Zhou Weishi, a pioneer of the performing arts in China, dies aged 98

Throughout the ups and downs of a turbulent era, Zhou Weishi kept his passion for the arts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 2014, 6:34am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2014, 6:34am

Zhou Weishi

Zhou Weishi, a key driver of the performing arts in China and a protégé of the late premier Zhou Enlai , has died in Beijing. He was 98.

Zhou Weishi's interest in the performing arts, especially music, was cultivated in the 1930s in Shanghai. He harboured the dream of creating an all-Chinese symphony orchestra and began to teach himself music. In 1936, he conducted a children's choir at the funeral of literary giant Lu Xun .

During the war with Japan, the Jiangsu native went to Yanan in Shaanxi province, the then headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, and led the Western Front Regiment, a drama and music propaganda group. He went on to become a key adviser for the 1945 premiere of the socialist opera, The White-haired Girl, in which his wife, Wang Kun, sang the title role.

After 1949, Zhou, as head of the Ministry of Culture's arts bureau, began to establish performing arts companies that embraced not just socialist works but the best from around the world.

In 1951, he headed China's contingent to the showcase Third World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin, Germany, where, for the first time, a Chinese ensemble played Western instruments for a European audience. In 1956, those performers realised Zhou's dream by becoming the founding members of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra.

But the good times did not last. The Anti-Rightist Movement began in 1957 and some of Zhou's top artists, like the US-trained soprano Zhang Quan, were branded "rightists" and sentenced to hard labour.

In 1964, he advised Zhou Enlai on the staging of The East is Red, a music and dance epic performed in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in the hope of blunting chairman Mao Zedong's growing opposition to "bourgeois elements".

But the show, involving more than 3,000 performers, was not enough to stop the country's descent into the Cultural Revolution. Zhou, Wang and their two sons were detained and then sent to the countryside for re-education.

After the national ordeal ended in 1976, Zhou became acting minister of culture and the chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles until 2006.

His long life may be best summarised by a statement he made in 2009 at a the launch of a book about the orchestra he founded.

"In my life I have done some good, and made numerous mistakes. But I am not obstinate. I take your criticism and ask for your forgiveness," he said.