This is a delightful book. It opens up a cultural arena much neglected in scholarship on China. Nine engagingly narrated chapters take us through the history of Sino-foreign musical contact since the late 19th century, with one digression, which goes back to encounters since the 16th century (chapter two). The book follows the life story of three important institutions (the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory) and three important men: violinist Tan Shuzhen, who was the first Chinese to join the orchestra in colonial Shanghai; conductor Li Delun, who was trained in Moscow and managed to serve the government before, during and after the Cultural Revolution; and composer He Luting, one of the most outspoken protagonists in China's music world and long-time principal at the Shanghai Conservatory. The authors' approach of choosing “white elephants” to present the history of classical music in China, although unfashionable since Jauss, brings much cohesion and structural elegance to the volume.
The book is at its best when using material from interviews conducted by the authors. Based on this evidence, the book comes to one important conclusion: contact between Chinese and foreign musicians in China was generally not antagonistic, either before or after 1949. Foreign musicians did not behave in a condescending manner, as “imperialists” and Chinese musicians hardly ever perceived them to do so. For obvious reasons, few Chinese (and, surprisingly, few foreign studies) on China's classical music scene have acknowledged this fact.
The authors have done a beautiful job in telling their story. They must be lauded for having gone through a great variety of sources including contemporary newspaper articles, propaganda magazines, Party documents, as well as films, recordings and some of the very recent, and mostly biographical, secondary literature on the subject published in China. Since the book is conceived as a collective biography, it lacks detailed musical and historical analysis and it would have benefited from a few closer readings. For example, what precisely is the meaning of “national style” for people as different as Tcherepnin, Mao Zedong or Guo Wenjing? Musical analysis would have provided an answer. Why do the authors not make more of the fact that Jiang Qing advised the musicians writing a model symphony to watch – and, more importantly, listen – to music in Hollywood films in order to improve their compositional skills? A more explicit engagement with the technical and musical styles of the model works (the term model opera should really be reserved for the operas in the set and not all of the pieces which also comprised ballets and symphonic compositions) would have been illuminating here, for it would have shown how indebted they were to the same principles of music-making as Hollywood film music on the one hand and the Butterfly Violin Concerto on the other – both officially condemned during the Cultural Revolution. It is sad, too, that the balanced account of the Cultural Revolution years – which describes both the pain it caused to many an intellectual and the benefits it brought for Chinese musical life generally – focuses almost entirely on the first set of eight model works and leaves out the second, equally important set of ten produced later (chapter seven). There are a number of non sequiturs in this book that are inevitable in any pioneering work of this size.