In Beijing in 1970, Jindong Cai crouched next to a phonograph. He and a friend had shuttered the house’s windows and were keeping their voices low. They could get into serious trouble for listening to the subversive album they were about to play. The rebellious music: Beethoven.

The German’s music was banned in China during much of the Cultural Revolution. But like many other Chinese of that era, Cai and his friend were willing to risk arrest – or worse – to hear their beloved Beethoven.

Why this obsession? According to new research by Cai, Beethoven worship in China long predates the 1970s. Now an associate professor of performance in Stanford’s Center for East Asian Studies, as well as an orchestra conductor, Cai has co-written a book that probes the political, philosophical, and artistic reasons behind what one commentator dubbed China’s “Beethoven complex.”

China Central Philharmonic in 1959

The China Central Philharmonic performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 1959. (Image credit: China National Symphony Orchestra)

That dynamic is explained in Beethoven in China: How the Great Composer Became an Icon in the People’s Republic, which traces the history of Ludwig van Beethoven’s powerful influence in China. Cai co-authored the work with Sheila Melvin, a writer and scholar of Chinese culture.

“When you look at [another] society through politics, you see the divides. But if you look at those societies through their arts, you see they are related,” he said.

His book demonstrates that “there is no parallel to the depth and breadth of Beethoven’s integration into the culture, politics and private passions of China.”

For instance, Chinese schoolchildren are routinely assigned books like Beethoven, My Great Model, and although there aren’t many public statues of foreigners in the country, busts of Beethoven are a common sight.

Drawing on archival and secondary research, as well as interviews with Chinese and European musicians, Cai and Melvin’s scholarship shows that the process by which Beethoven became a Chinese icon was tumultuous.

Evolving politics

Beethoven was introduced to China by Li Shutong, who in 1906 published an article in a Chinese magazine that reframed Beethoven with the culturally appropriate epithet, “The Sage of Music.”

Frustrated by the political chaos overtaking China as the Qing dynasty collapsed, Li and other Chinese intellectuals turned to Western culture as a solution to their country’s woes. Li learned about Beethoven while in Japan, and saw the composer as a moral exemplar for his struggling nation.

Beethoven achieved musical greatness despite a deeply difficult life, from an alcoholic father to the gradual loss of his hearing. If Beethoven could produce tremendous work even after tremendous setbacks, Li suggested, China could likewise overcome its troubles.

In fact, Cai and Melvin argue that this stoicism is a major reason behind Beethoven’s lasting appeal in China. Chinese have long taught their children that they must “chi ku,” Cai said, meaning “eat bitterness.”

In other words, he said, “You have to work hard and go through hardships. Then your triumph will be more meaningful.”

After Li’s 1906 article, more Chinese caught the Beethoven bug. But the German remained, temporarily, an inspiration in biography only: “There were no recordings of Beethoven, so people didn’t know his music.” In fact, Chinese citizens were not permitted to perform or attend Beethoven’s works until 1922.

Later, Beethoven’s music become a source of contention among the Chinese. During the mid-century civil war between Nationalists and Communists, Cai said, constant debates occurred about the relationship between Western culture and Chinese culture – and Beethoven was a lightning rod.
Among Beethoven in China‘s most harrowing revelations is the window it provides into the terrors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Chairman Mao Zedong initially allowed Western music in his country, so long as it “served the Chinese, and art served politics,” Cai said. But in the 1960s, Mao became more reactionary in his fear of Western and “bourgeois” elements, culminating in the oppressive Cultural Revolution. Numerous Chinese who had conducted, played or written about Beethoven were arrested, tortured or executed.

Ironically, many of these victims drew hope from the very figure who had caused their arrests. Mao’s prisoners strove to emulate Beethoven’s perseverance through “eating bitterness.”

For example, conductor Lu Hongen hummed Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” throughout his imprisonment – even as he walked to his execution.

After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, some Chinese resumed performing Beethoven’s music. The composer crops up at many key moments of recent Chinese history, including the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, where student protesters accompanied their shouts with recordings of the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Beethoven in China, Stanford-style

Cai’s explorations of Chinese-Western relations through music extend well beyond his published scholarship. At Stanford, he teaches a sophomore seminar called Western Classical Music and Politics in China and organizes the annual Pan-Asian Music Festival.

In November, Cai traveled to the Stanford Center at Peking University to lead the Peking University Symphony Orchestra in a reenactment of the 1922 concert where Beethoven was first performed in China.

Beethoven in China grew out of a year of Beethoven performances that Cai oversaw at Stanford during his 11-year tenure as director of the Stanford Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, the orchestra performed all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies and five piano concertos in a six-month period.

Then, Cai led Stanford’s orchestra on a European tour starting in Bonn, Germany, where Beethoven was born, and eventually ending in Vienna.

For Americans today, Cai said, learning about Chinese culture is imperative.

“I tell my students, ‘It doesn’t matter what your profession will be. Your work will relate to China one way or the other, [because] China has become an economic powerhouse, and is gaining more political and cultural influence,'” he said.

In classical music, China represents a growing global influence, producing waves of new performers, composers and concert halls in recent years, Cai said. “A lot of people think the future of classical music may be in China.”

Media Contacts

Veronica Marian, Stanford Humanities Center: (650) 724-8155,

Clifton B. Parker: Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,