Death of Celebrated Conductor Yan Liangkun Marks End of Era in China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 6, June 2017

By Arthur Waldron, Ph.D.

Yan Liangkun, last of the legendary conductors of The Yellow River Cantata (1939) the powerful classic composed by Xian Xinghai in wartime, is dead. With him dies a precious and authentic Chinese revolutionary tradition, that of those who once truly believed. Our house echoed with the music all morning. It filled with tears the eyes of me, a simple white boy from the Boston suburbs, still unable to distinguish the five grains, and prompting all sorts of reflections.

We are drawing very near to the end of an era, when people are still alive who remember the radiant vision of the New China that would arise, somehow from the good land and rivers themselves, of war ravaged China (Rana Mitter tells us 20 million dead). In their imaginations that vision still lives, under the layers of tragedy, personal suffering and disappointment, as what guided them and consumed their spirits when they were young and has never died.  Somehow we must capture this, for these were sincere people, whose love of country was simple and absolutely authentic (though few ever carried a gun: that was for the lower orders).

Shanghai, China. Xian Xinghai at about 23 years old in the 1920s. He composed the Yellow River Cantata, a classical work that uses a series of powerful Chinese melodies to evoke the beauty of China and the heroism of the war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945). Source: People’s Republic of China

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