China's relationship with the piano has always been more complicated than with other non-indigenous instruments. First, there was the size: In a country where instruments have historically been folk handicrafts, anything requiring a factory full of heavy machinery was bound to get off to a shaky start. Even after the piano became a well-known icon of Western music, its journey in China was more peculiar than in South Korea or Japan. In between colonial-era curiosity and middle-class affectation, the instrument was an unlikely but highly popular symbol of new proletarian music. Like the train, the steel mill, the tank, and the fighter jet, it was seen as a modern, mechanized tool for social advancement that could be turned to the service of the Revolution.
China's largest piano manufacturer, Pearl River Piano, was founded as a state-owned venture in 1956, amid China's bid to build its industrial capacity. These were heady days for pianos: The year before, Fou Ts'ong had taken home a prize from the International Chopin Piano Competition that made him a national celebrity. But for decades, the factory struggled to become more than a shoddy workshop. Even as a pianist like Yin Chengzong became a Cultural Revolution–era superstar with his renditions of Maoist music, the factory languished. Then came the 1980s, when China got serious about manufacturing and opened the Pearl River Delta region to foreign investment. Not to be outdone, China's flagship state-owned piano firm rushed to modernize.
Posted by Nick Frisch, 2009–2010 Fulbright Fellow researching classical music developments in China