By Andrew Huckman. Published January 7, 2016
Li-Kuo Chang, assistant principal viola of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, embraces Shanghai, his home for his first three decades, like a virtuoso concerto. He indulges the gilded elegance of its old boulevards and battles the harrowing shifts of revolution, then rushes with the dynamism of its soaring skyline — a soloist in harmony with a frenetic ensemble of a city that sometimes drifts precariously off-tempo, then pushes forward twice as fast. That’s Chang and Shanghai.
The CSO’s Asia tour, its first with Music Director Riccardo Muti, returns Chang and the orchestra to Shanghai for the third time in eight seasons. Ahead of the orchestra’s departure, Chang reflected on his youth and musical development in a city refashioned with the revolutionary promise of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, then cast backward by the harrowing Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976.
In 1979, at age 30, Chang came to the United States, the year that diplomatic relations were resumed with China. “I was one of the very first — maybe the very first mainland China musician — to start considering an orchestral experience in the United States.”
He joined the CSO in 1988. “The whole orchestra opened its arms to welcome me,” Chang remembers, and so many seasons later, it’s his special privilege whenever he welcomes the CSO back to Shanghai — a city that’s still crafting resonant cadenzas for the evolving violist and a remarkable orchestra. That’s Chang and Chicago.
China’s Cultural Revolution and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music
It has been 50 years since the turbulent spring of 1966, when Chang and Shanghai were pitched into a decade of tragedy — China’s Cultural Revolution. Chang’s memory of its start is sad and succinct: “In my young heart I thought, ‘Everything’s finished.’”
Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, was sensing uncomfortable rumblings — growing factionalism and a leaning toward Western perspectives. Concerned the 17-year-old regime and perhaps his primacy were at stake, China’s leader doubled down on his own Maoist ideology. He shut schools and universities, attacked “bourgeois” Western ideas and fostered a feared student cadre, known as Red Guards, to ferret out dangerous thought. The Cultural Revolution hit hard in Shanghai, China’s rich Western gateway, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music drew especially intense fire.
Memories of that spring still haunt Chang, then a 17-year-old violin student at the conservatory’s high school; his mother was a pianist on the conservatory faculty. Chang recalls a “chaotic, tragic, horrendous experience.”
“Suddenly all the schools stopped, and there was a huge movement against Western ‘corrupted’ imperialism’s influence on the intellectuals. Our professors, even the administrators — many of them were Communist Party members — they were being persecuted as criminals who spread dangerous ‘anti-revolutionary’ thoughts and ideologies.
“It’s students against students, divided by class. They say if you come from a working-class family, if you were poor before 1949, you are considered a loyalist. If you’re from the bourgeois, like my family, immediately you become, they called it, the ‘six condemned types of people’ — and I belonged to that kind of family.
“So those from a ‘revolutionary’ background — that means the government officials’ and the party officials’ families and working-class families — those people become the first generation of Red Guards. And the Red Guards, at that time, control everything.”
Chang, like many Shanghai Conservatory students, remembers “being very, very scared that our home might be raided and our parents would be arrested and taken away, and we would just become wandering kids, like orphans. We wouldn’t know what to do. There’s no school. There’s nothing.
“It happened to me. My mother, overnight, suddenly disappeared. She was confined in the school; all of our teachers, professors put there together — stories thousands of people have already heard.
“That time as a teenager gave me such a deep scar of fear, of desperation. I didn’t know what to do. I felt it’s the end of the world. Gradually things started to change. The ironic thing about the Cultural Revolution was that, each year, a different group of people became persecuted. The very first generation of Red Guards, in the second year, became ‘anti-revolution’ criminals because they did too many horrible things.
“People committed suicide — people tortured to death by the first generation of Red Guards. Then when the Red Guards themselves become anti-revolutionary — they’re being persecuted — many of them commit suicide. Then the next year it becomes something else, like that.
“We were looking for survival in-between. Miraculously for my own fate — because I knew how to write well, and in school, people knew I was a person who wasn’t very aggressive — in the second year of the Cultural Revolution, friends started asking me to step up. They said, ‘Do something. Maybe join the administrative committee’ — the Red Guard committee — ‘to manage the school.’
“The school was paralyzed. There were no teachers. The teachers were being criticized. My mother was still in confinement and being criticized. The students just divided in different groups, fighting each other. So in the second year, 1967, I started to step up and do some organizational work. Gradually I became the No. 2 person on the Revolutionary Committee managing the music high school.”
The Shanghai Conservatory: “If you enter that school, your fate has been decided”
Chang’s mother, Sheng Jianyi (盛建颐) — “Clara” to friends and schoolmates — was a proud bastion of Shanghai tradition: elegant, worldly, prosperous and determined. An aspiring pianist from a prominent family, she attended Shanghai’s elite St. Mary’s Hall for Girls and continued her studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1934, Sheng returned home, ahead of the 1937 Japanese occupation that scarred the city through World War II. The unwavering loyalty that always pulls Sheng back to Shanghai — during war and revolution, at times of personal triumph and adversity — will define her family for three generations.
The future CSO violist was born in 1949, an auspicious year for family and nation. He arrived 500 miles up the Yangtze in Wuhan. Chang’s parents, who had fled upriver as far as wartime capital Chongqing, would sail home to Shanghai the next year
Read the entire article at CSO Sounds and Stories.