accordion chinese instrument Culture History instrument MUSIC musical instrument shoufengqin

The World of Chinese

In 1966, the Tianjin Individuals’s Wonderful Arts Publishing Home issued 80,000 propaganda posters to mark the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Titled maybe prematurely, “Long Live the Victory of Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line of Literature and Art,” they confirmed a younger accordionist enjoying a (presumably) jaunty tune, before a mob of Purple Guards brandishing purple books and shovels over a cowering counterrevolutionary on the bottom. Above and behind them, a portrait of Chairman Mao watches benignly.

This was undoubtedly the high level of the accordion’s reputation in China, says accordion service provider and repairman Dai Guangyao, 50 years later. As soon as employed by the state-run Shanghai Accordion Manufacturing unit, now defunct, Dai has experienced the rise and fall of the shoufengqin (手风琴, “hand organ”) extra acutely than most. He now runs one of Shanghai’s final accordion outlets, and has needed to diversify into pianos and violins to maintain his business open on the town’s prestigious Jinling Street.

“The 1960s was the start of ‘accordion fever’ in China,” Dai tells TWOC. “The army’s song-and-dance troupes, the ‘culture worker’ propaganda teams touring across the countryside…virtually all of them had one.

“Of course,” he provides, “other Western instruments were banned.”

In 1985, a bemused Chicago Tribune also pointed to the Cultural Revolution to defined how a overseas instrument, related to polka and minstrel exhibits within the US, was by some means “strik[ing] a chord” with the Chinese. “Two accordion factories, one in Shanghai and one in Tientsin, each squeeze out 35,000 instruments a year to supply the demand” the Tribune reported, quoting an American accordionist who compares China’s then-most in style instrument  to the guitar in the West. But when the latter’s ubiquity in American music might be traced to the protest actions of the 1960s, the similarities with accordion could also be larger than anyone realized.

Accordionist Bing Xin plays at a rally in help of Panamanian students within the 1964 Panama Riots

A relatively current invention, the accordion was patented in 1829 by an Austrian mechanic, and was briefly beloved by the European center courses as a consequence of a fad for mechanized improvements within the industrial age. But the accordion lacked the benefit of a classical canon or patronage by well-known composers that would have sustained its interest among the elite.

In line with music historian Helena Simonett, when the fashionable symphony orchestra and music syllabuses began to be codified in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the accordion continued its fall from favor. In america, it was associated with undesirable southern and japanese European immigrants, and low cost vaudeville acts; in Nazi Germany, whose leaders deemed it only “good enough for peasant dances,” the accordion was rejected by nationwide repertoires and troupes. An 1877 New York Occasions editorial referred to “the so-called musical instrument variously known as the accordion or concertina…a favorite instrument of the idle and depraved.”

Among the many working class, however, the accordion’s “uncomplicated and cheerful sound” and “ease of transportation and storage” made it a mainstay at social gatherings among the many urban and rural poor, writes Simonett. Its transfer to the manufacturing unit employee’s break rooms, strikes, and political rallies was a pure one. Perhaps on account of its significance to Russian people music, Bolshevik rallies made comprehensive use of accordionists—including a young Nikita Khrushchev, though this claimed was later questioned—to offer leisure, increase morale, and spread political messages among the plenty.

As with many Western inventions, the accordion initially got here to China by way of Japan and in tandem with the late 19th-century instructional reforms that swept both nations. China’s first accordion guide, Shoufengqin Jiaokeshu, revealed in 1905 by The Business Press, beneficial its introduction into personal Confucian academies: Traditional devices have been on the decline, however the accordion might “make the private school a place of music and fun…music is not something trivial, but effective for maintaining community.” In comparison with the piano, the accordion was extra suited to the fashionable classroom as a result of it was low cost and straightforward to retailer, and optimised for enjoying Western as well as traditional Chinese music.

However Chinese intellectuals, as Europeans elite had earlier than them, soon dismissed the accordion as a “toy.” It was the Communist Get together that was finally liable for preserving the instrument. Long before state-run song-and-dance troupes have been formalized by Mao Zedong’s “Propaganda Teams of the Red Army” tackle in Jiangxi province in 1929, the Get together used the standard accordion as a way to spread its political messages. In Kenneth Ore’s memoir Pink Azalea, the writer recollects working as an underground CCP recruiter within the Republic of China when police grew suspicious of a spread present he’d helped manage, featuring the accordion. “Only Russians and Chinese Communists use accordions,” they alleged, to which Ore replied that the instrument “didn’t carry a proletarian trademark.”

Photograph of a Shanghai youth choir accompanied on accordion in the 1950s

He was mistaken. Music historian Yin Kee Kwan notes that the accordion was employed by hundreds of propaganda troupes—renamed wengongtuan (文工团, “art-worker troupe”) from Mao’s preliminary xuanchuandui (宣传队, “propaganda team”)—that took the Social gathering’s message to the countryside all through the 1940s and 50s. The first full decade of the Individuals’s Republic noticed the institution of state manufacturers in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Chongqing, and both the Accordion Society of China and China’s first accordion orchestra have been established in Beijing in the early 1960s.

Soviet song-and-dance troupes (that had earlier undergone their own political purges underneath Stalin, which the accordion survived) gave common performances in China, influencing the institution of the PLA’s own gewutuan (歌舞团) as well as including Russian people tunes to the accordion’s repertoire, alongside the “red songs” and Chinese people music that have been arranged.

All that the Cultural Revolution had to do was to dial up this cultural and political history to make the accordion the No. 1 instrument of the plenty. Shopkeeper Dai believes that the 60s “accordion fever” owed to more sensible than political considerations: “It’s portable; it can be stowed anywhere; it didn’t use electricity, so it could be played in remote villages; its repertoire was diverse; it could play solos, as well as harmonies and chords, unlike small Chinese instruments such as the erhu, so it worked like a one-man band.”

But historian Richard Kraus has written that, in comparison with the piano, the accordion did have a “proletarian” fairly than “bourgeois” symbolism, if only as a result of it was ubiquitous at mass gatherings. On the Chinese chapter of Accordions Worldwide and Baidu’s “accordion forum,” former propaganda staff recall being enthusiastic welcomed across the country by entertainment-starved audiences in some of the remotest places of China.

“Most villagers at the time have never seen an accordion, couldn’t imagine that this object carried on a person’s back could mimic the sound of a train, and they were glued to their seats as soon as the overture sounded,” wrote one accordionist of the propaganda solo “The Train Flies Toward Beijing,” as soon as part of his regular set listing. “I still think about their applause from time to time…whenever the kids in the area saw me they’d shout, ‘We’re arriving at Beijing Station! We’re arriving at Beijing Station!’”

Many of these musicians discovered work as academics in state-run youth recreation facilities (少年宫, “Children’s Palaces”) from the 1980s via to the early 90s, when the Tribune received wind of the instrument’s reputation. It turned the instrument of selection for folks wanting their youngsters to study a modern Western instrument, but with neither the money nor area for a piano. Dai adds that cultural reminiscence additionally played a task: “These parents grew up listening to accordion; they know Western songs through the accordion.” The most successful, former Dalian Garrison Wengongtuan member Jiang Jie, even turned a minor movie star together with his own collection of cassette tapes, a music faculty in Beijing’s Xidan district, and a branded educating syllabus.

Accordions Worldwide reviews that China nonetheless boasts the world’s largest number of accordionists—and on July 24, 2017, 2,260 accordionists from 20 nations played together at a Shenzhen accordion pageant to set the Guinness World Document for Largest Accordion Ensemble (the final three years’ data have been additionally set in China). The Jiang Jie Accordion Academy, nevertheless, is now Jiang Jie Piano Metropolis, a music store.

Dai says that is an inevitable change, as the piano has more prestige, whereas the accordion lacks a particular repertoire past re-arranged piano music and outdated pink songs. “Our syllabuses ought to focus more on music unique to the accordion, like tango perhaps, or encourage musicians to write original compositions,” he says. “Only then can the instrument be popular again.”

He isn’t too frightened about enterprise, nevertheless, as a brand new group of clients is beginning to patronize the store. “Retirees—middle-aged and elderly people who have more time on their hands and decide to pick up an instrument—often go for the accordion,” he says. “They grew up with it, have a lot of memories of it, and now play it when they gather in the street or dance in the square to relax, to be happy, to get enthusiastic.”

It’s not dangerous epilogue for an instrument of the idle and wicked.


“The People’s Squeezebox” is a story from our concern, “Fast Forward”. To learn all the concern, turn out to be a subscriber and obtain the full journal. Alternatively, you should purchase the digital version from the iTunes Retailer.