the show, so I don’t know what they did, I only know that they lost the competition (of course) and one of my students tried killing herself by jumping out of a ground floor window which wasn’t (thank goodness) much of an attempt. She ended up with a sprained ankle.
Watching this program, which is filled with western music, I thought of my students who would now be, at the very least, in their late fifties. They would have taught English to thousands of Chinese children, some of whom would now be in their fifties and forties. Some of them might still be teaching. Some of my students would be grand-parents now. My students children and grandchildren would be the young people in this film. I even thought, briefly, “I helped,” and felt very good inside.
The film touches on some important points — important to me, anyway — specifically the deterioration of our educational system due in part to most school districts jettisoning art education because (in their tiny minds) it doesn’t lead to high test scores. One American elementary school in this film had applied for the Lang Lang grant. What is that? A grant from the Lang Lang Foundation begun by and named for the Chinese pianist who plays for the Philadelphia Philharmonic. Watching Lang Lang play in this program? Amazing. He LOVES it. He clearly loves the piano, loves performing, loves the music. Individuality sizzles from him, a character my students could barely even have dared to reveal to the world. His philosophy of music, its why and who, is beautiful, too. Lang Lang was born in 1982. My best friends in China’s son was born in early 1983.
One of the artists in this program makes the point. “Our parents grew up in the Cultural Revolution. They didn’t have a chance. They poured all their lost dreams into us.”
There’s a lot going on this program; at times, I thought, a little too much. It could have been twice as long and gone a little slower with more music. There are a LOT of stories in it that barely get the chance to breathe. My favorite is that of Tan Dun who won the Acadsemy Award for best motion picture score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His story is wonderful.
I like Chinese music and the places in this film where the two come together are beautiful.