Once the most pop­u­lar in­stru­ment in China, the ac­cor­dion ac­com­pa­nied many of China’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary mo­ments手风琴曾经是一代人的记忆,它的流行和没落都伴随着时代的变迁

The World of Chinese - - News - BY HATTY LIU


In 1966, the Tian­jin Peo­ple’s Fine Arts Pub­lish­ing House is­sued 80,000 pro­pa­ganda posters to mark the start of the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion. Ti­tled per­haps pre­ma­turely, “Long Live the Vic­tory of Chair­man Mao’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Line of Lit­er­a­ture and Art,” they showed a young ac­cor­dion­ist play­ing a (pre­sum­ably) jaunty tune, be­fore a mob of Red Guards bran­dish­ing red books and shov­els over a cow­er­ing coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary on the ground. Above and be­hind them, a por­trait of Chair­man Mao watches be­nignly.

This was un­doubt­edly the high point of the ac­cor­dion’s pop­u­lar­ity in China, says ac­cor­dion mer­chant and re­pair­man Dai Guangyao, 50 years later. Once em­ployed by the state-run Shang­hai Ac­cor­dion Fac­tory, now de­funct, Dai has ex­pe­ri­enced the rise and fall of the shoufengqin (手风琴, “hand or­gan”) more acutely than most. He now runs one of Shang­hai’s last ac­cor­dion shops, and has had to di­ver­sify into pianos and vi­o­lins to keep his busi­ness open on the city’s pres­ti­gious Jin­ling Road.

“The 1960s was the start of ‘ac­cor­dion fever’ in China,” Dai tells TWOC. “The mil­i­tary’s song-and-dance troupes, the ‘cul­ture worker’ pro­pa­ganda groups tour­ing around the coun­try­side…al­most all of them had one.

“Of course,” he adds, “other Western in­stru­ments were banned.”

In 1985, a be­mused Chicago Tri­bune also pointed to the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion to ex­plained how a for­eign in­stru­ment, as­so­ci­ated with polka and min­strel shows in the US, was some­how “strik[ing] a chord” with the Chi­nese. “Two ac­cor­dion fac­to­ries, one in Shang­hai and one in Tientsin,

each squeeze out 35,000 in­stru­ments a year to sup­ply the de­mand” the Tri­bune re­ported, quot­ing an Amer­i­can ac­cor­dion­ist who com­pares China’s then-most pop­u­lar in­stru­ment to the gui­tar in the West. But if the lat­ter’s ubiq­uity in Amer­i­can mu­sic can be traced to the protest move­ments of the 1960s, the sim­i­lar­i­ties with ac­cor­dion may be greater than any­one re­al­ized.

A rel­a­tively re­cent in­ven­tion, the ac­cor­dion was patented in 1829 by an Aus­trian mechanic, and was briefly beloved by the Euro­pean mid­dle classes due to a fad for mech­a­nized in­no­va­tions in the in­dus­trial age. But the ac­cor­dion lacked the ad­van­tage of a clas­si­cal canon or pa­tron­age by well-known com­posers that could have sus­tained its in­ter­est among the elite.

Ac­cord­ing to mu­sic his­to­rian He­lena Si­mon­ett, when the mod­ern sym­phony or­ches­tra and mu­sic syl­labuses be­gan to be cod­i­fied in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, the ac­cor­dion con­tin­ued its fall from fa­vor. In the United States, it was as­so­ci­ated with un­de­sir­able south­ern and eastern Euro­pean im­mi­grants, and cheap vaude­ville acts; in Nazi Ger­many, whose lead­ers deemed it only “good enough for peas­ant dances,” the ac­cor­dion was re­jected by na­tional reper­toires and troupes. An 1877 New York Times ed­i­to­rial re­ferred to “the so-called mu­si­cal in­stru­ment variously known as the ac­cor­dion or con­certina…a fa­vorite in­stru­ment of the idle and depraved.”

Among the work­ing class, on the other hand, the ac­cor­dion’s “un­com­pli­cated and cheer­ful sound” and “ease of trans­porta­tion and stor­age” made it a main­stay at so­cial gath­er­ings among the ur­ban and ru­ral poor, writes Si­mon­ett. Its move to the fac­tory worker’s break rooms, strikes, and political ral­lies was a nat­u­ral one. Per­haps due to its im­por­tance to Rus­sian folk mu­sic, Bol­she­vik ral­lies made com­pre­hen­sive use of ac­cor­dion­ists—in­clud­ing a young Nikita Khrushchev, though this claimed was later ques­tioned—to pro­vide en­ter­tain­ment, boost morale, and spread political mes­sages among the masses.

As with many Western in­ven­tions, the ac­cor­dion orig­i­nally came to China via Ja­pan and in tan­dem with the late 19th-cen­tury ed­u­ca­tional re­forms that swept both coun­tries. China’s first ac­cor­dion man­ual, Shoufengqin Jiaokeshu, pub­lished in 1905 by The Com­mer­cial Press, rec­om­mended its in­tro­duc­tion into pri­vate Con­fu­cian acad­e­mies: Tra­di­tional in­stru­ments were on the de­cline, but the ac­cor­dion could “make the pri­vate school a place of mu­sic and fun…mu­sic is not some­thing triv­ial, but ef­fec­tive for main­tain­ing com­mu­nity.” Com­pared to the pi­ano, the ac­cor­dion was more suited to the mod­ern class­room be­cause it was cheap and easy to store, and op­ti­mised for play­ing Western as well as tra­di­tional Chi­nese mu­sic.

But Chi­nese in­tel­lec­tu­als, as Euro­peans elite had be­fore them, soon dis­missed the ac­cor­dion as a “toy.” It was the Com­mu­nist Party that was ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for pre­serv­ing the in­stru­ment. Long be­fore state-run songand-dance troupes were for­mal­ized by Mao Ze­dong’s


“Pro­pa­ganda Teams of the Red Army” ad­dress in Jiangxi prov­ince in 1929, the Party used the hum­ble ac­cor­dion as a means to spread its political mes­sages. In Ken­neth Ore’s mem­oir Red Aza­lea, the au­thor recalls work­ing as an un­der­ground CCP re­cruiter in the Repub­lic of China when po­lice grew sus­pi­cious of a va­ri­ety show he’d helped or­ga­nize, featuring the ac­cor­dion. “Only Rus­sians and Chi­nese Com­mu­nists use ac­cor­dions,” they al­leged, to which Ore replied that the in­stru­ment “didn’t carry a pro­le­tar­ian trade­mark.”

He was wrong. Mu­sic his­to­rian Yin Kee Kwan notes that the ac­cor­dion was em­ployed by thou­sands of pro­pa­ganda troupes—re­named wen­gong­tuan (文工团, “art-worker troupe”) from Mao’s ini­tial xu­anchuan­dui (宣传队, “pro­pa­ganda team”)—that took the Party’s mes­sage to the coun­try­side through­out the 1940s and 50s. The first full decade of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic saw the es­tab­lish­ment of state man­u­fac­tur­ers in Shang­hai, Tian­jin, and Chongqing, and both the Ac­cor­dion So­ci­ety of China and China’s first ac­cor­dion or­ches­tra were es­tab­lished in Beijing in the early 1960s.

Soviet song-and-dance troupes (that had ear­lier un­der­gone their own political purges un­der Stalin, which the ac­cor­dion sur­vived) gave reg­u­lar per­for­mances in China, in­flu­enc­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of the PLA’S own gewu­tuan (歌舞团) as well as adding Rus­sian folk tunes to the ac­cor­dion’s reper­toire, along­side the “red songs” and Chi­nese folk mu­sic that were ar­ranged.

All that the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion had to do was to dial up this cul­tural and political his­tory to make the ac­cor­dion the No. 1 in­stru­ment of the masses. Shop­keeper Dai be­lieves that the 60s “ac­cor­dion fever” owed to more prac­ti­cal than political con­cerns: “It’s por­ta­ble; it can be stowed any­where; it didn’t use elec­tric­ity, so it could be played in re­mote vil­lages; its reper­toire was di­verse; it could play so­los, as well as har­monies and chords, un­like small Chi­nese in­stru­ments such as the erhu, so it worked like a one-man band.”

But his­to­rian Richard Kraus has writ­ten that, com­pared to the pi­ano, the ac­cor­dion did have a “pro­le­tar­ian”


rather than “bour­geois” sym­bol­ism, if only be­cause it was ubiq­ui­tous at mass gath­er­ings. On the Chi­nese chap­ter of Ac­cor­dions World­wide and Baidu’s “ac­cor­dion fo­rum,” for­mer pro­pa­ganda work­ers re­call be­ing en­thu­si­as­tic wel­comed around the coun­try by en­ter­tain­ment-starved au­di­ences in some of the re­motest places of China.

“Most vil­lagers at the time have never seen an ac­cor­dion, couldn’t imag­ine that this ob­ject car­ried on a per­son’s back could mimic the sound of a train, and they were glued to their seats as soon as the over­ture sounded,” wrote one ac­cor­dion­ist of the pro­pa­ganda solo “The Train Flies To­ward Beijing,” once part of his reg­u­lar set list. “I still think about their ap­plause from time to time… when­ever the kids in the area saw me they’d shout, ‘We’re ar­riv­ing at Beijing Sta­tion! We’re ar­riv­ing at Beijing Sta­tion!’”

Many of th­ese mu­si­cians found work as teach­ers in state-run youth recre­ation cen­ters (少年宫, “Chil­dren’s Palaces”) from the 1980s through to the early 90s, when the Tri­bune got wind of the in­stru­ment’s pop­u­lar­ity. It be­came the in­stru­ment of choice for par­ents want­ing their chil­dren to learn a mod­ern Western in­stru­ment, but with nei­ther the money nor space for a pi­ano. Dai adds that cul­tural mem­ory also played a role: “Th­ese par­ents grew up lis­ten­ing to ac­cor­dion; they know Western songs through the ac­cor­dion.” The most suc­cess­ful, for­mer Dalian Gar­ri­son Wen­gong­tuan mem­ber Jiang Jie, even be­came a mi­nor celebrity with his own se­ries of cas­sette tapes, a mu­sic school in Beijing’s Xi­dan district, and a branded teach­ing syl­labus.

Ac­cor­dions World­wide re­ports that China still boasts the world’s largest num­ber of ac­cor­dion­ists—and on July 24, 2017, 2,260 ac­cor­dion­ists from 20 coun­tries played to­gether at a Shen­zhen ac­cor­dion fes­ti­val to set the Guin­ness World Record for Largest Ac­cor­dion En­sem­ble (the last three years’ records were also set in China). The Jiang Jie Ac­cor­dion Acad­emy, how­ever, is now Jiang Jie Pi­ano City, a mu­sic store.

Dai says this is an in­evitable change, as the pi­ano has more pres­tige, while the ac­cor­dion lacks a dis­tinc­tive reper­toire be­yond re­ar­ranged pi­ano mu­sic and out­dated red songs. “Our syl­labuses ought to fo­cus more on mu­sic unique to the ac­cor­dion, like tango per­haps, or en­cour­age mu­si­cians to write orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions,” he says. “Only then can the in­stru­ment be pop­u­lar again.”

He isn’t too wor­ried about busi­ness, how­ever, as a new group of cus­tomers is be­gin­ning to pa­tron­ize the shop. “Re­tirees—mid­dle-aged and el­derly peo­ple who have more time on their hands and de­cide to pick up an in­stru­ment—of­ten go for the ac­cor­dion,” he says. “They grew up with it, have a lot of mem­o­ries of it, and now play it when they gather in the street or dance in the square to re­lax, to be happy, to get en­thu­si­as­tic.”

It’s not bad epi­logue for an in­stru­ment of the idle and depraved.

Photo of a Shang­hai youth choir ac­com­pa­nied on ac­cor­dion in the 1950s

The be­nignseem­ing Chi­nese King of Hell, seen here pre­sid­ing over Ac­cor­dion­ists from around the world nu­mer­ous re­cently grisly gath­ered at a fes­ti­val in Shen­zhen, where they broke the world record for big­gest pun­ish­ments ac­cor­dion en­sem­ble

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