Classical Music with Chinese Characteristics

While John Garnaut focuses on Xi Jinping’s former study group of “Second Generation Reds”, Sheila Melvin at ChinaFile looks at another gathering of China’s political elite: the short-lived Three Highs orchestra and choir, whose members included Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in the chorus and a former astronaut on trombone. The article recounts the history of Western classical music and its instruments in China, and describes traditional connections between music and leadership.

The Three Highs—San Gao, in Chinese, or “3H” in colloquial English promotional materials—is an amateur ensemble named not for any notes its performers might reach in concert, but for the status they must possess simply to be members. Indeed, “three highs” refers to the bureaucratic ranking of the ninety-seven musicians and the accompanying 141-member chorus, all of whom are high-ranking members of China’s Communist Party, intelligentsia, or military. They include Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, who sang in the chorus (along with dozens of other ministry officials); Shanghai Communist Party Secretary Han Zheng and chairman of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Bate’er, both of whom played accordion; Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Rong, who served as concertmaster; and retired astronaut Jing Haipeng, who played trombone.

[…] It is near impossible to imagine any other nation on earth that would have the will, the wherewithal, or even the desire to create an ensemble like this—not to mention the moxy to call it the “Three Highs.” And, indeed, there was some tongue-wagging, as on the widely circulated post on the Twitter-like Weibo that joked “three highs” was actually a reference to the high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol of the orchestra’s mostly retired members. But, while the Three Highs is many things, it is most certainly no joke. On the contrary, it is yet another signifier of the seriousness with which the PRC government takes its mission—formally announced at the 2011 plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee—to promote the “great development and great flourishing” of Chinese culture. It is also evidence of the enduring belief that a good leader should be cultivated and cultured, and of the leadership’s willingness to put its money—and time and energy—where its mouth is.

The article includes video of a Shanghai Noon report on the orchestra.


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