Sonic Imaginary after the Cultural Revolution

  • Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Part of the Chinese Literature and Culture in the World book series (CLCW)


The 2006 world premiere of the opera The First Emperor was one week away, but the collective spirit of the team was deteriorating. Composed by Tan Dun, The First Emperor was a monumental affair, and it was the first time the Metropolitan Opera at New York had commissioned a composer of Chinese descent. The pressure was high in the rehearsal room, so a break was called. Tian Hao-Jiang, a world-renowned opera singer, was caught in the tension of differing artistic visions among members of the production team, as well as endless revisions. During the break, he sat down at the piano, seeking solace. The tune that came to his fingers was “The East is Red,” the omnipresent anthem from the era of Cultural Revolution. Soon his Chinese colleagues gathered around him. Tian recalled later:

Zhang Yimou, normally so dour, singing and raising his fist to the sky in a gesture familiar to anyone who had been alive during the Cultural Revolution… For the full twenty minutes we sang and sang and sang, one revolutionary song after another, plus set pieces with characteristic poses from the model operas we’d been required to attend during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Chaoge danced on, Zhang Yimou leaped about and gestured, and as I added my own voice, I felt a rush of mixed feelings.


Cultural Revolution Musical Work Musical Practice Musical Taste Chinese Colleague 
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© Nancy Yunhwa Rao 2016

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