A View from China

John Robert Brown

A visitor to China is constantly surprised by contrasts. The futuristic Maglev train races from Shanghai city to Pudong airport at a breathtaking 430 kph. Simultaneously, rickshaws ply for hire around the tourist spots. A College Principal owns three new Mercedes cars and employs a chauffeur, but outside the campus gates knife grinders, soothsayers and butchers work by the roadside. Endearingly, hundreds of folk of all ages congregate in informal groups to enjoy open-air ballroom dancing on summer nights, everyone seems to be learning English, while the very best hotels deliver luxurious modern accommodation at what are bargain prices by Western standards. The visitor separates the chic from the gauche - to enjoy all.

The biggest surprise - here I display my erstwhile ignorance - is the enormous size of cities of which I was formerly barely aware. Chongqing's population is 30 million, the central city having 15.3 million occupants. That's the largest Chinese city, though there are 38 cities with a population of more than one million. Wuhan has a population of 7.2 million; Qindao is a city of 7 million, Guangzhou 6.7 million, while Chengdu has 9.97 million.

The nine major music conservatories are enormous. A university I visit in Western China has an arts department with 12,000 students. The pop music section alone possesses 500 practice rooms - with 500 pianos. Yusheng Li is a prominent Chinese saxophone teacher who lives and works in Sichuan Province. Since he is a saxophone player, I ask whether there is a local jazz scene. Yusheng Li regrets that there isn't.

'Personally I think that jazz is related to the culture of the bar,' he says. 'Due to the Chinese tradition, the bar is not such a rendezvous as it is in the West. Furthermore, we are short of jazz musicians. As a result, the social atmosphere is not strong enough to support jazz, though there are a lot of people in China who are fond of jazz. Ambitious musicians in Beijing devote themselves to jazz, but there is still a long way to go before they fulfil their dream. Jazz is comparatively better developed in Shanghai. The city has been strongly influenced by Western culture since the late eighteenth century. I believe that jazz will develop in China in the near future.'

Yusheng Li began playing the saxophone at the age of 30. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the saxophone was forbidden as 'unhealthy'. 'It is indeed a great shame for us,' he says - a comment that must qualify as the understatement of a lifetime. Therefore, for Yusheng Li, like most professional Chinese saxophone players of his age, the saxophone wasn't his first instrument.

Yusheng Li explains that the Cultural Revolution was hostile to Western music, especially pop music. 'Ballrooms were absolutely forbidden,' he says. 'They were considered 'capitalistic'. Therefore, the pop music which was relative to them was called 'yellow music'. Until the early 1960s, saxophone music was widely played in ballrooms; no wonder it was not allowed later.'

He seems philosophical about this: 'Compared with the hardships and difficulties we Chinese suffered, it seemed to count for nothing. China is now experiencing a new era. With the rapid development of the nation, the saxophone has made more progress than any other brass and woodwind.' To explain this, Yusheng Li cites the unique charm of the saxophone. He quotes Ernest Ferron's remark (cited on the cover of Ferron's The Saxophone is my Voice): 'The saxophone is both the most recent and most universal wind instrument.'

Yusheng Li observes that Chinese people love saxophone music very much. 'I started playing music when I was 10,' he says. 'I learned to play the bamboo flute, the orchestral flute and the oboe. I used to be a member of an orchestra of a singing and dancing group. I studied at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music from 1978 to 1982, majoring in Chinese traditional instruments.'

So, how did Yusheng Li learn the saxophone? 'At the very beginning I taught myself. In 1993 and 1996 I went to Canada and studied with Paul Brodie. I was honoured to receive the Diploma of Saxophone Performer as a Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.'

In Western China, Classical saxophone teaching started officially in the department of orchestral instruments of the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in 1997. Saxophone teaching had existed at the Conservatory before then, but purely as a pop music instrument.

Yusheng Li and his colleagues give performances in many cities nationwide. His saxophone quartet has made tours to Chongqing, Guiyan, Kunming and other big cities. In this he was sponsored by Yamaha, China. 'In addition, In July 2004 I organized an international saxophone summer camp in Yantai, a seaside city in the north,' says Yusheng Li. Four concerts were given - a big success. In 2000, one of my excellent students, who is now residing in Europe for advanced studies, gave a recital in Shanghai'

'General speaking, musical life here is quite colourful,' says Yusheng Li. 'There are three professional symphony orchestras in Chengdu, for instance. Various kinds of concerts, including symphonic, gigs and chamber music, are given regularly both by local musicians from China and abroad. However, live music is rarely broadcast on local radio. Sometimes live music can be watched on local television, especially on festivals.'

Yusheng Li tells me that the saxophone quartet is popular in China: 'My quartet is very moved by the enthusiastic audiences wherever we give performances,' he says. He tells me that there is a Chinese clarinet society, but no national saxophone society. However, a brass and woodwind society exists in each province in China. The saxophone is included. Last year a local saxophone society was set up in Shanghai.

Yusheng Li is commendably aware of the prominent UK and American players, heard on CD. As in Britain, the saxophone music on the radio is mostly pop music. Having noticed many excellent music shops in the big cities (the streets around the biggest conservatories are full of such shops), I ask Yusheng Li about the supply of mouthpieces, reeds and saxophone music. 'Most of the worldwide famous products, such as Selmer, Vandoren, Bari, Dukoff, Alexander, and Rico are sold in local music shops, to be widely used by the local saxophonists,' he says. He also reels off a list of prominent Western saxophonists who have visited. 'Paul Brodie, James Houlik, Ken Radnofsky and Claude Delangle have been here. Jean-Yves Fourmeau will be coming to my International Saxophone Summer Camp in August.' Yusheng Li plays on a Selmer III Soprano, Selmer Super Action 80 Serie II Alto, a Yamaha 62 Tenor, and uses Selmer C* mouthpieces, with Alexander Superial "DC" Reeds 3.5, Classique 3.

Chinese technology is advanced. As Buick and Cadillac cars are now built in China (another surprise), I ask Yusheng Li about Chinese-built saxophones. 'There is a big market for saxophones in China,' he says. 'More than 130,000 saxophones are built here each year. 80 percent are exported, 20 percent are sold in China. In the 1950s, saxophones were well made in China. But the production was forced to stop in the next decades. In the late 1980s, saxophones were again made here, but with poor quality, especially the pads, springs and mechanical systems. Criticised by the saxophone players, and with the competition from the international instrument manufacturers, the Chinese producers have been urged to make better products. The quality of Chinese-built saxophones has improved in recent years. Today there are a lot of saxophone makers in China. One of them, Longkou Jinsheng Musical Instrument Co. Ltd., in Yantai, Shandong, has even received international attention for its high quality products.'

Yusheng Li takes a long perspective on these matters. Having visited the USA, he is now hoping to visit Britain. Western manufacturers would do well to heed his hints about the rise of Chinese saxophone technology, otherwise there will be another surprise in store - loss of sales to Chinese competition.

'My current project is to train a large group of talented students,' he says. 'I hope that they will have opportunities to go to Europe and North America for further studies after their graduation. Then hopefully they will come back and develop the saxophone in China. Several students of mine are studying overseas now. They are excellent players. With the rapid improvement in China and the effort devoted by all the saxophone teachers and students, I believe that international saxophone players will also come from China.'

This article first appeared in the summer 2005 edition of CASS Magazine, the journal of the Clarinet and Saxophone Society of Great Britain. Used by kind permission.
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