My Music History Monday post for November 29 focused on the composer Bright Sheng (born 1955), who made the unforgivable mistake of playing Laurence Olivier’s movie of Shakespeare’s Othello to an undergraduate class at the University of Michigan without first offering up a prophylactic explanation/apologia for Oliver’s makeup (the character of Othello being a dark-skinned North African Moor).
Bright Sheng was born 66 years ago yesterday, on December 6, 1955, in Shanghai, China. He began taking piano lessons with his mother at the age of four and excelled. That is, until May 16, 1966. That’s when Mao Zedong (1893-1976) instituted the “Cultural Revolution” (which ran for ten long, painful years, from 1966-1976).
The Cultural Revolution was a wholesale purge and power grab, plain and simple. Like Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the Cultural Revolution did not target enemies of the state but rather, those people it considered potential enemies of the state: intellectuals; academes; students; professionals; military leaders; the educated, urban “elite”; those who passed for the Chinese middle class; and so forth. Untold millions of high school, college, and post-college age “young people” were shipped off from the cities to the countryside, there to be “re-educated” and “to experience working life.” A massive purge was launched, euphemistically called “Cleansing the Class Ranks”. Massacres occurred across China as public order broke down. The death toll from the Cultural Revolution will never be known, as the Chinese Communist Party has zero interest in going public with the numbers. Estimates range from 400,000 to 20 million deaths: a truly crazy range.
The Cultural Revolution only ended with Mao’s death on September 9, 1976, and the subsequent arrest (for treason) and imprisonment of his ultra-Maoist co-Cultural Revolutionists, the so-called “Gang of Four”: Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing; Zhang Chungqiao, Yao Wenyuan, and Wang Hongwen.
With the advent of the Cultural Revolution, the 11-year-old Bright Sheng’s piano was confiscated. At the age of 15, he was shipped off for “re-education” to the distant province of Qinghai, which borders on Tibet. It was there that he lived for seven years, performing as a pianist and a percussionist at a provincial music and dance theater and immersing himself in the folk music of the region.
China’s 43 universities were closed by the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and only slowly began to open their doors again in the 1970s. The Shanghai Conservatory didn’t reopen until 1978, and among the first students admitted was the soon-to-be 23-year-old Bright Sheng. He studied composition at the Conservatory from 1978 until 1982. From there it was on to New York City, where Sheng received a MA in Composition at Queens College, CUNY, in 1984 and a DMA from Columbia University in 1993.
Of the Cultural Revolution and his emigration to the United States, Sheng wrote:
“When I came to America, I was still very angry about the Cultural Revolution and what it did to China. But at the same time, I also felt guilty about selfishly leaving the motherland in search of a better life for myself. Common sense held that China was hopeless, but at the same time my future in the US was also unsure. As I began making headway here, however, China also began picking up, which makes me feel very happy, even though I had no part in it.”
Sheng is of the second generation of East Asian-born composers to synthesize the music of East Asia with the music, compositional techniques, and instruments of the West. That “first” generation of composers includes the Korean-born Isang Yun (1917-1995); the Japanese Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996); and the Cambodia-born Chinary Ung (born in 1942). Along with Bright Sheng, the most notable such composer of his generation is the Chinese-born Tan Dun (born in 1957; Tan Dun won an Academy Award in 2000 for his score for Ang Lee’s movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).…
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