Tiananmen Square

June 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

We generally think of music and the arts as a pastime – as something we do to relax or forget about the “real world.” Yet at the same time, people quickly become enraged and offended when a work of art or music challenges their beliefs or pushes us out of our comfort zone. Governments and political leaders are very aware of this – music is carefully selected, created, and packaged to support their ideology. And artists that oppose powerful leaders – quietly or overtly – often find themselves shunned, banned, threatened, or worse.

This sort of thing can happen anywhere, dictatorship or democracy, ancient or modern, north or south, east or west. Thinking about that iconic, chilling picture from Tiananmen Square, let’s look at Chinese-American composer Chen Yi.

Chen was born in China, at a time when it was dangerous to be a musician there. The Cultural Revolution frowned upon the arts, especially any music that sounded “western”. She put a blanket in her piano and muted her violin so she could practice without the authorities hearing her. When she was 15, her family’s possessions were confiscated, and they were forced to labor in the country as part of the government’s anti-bourgeois efforts. Against these odds, Chen still managed to earn a Master’s in music and become a world-famous, Pulitzer-prize winning composer – as an American citizen.