Composer Wang Qiang tells of musical journey from China to Hong Kong

Wang Qiang went from writing music for political campaigns on mainland to finally finding the freedom to express herself by moving to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 December, 2012, 12:14pm

The first time Wang Qiang felt completely free to write her music, she was already 56 years old.

Fed up with the political interference that dominated most of her artistic life, the composer moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1991.

Hong Kong is not particularly known for the kind of artistic atmosphere that inspires creativity. But for Wang, one of a handful of contemporary women composers on the mainland, it was heaven.

"I came here for an environment that allows me to compose freely," said Wang, now 77. "I have written so much rubbish in my life, things I now have no wish to see any more."

Wang's early career in music composition was marred by political interference. But her eventful and dramatic life gave her plenty of inspiration.

Born in Shandong in 1935, Wang joined the People's Liberation Army's art troupe as a teenager and went to the border with North Korea as a volunteer during the Korean War.

It was there the 16-year-old learned to compose war propaganda songs.

"I like composing. It's a way of expressing myself," she said, her eyes twinkling with enthusiasm. "When the US planes were bombing overhead, we were dancing in the air raid shelters."

After the war, she entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to study composition in 1955.

She studied under Ding Shande , a French-trained musician who encouraged students to be liberal and creative in their compositions.

But Wang soon found herself - along with other musicians - forced to write music for the Communist Party's campaigns.

When she was in her third year at the conservatory, she was among students sent to the countryside to observe the Great Leap Forward - a radical socialist mass-movement of Mao Zedong intended to accelerate China's industrial production to match that of Western nations.

Full of youthful fervour and optimism for Mao's utopian dream, Wang was genuinely moved to write - at first.

"I saw people pushing carts, digging man-made rivers … and I wanted to praise the ordinary people for their hard work, so I wrote River of Fortune, even though it also praised Mao's policy," Wang said. The choral work won her first prize in composition at the 1959 World Youth Festival in Vienna. But Wang soon found it increasingly difficult to follow orders to compose only music praising the government.

During the Great Leap Forward, she and other composers were often summoned during the night by the authorities to write propaganda songs in locked rooms, on themes such as: "Surpass Britain and catch up with the US."

"But composing is not like working in a factory. You need inspiration," she said. "So we ended up writing lots of rubbish."

In 1960, the year she graduated, she and other musicians were sent to the countryside in Yunnan and Guizhou to see how agricultural collectivisation and the creation of people's communes under the Great Leap Forward led peasants to happiness.

They were ordered by the authorities to write a quartet depicting the people's communes as "steps to heaven".

"These political slogans, I just couldn't write anything out of them," she said. "We wrote a quartet anyway, but they said it was nothing like 'steps to heaven' so we were criticised for lacking feeling for the People's Commune. These were political tasks we grudgingly carried out …

"It was a distortion of our creativity so we couldn't produce anything good."

Things went from bad to worse during the Cultural Revolution, the decade between 1966 and 1976 that saw musicians attacked as imperialist bourgeoisie, violins smashed and pianos chained up in conservatories that were forcibly shut down.

A former student of He Luding , the head of the Shanghai music conservatory who was jailed for seven years for his anti-Mao stance, Wang was denounced as his "black offshoot" and a "monster and demon", which were insults for class enemies.

Her name was crossed out with black ink in giant posters hung around the conservatory.

She was also attacked for employing techniques used in French composer Claude Debussy's compositions, such as whole-tone scale, because a book on Debussy had been criticised by Yao Wenyuan , one of the powerful Gang of Four. "Therefore, you too are an enemy," she sighed. "Even music technique had become [an issue in] class struggle."

During that tumultuous decade, Wang wasn't allowed to write music and was barred from teaching at the conservatory, where she had been working since graduation. She attended "political struggle" meetings and was often locked in a room writing self-criticism to "uncover my subversive thinking".

But Wang proudly says these horrendous experiences only enriched her life and her music.

Wang is known for the vast range of compositions she has written, from contemporary classical music to scores for film and television, operettas and dance.

Her name has been listed in the Dictionary of the World's Greatest Female Composers.

Professor Chan Wing-wah, a Hong Kong composer, says Wang's works are full of bold passion and are free from the revolutionary style of her early career when composition was a political task.

"You need life experience and the ability to observe the world in order to compose," said Wang, citing the example of well-known contemporary musician Tan Dun, one of tens of millions of youngsters sent to the countryside to toil in Mao's "up to the mountains and down to the villages" campaign.

Even after her move to Hong Kong, life wasn't easy. A mainlander who spoke little Cantonese, she had to scrape for a living like all new immigrants.

"I needed to fill my stomach, so I taught piano, theory, composition in music shops," she said.

Wang's professional skills in composition and music arrangement eventually earned her a professorship at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts.

But Wang realised how tough it was for fellow women composers in the competitive commercial world. So in 2000, she founded the Chinese Women Composers' Association to promote other female composers.

"Women have written lots of compositions but most are kept inside locked drawers," Wang said. "I want their works performed and published, otherwise there are few opportunities to hear and perform their works."

The association held a concert at Hong Kong City Hall in October, with the City Chamber Orchestra performing the works of a dozen female composers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Five of them were musicians aged about 30.

But Wang said women composers continued to be neglected in the world of music.

"In terms of talent and hard work, women are not inferior to men, but there are few opportunities for women in this male-dominated society," she said.

Most women composers teach music at schools or universities to bring in a wage and many also compose film and television scores. But few can afford to compose full-time and to focus on the works they want to write.

Liu Qing , a lecturer at the China Conservatory in Beijing, said even though the majority of students who study composition at college are now female, many drop out of the trade sooner or later as they find it hard to balance the demands of family life with composing.

The best-known composers tend to be male, she noted.

"When you have a family and children, it's difficult to spend several months … on creating just one piece of work," she said.

Liu, a composer and member of the association, said Wang was an inspiration to the younger generation. "Madame Wang is a uniting force and she has given a foothold for us female composers," she said.

Liu said Wang had worked relentlessly to raise funds for the 13 concerts hosted by the association during the past decade and had helped raise society's awareness of female musicians and given prominence to their work.

And Wang said she was never deterred by hardship.

"We know the road of music composition is full of hard work and bitterness … but we will march on courageously," she said. "We still have many, many dreams."