China's elite music school starts a pop revolution

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The Independent Online
JUST OVER 20 years ago, Jiang Ming-Dun was a prisoner in his own school. It was the middle of China's Cultural Revolution, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music was occupied by Red Guards. Between 1966 and 1973, Professor Jiang, a specialist in the theory of Chinese national music, was held for a total of 1,001 days. The school, like most institutes of higher education, suffered terribly. Fifteen of the conservatory's professors and music teachers were so badly persecuted that they committed suicide.

The 54-year-old Prof Jiang is now president of the conservatory, the oldest and most famous music school in China. Since 1978 when normal teaching resumed, the conservatory has re-established its reputation and several of its graduates now perform in orchestras around the world.

However, the Nineties have brought a new challenge. In the reforming China of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, it is not only factories and state-owned businesses that have to pay their way. Educational establishments must also look for ways to make ends meet. This year, according to Professor Jiang, the conservatory must earn at least 1.5 million yuan ( pounds 185,000 at the official rate) on top of the grant it receives from Peking.

Economic pressures have forced cuts in administrative staff and a decision to release more than 40 teachers to seek work outside the conservatory. This summer will see the first intake of 20 fee-paying students for a new profit-making course. In the worst days of the Cultural Revolution, the school's staff were harangued for teaching 'decadent' Western music. Now the 20 fee-paying students will be studying modern popular music - including saxophone and electric guitar - about which some of the professors have reservations.

Since the conservatory was founded in November 1927, it has trained more than 4,000 musicians. One of the school's strengths is that it offers tuition in Western and Chinese classical instruments and music. For the first 10 years it remained small, with about a dozen students. After the Japanese invasion of China, it had to decamp to the western city of Chongqing. It was after the victory of the Communists in 1949 that the school took off and several of its musicians achieved international recognition.

Just before the Cultural Revolution broke out, there were up to 400 students and 400 faculty members, including more than 200 music teachers.

Between 1966 and 1976, all education stopped, and Shanghai became embroiled in the terror of the Cultural Revolution. Posters attacking some of the teachers were plastered on walls around the conservatory, and most of the staff were sent to the Shanghai suburbs to work on the land - though some were later brought back and held at the music school. The conservatory was used by the Red Guards for punishment and criticism meetings. Some rare musical scores and instruments were saved from destruction by staff members who hid them. 'Some young people wanted to destroy everything,' said Shi Lin, a deputy professor of the school.

Nien Cheng's book Life and Death in Shanghai relates the story of the death of the head of the piano department, who had returned from Hong Kong in the early Sixties to teach at the conservatory. Humiliated by the Red Guards, she killed herself, leaving a note which read: 'I did my best for my students.'

Normality did not return until 1978. By then the school had begun operating properly again, and China's new Open Door policy had revived opportunities for exchange visits with foreign music schools. The conservatory soon had more than 400 students and 250 teachers.

Its success in international competitions, particularly with child prodigy musicians, won it acclaim. One young violinist, Jin Li, was spotted by Yehudi Menuhin at 13, and brought to Britain to study with the master in Surrey. He became an international star in the early Eighties, playing an acclaimed version of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Many of the most talented graduates have disappeared abroad. Mr Shi admitted: 'When they are abroad, they have better conditions, but they always write to us. They remember it is here that they are trained, and they are grateful.'

Today the school is adjusting to the demands of the new capitalism. Asked how he has learnt about business, Professor Jiang laughs: 'I am not a master about that. I arrange some other people from the institute to do something, mostly the musicians. Some are good at it. Generally it is a new thing for us.'

Plans include opening shops in the compound buildings, and even developing the whole road with new, tall buildings, as Shanghai's showcase for the universities and high-technology institutes of the city.

It may take 10 years to bring the facilities at the conservatory up to international standards. The freezing cold of the unheated teaching rooms makes some instruments difficult to play. 'A lot of famous musicians came here and were deeply moved to see our conditions,' said Mr Shi. 'The conditions can be bad, but the students work very hard.'