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Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 12:32 UK

China's love affair with the piano

By Petroc Trelawny
BBC

An outbreak of piano fever has struck China, with conservative estimates suggesting 30 million Chinese children are learning the instrument and the number set to rise dramatically over the next few years.

Children at piano
Parents vie to get their children into piano schools

As the sun rises through the industrial smog hanging over the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, a factory comes to life.

Three thousand employees staff eight production lines, each equipped with high-tech machinery for precision engineering.

The company representative showing me around tells me not to photograph any of the machinery without checking with her first.

Industrial espionage, she says, is something the company is very aware of and it does not want rivals getting hold of its new technology.

This plant is not manufacturing cars or computers or mobile phones; it is making pianos, 100,000 of them a year.

The noise of saws and drills mingles with the resonant sound of hammers striking strings, keyboards being tested, dozens of instruments being simultaneously tuned.

Expanding market

Pearl River piano factory
During the Cultural Revolution, the piano was seen as the most dangerous of all Western instruments

A walk around the factory is a bit like listening to a vast, discordant piece of contemporary classical music.

The Pearl River Company is one of half a dozen similarly sized businesses making pianos across China, all of them attempting to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding market.

A basic Pearl River instrument will sell for around 800 ($1,500), an unimaginable sum for most Chinese but well within the budget of the country's burgeoning urban middle classes.

During the Cultural Revolution four decades ago, the piano was seen as the most dangerous of all Western instruments. It was once described as being akin to a coffin, a black box in which the notes rattled around like the bones of the bourgeoisie.

Punishment

In a hotel near the factory, I spent a morning with Liu Shih Kun, a tall, dark-haired, elegant man.

Liu Shih Kun
Liu Shih Kun has been described as the greatest pianist of his day

In 1958, as a 19-year-old, he won second prize in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, an event regarded as the pre-eminent contest for pianists.

China's musicians were only just beginning to cause a stir internationally, and he returned home to a hero's welcome.

He regularly performed for Chairman Mao and other senior political figures. Less than a decade later, he suffered the full wrath of the state.

Because of his travels abroad, because he had shaken hands with Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev, because he played Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, he was labelled a "counter-revolutionary revisionist".

First he had to clean the toilets at the Central Conservatory of Music. Then he served six years in Beijing's Taicheng prison, just about managing to keep his strength up by augmenting his daily two bowls of brine with worms culled from rotting vegetables.

Another distinguished pianist who defected to the West rather than face the madness of the Cultural Revolution told me he believed Liu Shih Kun was the greatest Chinese pianist of his day.

Piano kindergartens

Now the 69-year-old rarely plays in public, his will to perform sapped by his experiences under Mao and another period of house arrest in the 1980s.

Most parents... see learning the piano as a route to a good high school or university place

Instead he looks to the future, running a series of piano kindergartens across China. Parents vie to get their children into these schools, where four- and five-year-olds are taught music alongside Chinese, maths and gymnastics.

After visiting a kindergarten in Beijing, I head for a branch of the Jiang Jie piano school, housed in a building above a Western fast food restaurant.

A spiral staircase rising up six floors is lined with tiny piano studios, 120 in all.

Business is so good that the school has just hired a dozen teachers from Russia. And this is just one branch of the Jiang Jie chain; there are 15 in Beijing alone.

Lessons are taken extremely seriously. Parents sit alongside their children while they are taught, making copious notes.

The Western concept of learning being fun is not practised here. It is about hard work and focus.

Once home, mothers and fathers will ensure their offspring practise for two or three hours every day.

Good discipline

Some parents undoubtedly hope that their children will become the next Lang Lang or Li Yundi: the starry pianists who are the current darlings of the music industry and whose posters cover many a teenager's bedroom wall.

But most are practical, seeing learning the piano as a route to a good high school or university place.

In a piano shop, I meet a man who works as an engineer at a power station. He tells me he hopes learning the piano will make his 10-year-old daughter grow up a well rounded individual.

"The discipline will be good," his wife adds, "It will make her concentrate."

A professor at one of China's music conservatoires puts the current love affair between the piano and China's children even more succinctly:

"Kids who are studying piano don't go wrong."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 June, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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