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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics

CHAPTER 5:

The Making of a National Musical Icon: Xian Xinghai and his Yellow River Cantata

Hon-Lun Yang

Chapter Excerpt

In the history of music in the People’s Republic of China (abbreviated hereafter as the PRC), there is probably no other composer or work so iconic as Xian Xinghai (1905–1945) and his Yellow River Cantata. There is also no other work that demonstrates so close a tie between music and political power as Xian’s cantata. Although the Yellow River Cantata was composed in 1939 as an anti-Japanese protest, it has been willingly adopted by the PRC. As Richard Kraus has pointed out, “Xian embodied all the contradictions that have enveloped Western music in the People’s Republic that honours him,”1 and was both a populist and a cosmopolitan. While Xian wrote a great number of mass songs, he was also one of the first few Chinese composers to write symphonies, orchestral suites, and cantatas.2 But in the PRC, as Kraus has observed, Xian’s populism has been exaggerated and his cosmopolitanism diminished for political reasons.3 This exaggeration of one side of Xian’s image was part of a sanctifying process by which the Chinese Communist Party (abbreviated hereafter as CCP) bestowed iconic power and status upon the composer and his work. Such sanctification was part of the CCP’s broader bid for political legitimacy after the founding of the PRC in 1949.4

This chapter compares three versions of the Yellow River Cantata: Xian’s two original versions and the one recomposed collectively by members of the Central Philharmonic and officially adopted in the PRC. Through this comparison, I intend to illustrate how the musical traits of the official version befit socialist ideology and the idolized image of the composer. The creation of the official version of the cantata, I argue, was therefore part of the icon-building process. I then examine when,why, and how Xian and his Yellow River Cantata were elevated to an iconic status. I conclude by investigating the relationship between political power and artistic expression in the PRC between 1950 and 1980.   

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]

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