When did the guitar come to
It was probably only in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that the guitar began to be known more widely in
These western stringed instruments made it possible (in a manner to which Chinese instruments are less suited) for young Chinese to accompany themselves singing popular songs of the day, and to do so in parks and other outdoor settings (as the piano does not). But clearly these instruments meant more than that. The guitar in
Another early and prominent appearance is in the well-known New Year's song, "Gongxi gongxi," 恭喜恭喜 by Chen Gexin (under the pen name Qing Yu) and performed by Yao Li 姚莉 and her brother Yao Man. The song, written in
Shanghai in1945, commemorates the
defeat of Japan
at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII). It has a gypsy sound to it, reminiscent of
Russian or French café music. Though this sound would not have been alien
to listeners in 1940s Shanghai,
it was nonetheless a cosmopolitan sound, not a specifically Chinese one. The cross-cultural layerings of this emotive
song are perhaps one reason why singers China Forbes and Timothy Yuji Nishimoto covered it—in Chinese—with Pink Martini in 2010. [My thanks to Andrew Jones for the references
to Nie Er and "Gongxi gongxi."] Here's the Yao Li and Yao Man version:
These foreign associations would get the guitar in trouble as
China's political vicissitudes led to anti-western isolationism during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. Oddly enough, given the millions of young Red Guards then roaming the country and challenging authority, and the revolutionary romanticism of those years, they were not playing guitars. In fact, the guitar was condemned as Western and decadent, associated in China with "hooligans" (liumang 流氓). Anthems to Mao were not accompanied on a six-string. Popular instruments of the day included the accordion, harmonica, and autoharps. And it was permitted to play the what was called a "balalaika"—a three-stringed banjo-like instrument (Russian balalaikas are in fact triangular). These were functionally little different from simple guitars, but round in shape rather than waisted, with backs decorated with such Maoisms as "never forget class struggle!" Now these instruments are coveted pieces of Cultural Revolution memorabilia.
As the Cultural Revolution wound down in the late 1970s, the guitar returned, as much as icon as musical instrument. One emblematic figure of that era was the "false foreign devil"—the newest avatar of the liumang hooligan. He wore long hair, tight or bell-bottom pants, sunglasses (often with the tag still dangling) and carried a guitar. The philosopher Zhao Yuesheng describes his first encounter with the type in 1978 or 1979:
Zhao, used to seeing people dressed in standard loose-fitting workers' and soldiers' clothes, was startled by the man's get-up, which reminded him of
Hong Kong or Taiwanese
style. They went inside the house, which
belonged to a young woman of their mutual acquaintance. Zhao was curious to hear this young man,
named Tang-ke, play guitar and sing—something Zhao had only read about in
novels, but had never heard before.
Though Tang-ke was obviously courting the woman, Zhao was the one most
affected when the guitarist softly strummed chords and sang, in a rough but
melodic voice, a love song called "Blue Streetlight." Compared to the strident martial anthems to
Mao Zedong that Zhao had grown up with, this song was drenched in
"consumptive sentimentality, and so --'capitalist'"!
[Excerpted, with minor modifications and with the addition of photos and links, from my chapter "Shredding for the Motherland: The Guitar in China." In Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Angilee Shah, eds. Chinese Characters.
Press, 2012. ] University of California