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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St. Matteo Ricci?


The Atlantic magazine  recently published an article about a move within the Vatican to canonize Matteo Ricci, the first Jesuit missionary to China, titled Can Matteo Ricci’s beatification mend China’s rift with the Catholic Church?

“When Matteo Ricci walked the streets of Beijing more than 400 years ago, he was a celebrity. The Jesuit was the first Westerner to enter the gates of the Forbidden City. He impressed the emperor by predicting solar eclipses. He created an enormous map that gave Ming dynasty Chinese a sense of the rest of the world for the first time. He spoke and read Chinese well enough to translate Euclid.


And even though, after 13 years in China, he began to dress in the garb of an imperial scholar-official, his goal was to convert the Chinese to Catholicism, which he did with some success and considerable flair.


Now all he needs is a miracle or two. Literally.


In May, the Vatican body that overseas canonization pushed ahead the case for making Ricci, who died in 1610, a saint. The Catholic Church has collected hundreds of documents that provide evidence of his “heroic virtues” and has dubbed him a Servant of God, which puts him on the first rung of four steps toward full-fledged sainthood. In order for him to advance, Ricci’s supporters must now find evidence of popular devotion to Ricci, that prayers to him have cured fatal illnesses, or that his body hasn’t decayed in the 403 years since his death.”

The article then goes on to give a good overview of the issues that remain sticking points between the Vatican and the Chinese government, and the likely impact conferring sainthood on Matteo Ricci would have on Sino-Vatican relations.

In 2010 I wrote a post about visiting the Metteo Ricci exhibit at the Capital Museum in Beijing to commemorate the 400th year of Ricci’s death. You can read it here.

Protestant or Catholic, anyone serving in China today is standing on the shoulders of Matteo Ricci.


Further Reading on Matteo Ricci:

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence

A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552-1610, by Po Chia-Hsia

Matteo Ricci (New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)


Note: this was originally posted on the ChinaSource Blog.

Image source:  Asia News

Language Week at Outside-In

I’ve decided to blog around a theme this week, namely the Chinese language and language learning. Each day there will be a new post related to that theme.

At the same time I am launching a subscription drive, complete with a “lucky draw.” New subscribers and/or those who recommend new subscribers will be entered to win a free copy of my book, “Survival Chinese Lessons.”

To enter the ‘lucky draw” you will need to either subscribe to this blog or recommend someone to subscribe. You can do so by entering your email in the “subscribe to updates by email” section on the right, or by subscribing to the RSS feed. If you subscribe to receive it by email, a verification email will be sent to you.  You will need to click on the link provided in that email in order to activate your subscription. Be sure to check your spam box if it doesn’t come through right away.

After you have subscribed, please leave a comment on THIS post letting me know. If someone recommended this blog to you, please indicate that in the comment.  Just give the person’s first name and last initial. I will most likely be able to figure out how it is!

The deadline to subscribe is the end of the day (wherever you are on the planet) on October 13, 2012. 2 names will be chosen randomly to receive a free copy of my book.

That’s all there is to it!

Now, with that out of the way, and to whet your appetite, here is the introduction to the book:

In 1582 an Italian Jesuit named Matteo Ricci arrived in Macau to begin learning the Chinese language. He would eventually master the language and come to be recognized as a true Chinese scholar by the intellectual elite of the day. He not only spoke the language fluently; he translated the Confucian classics into Latin and even wrote books in Chinese himself.

After establishing communities in Macau, Guangzhou, Nanchang, and Nanjing, he was granted permission by the emperor to live in Beijing in 1601, becoming the first westerner to reside there. He died at his home in Beijing in 1610.

In March 2010, to mark the 400th anniversary of his death, the municipal government of his hometown in Italy sponsored a special exhibition on his life and work at the Beijing Capital Museum, titled “Matteo Ricci: An Encounter of Civilizations in Ming China.” The exhibit included many 16th century artifacts, including original Chinese language books written by Ricci.

One section of the exhibit focused on his years of language study in Macau, and was titled “In the Whirlpool of the Chinese Language.” It is an apt description of what it is like “foreigners” to learn Chinese.

Many people come to China with the hope and/or intention of learning the language, but soon give up. The tones, the unfamiliar sounds, and he complexity of the characters quickly form themselves into a whirling mass that overwhelms the motivation and desire to learn. The task seems too big.

Learning Chinese is a big task, but learning how to use the language to accomplish simple, everyday tasks is not.  You may never, like Matteo Ricci, translate Chinese classics or write books in Chinese yourself. But even Ricci had to start with the basics, learning the sounds, the tones, and the vocabulary to accomplish the stuff of everyday life.

And there-in lies the purpose of this book – to help you learn the sounds of Chinese as well as some basic vocabulary, questions, statements, and conversations. It is by no means a comprehensive Chinese language textbook. You will NOT be fluent by the time you work through it. Rather, it is something to help you get your feet – or should I say your big toe –wet. Actually, if you can use this material when you are done, you will have just enough Chinese to get you into trouble.

Whether you are trying to learn some Chinese in preparation for a visit to China, for a short-term work assignment, or as the first steps in a life-long journey of learning, it is my hope that these materials will be helpful to you.


You can read more about the book by clicking “My Book” at the top of this page.

Related Post:

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners