Zheng Xiaoying (SHI GANG)
China's first female orchestra conductor, 80-year-old Zheng Xiaoying, says that her music career has only recently reached its pinnacle. In 1998, Zheng settled in the coastal city of Xiamen, south China's Fujian Province, and founded the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra, the only one in the country not funded by the government. Under Zheng's guiding hand, the orchestra has achieved worldwide recognition as one of China's leading classical music groups.
"The years in Xiamen are the happiest time in my life since I have realized my dreams. My music career without doubt is climaxing in Xiamen," said Zheng, who was the chief conductor of China National Opera House until 1997.
Despite being an internationally acclaimed conductor, Zheng did not receive systematic music training until she was 23. She quit a women's university in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, against her parents' will at the age of 19 and joined the Communist Party of China's army. There she was recruited to be part of a performing troupe in 1948. It was in this performing troupe that Zheng first showed her musical talent and picked up the baton.
"I was chosen to be a chorus conductor after the troupe director learned that, unlike most singers, I could play piano and read music," said Zheng.
She also taught herself to play several instruments and it was not long before she was promoted to be the conductor of the performing troupe's ensemble.
Although Zheng had no teacher in the troupe, she said her experience there profoundly influenced her conducting style.
She enrolled in the Central Conservatory of Music's Composition Department in 1952. In 1955, she finally had the chance to learn professional conducting after the conservatory sent her to attend a special course taught by prestigious Soviet conductors.
"I was the only female student in the class," said Zheng, who became China's first professionally trained female music director.
She worked as a teacher in China's Central Conservatory of Music in 1956 and in 1960 she studied conducting at the internationally renowned Moscow P. I. Tchaikovsky Conservatory. On October 1, 1961, she conducted her first orchestra concert in Moscow, which she dedicated to the 12th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Ebb and flow
Zheng returned to China to continue her teaching career at the Central Conservatory of Music in 1963. It was not long before she was forced to abandon her beloved career in classical music when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) started, during which time the teaching and performance of classical music was forbidden across the nation.
"I was sent to work at a Peking opera ensemble. I felt pain and desperation since I thought I would be forced leave the conductor's podium of orchestras and operas forever," she said.
But she later began making the best of her new job and started studying music used in China's traditional operas.
"I learned a lot about China's traditional operas during that period," she said.
After the "cultural revolution" ended, Zheng started to work at the China National Opera House, only to find that classical music was not revitalizing as smoothly as she expected. The rise of pop music in the 1980s saw many of her colleagues begin to moonlight as pop singers for the good money the job offered. Opera houses, meanwhile, fell apart over the next two decades, she said.
To reverse the decline of classical music, Zheng, cellist Situ Zhiwen and violinist Zhu Li launched China's first female philharmonic orchestra in 1989. More than 70 volunteer musicians performed over 300 concerts with the orchestra for little or no pay over the ensuing six years.
"We didn't mind working hard to spread classical music. Many years after our orchestra disintegrated, people still talk about our all-women group. I feel that all my hard work was worthwhile," said Zheng.
Moving to Xiamen has brought Zheng closer to her family's Hakka cultural heritage. Though her father came from a Fujian Hakka community, Zheng, who was born and raised in Shanghai, only recently started to connect with her heritage.
In 2000, she and her sister visited their grandparents' tombs in Fujian's Yongding County. Returning to Xiamen, Zheng could not get the traditional Hakka earth buildings she saw in Yongding off her mind. So she invited composer Liu Yuan, who once lived in Fujian, to create a symphony based on Hakka buildings. Zheng also studied historical documents and the traditional folk songs of her ancestors to ensure the symphony would accurately capture the spirit of the Hakka people.
In November 2000, Zheng's Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra performed "The Echoes of Hakka Earth Buildings" for the first time at a Hakka gathering in Fujian's Longyan City. The audience loved it. The orchestra included the symphony as the centerpiece for their 2007 tour of Europe and achieved enormous success in France, Germany, Austria and Italy.