A Short History of the Piano in China

During the last 8 years I was in Beijing, I lived in a high rise apartment building on the western side of the city. On the other side of the shared wall between my second bedroom (which doubled as my office) and my neighbor’s apartment was a piano. I know this because every night at 9PM, the little girl who lived next door would sit down to practice.


For the first 3 years I lived in the apartment, she played the same piece — Fur Elise, by Beethoven — every night for 30 minutes. I kid  you not, she sat down  every night and played THIS ONE SONG for 3 years!! To her credit, she got a lot better in those 3 years; unfortunately I thought I was going to lose my mind.

I was reminded of her recently when I read an interesting piece in the Chinese magazine Caixin Online, titled How the Piano Became Chinese. Credit goes to none other than that great Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci:

On January 24, 1601, the Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci arrived in Beijing bearing a cache of gifts that he had spent years assembling, and even longer trying to present to the elusive Wan Li Emperor. The gifts included such European curiosities as mechanical clocks, religious objects and a musical instrument: the clavichord.

“Musical instruments are quite common and of many varieties [in China],” Father Ricci wrote, “but the use of the organ and the clavichord is unknown, and the Chinese possess no instrument of the keyboard type.”

Indeed, though China in the 1600s had numerous rich musical traditions that employed both domestic and imported instruments, it had nothing resembling the clavichord, a stringed keyboard instrument and predecessor of the piano. That’s why Ricci chose it, hoping that the unusual instrument would so excite the emperor’s curiosity that he would agree to receive Ricci – who could then explain the precepts of Catholicism and, in his wildest dreams, get the emperor to convert, and with him, all of China.

Ricci’s elaborate plan was partly effective: Wan Li was intrigued by the strange instrument and sent four eunuchs from the College of Musicians to ask Ricci to teach them how to play. Ricci was not a musician, so when he reported to the palace, he brought along his colleague Diego Pantoia, who taught the eunuchs four songs for which Ricci wrote lyrics infused with Christian philosophy. The lessons lasted a month and then the eunuchs presumably gave a recital, although Ricci was not invited and never got to meet – let alone convert – the emperor. However, while Ricci’s gift failed to turn China into a nation of Catholics, it did start the country on the path to becoming what it is today: a nation of pianists, piano makers, piano students and piano lovers.

If you love pianos and China and Jesuit history, you’ll love this article; read the whole thing here.

Image credit: Antony Griffiths, via Flickr

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Manchurian Catholics

In the course of my research on church bells in Beijing, I have been learning a lot about the history of the Catholic churches here. One thing I have learned is that, even though the Jesuits had favor at the imperial court and were often on friendly terms with the emperor and his family, who were Manchu (Manchurians), most of the converts were Han Chinese.

But not all.

In his book, A New History of Christianity in China, Daniel Bays writes about a group of converts from the Manchu people during the Qing Dynasty:

After the handover of power to the new Qing regime, and the Jesuits success in maintaining residence in Beijing, the congregation of believers continues to grow. By 1700 it included a small but increasing number of ethnic Manchus. Several of these were from the Sunu family, (Sunu was a cousin of the Yongzheng emperor, who reigned 1723 –1735). After Yongzheng’s prohibition of Christianity in 1723, he punished the Christians in Sunu’s clan over the next few years and Manchu converts seem to have disappeared, except for perhaps a handful. Despite the hostile atmosphere, a small number of converts, 2000 or so, continued to exist in Beijing through most of the eighteenth century.

On Tuesday, in a Catholic church in Beijing, my research assistant and I met a descendant of this clan.