10 times China was amazing at classical music

We're celebrating everything that China has done for classical music. From Lang Lang's red piano to Yo-Yo Ma playing bluegrass, it's an incredible musical nation, as we reveal...

1. Lang Lang at the Beijing Olympics

Is there a better example of showmanship than Lang Lang? The virtuoso was already a global concern by the time he played at the 2008 opening ceremony, but the performance stunned the whole world as they tuned in to see him play Defend The Yellow River from the Yellow River Piano Concerto by Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua.


2. The Yellow River Piano Concerto

Speaking of which, this incredible piece has truly crossed the continental borders and become hugely popular in the West as well. It was written by Yin Chengzong and Chu Wanghua, but based on the Yellow River Cantata by Xian Xinghai. Aside from Lang Lang hammering it out at the Olympics in 2008, it's been tackled by pianists across the world. 


3. Mei Lanfang refuses to sing

When the Imperial Japanese Army occupied Beijing in 1937, star of Chinese opera Mei Lanfang was ordered to perform for the insurgent forces and given high-ranking official position. But Lanfang refused to perform for them at all during the occupation and voluntarily lived in poverty rather than bow to their whims. He went on to become a legend in his homeland and his life has turned into biopics, documentaries and best-selling memoirs. 

mei lenfang statue















4. Turandot at the Forbidden City

In 1998, eight very special performances of Puccini's Turandot in the city that was originally set in were put on, and it was epic. So, so epic.


5. Yo-Yo Ma in general

Perhaps the most famous musician that China has bestowed upon the classical community (he was born in Paris to Chinese parents), Yo-Yo is a cello wizard who can turn his bow to almost anything. Whether it's country, bluegrass, Piazzolla tango and collaborating with Bobby McFerrin, it's all in a day's work for him. He was the first musician to play at Ground Zero after 9/11, he's duetted with Condoleezza Rice and he performed at Steve Jobs' memorial service. All in all, a bit of a legend.


6. Ji Liu takes over

The young Chinese pianist Ji Liu is the latest phenomenally exciting pianist to emerge from China. He's already on his second album, is a keen breakdancer, and he's often found with diamonds in the soles of his shoes. We're not even joking. Anyway, here he is 'playing' John Cage's 4'33" at the Bristol Proms in 2014.

And here he is breakdancing.

7. Yuja Wang brings the glamour

If you type 'Yuja Wang' into Google, the autocomplete instantly comes up with 'Yuja Wang dress'. Her sartorial choices have made as many headlines as her playing, thanks to her penchant for short dresses over the usual reserved concert attire. Whether you agree with those choices or not (and there are strong acolytes for both sides of the argument), she's one of the most exciting talents in the classical music world. 


8. Monkey: Journey to the West

With music written by Blur legend Damon Albarn, this unlikely opera has its roots in the epic Chinese novel of the same name, written in the 16th century. It ended up doing rather well, playing not only at the Manchester International Festival, but also at the O2 Arena and the Lincoln Centre.


9. Chen Yi overcomes incredible cultural hardship

In her early life, composer Chen Yi was a huge fan of Bach and Mozart, learning to play their pieces on the piano. But once the Chinese cultural revolution kicked in the late 60s, all of a sudden she lost all contact with her Western heroes and was forced to practise with a blanket stuffed in her piano. Even worse, when she was 15, the family home was searched and all possessions (including instruments) were taken. However, Yi worked hard to study the music of her Chinese heritage and ended up studying at Columbia University. She's since composed many orchestral, chamber and choral works that acknowledge her various influences. 


10. Tan Dun composes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon soundtrack

Composer Tan Dun came to the world's attention when he wrote the soundtrack for director Ang Lee's martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. Not only that, but he roped in Yo-Yo Ma to do the cello solos too, and turned the whole lot into a concert suite for him to perform.


11. Nixon in China

Though it's not strictly a Chinese work, China plays a huge role in John Adams' opera Nixon in China from 1987. Telling the tale of US President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972. The event itself was a landmark in relations between the People's Republic of China and the US, and it made for a very successful debut opera for Adams, receiving its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 2011.