x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

China's middle-class parents push children towards the arts

The piano, once despised for being 'bourgeois', is now massive in China. As many as 50 million are learning it, putting traditional Chinese instruments like the seven-stringed guqin in the shade.

Chu Ziyu, 18, practices piano for more than eight hours a day.
Chu Ziyu, 18, practices piano for more than eight hours a day.

BEIJING // In a quiet corner on the fourth floor of a shopping mall, a young woman sits in a booth and plays Johann Sebastian Bach on a shiny black piano.

Chu Ziyu's fingers glide across the keys with practised ease and the delicate tune offers a stark contrast to the bustle of shoppers.

"I practise on my own for six hours a day, five days a week," says the 18-year-old, who moved to Beijing with her parents this year from northern China's Heilongjiang province to take lessons from an accomplished tutor.

Ms Chu practises diligently for good reason. Next year she hopes to secure one of the dozen or so places to study piano at Tianjin Conservatory of Music, but she will be competing against an estimated 2,000 others. Her regular schoolwork is relegated to the evenings.

"The professor teaching me said it's very difficult to get into the [Beijing] Central Conservatory of Music and I started quite late, when I was 12. And for the past six years I haven't got much professional training," she says.

The piano, once despised for being "bourgeois", is now massive in China. State media say that as many as 50 million are learning it, putting traditional Chinese instruments like the seven-stringed guqin in the shade.

The aspirational middle class is keen to enjoy a "high taste" hobby, says Liu Donggen, a staff member at Crazy Piano, which sells pianos and leases piano booths. "They want to emulate that," he says. "They want to become part of that community."

But for many youngsters, the piano involves acute pressure, mirroring the situation in China as a whole, where rising wealth brings increased competition and expectations.

Parents and commentators believe parents are too involved, emulating the forceful approach the Chinese-American academic Amy Chua described in her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ms Chua's obsessive attention to her two daughters' learning of the piano and the violin sparked controversy in international media with analysts and other parents alternately attacking or praising her methods.

"I do believe there are parents who push their children too hard. The tiger mother story is real," says Pan Rongrong, 45, whose daughter Xiang Hanzhi, 11, has been learning the piano since she was four. Speaking outside a piano school just after her daughter's lesson finished, Ms Pan insists, however, that her child is just playing for fun and does not have to practise for more than one hour per evening.

In China, parents are inspired by superstar pianists such as Lang Lang. His image is often seen on billboards and last year he performed at the White House for the US president, Barack Obama, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao.

Tiger mothers, hoping the piano becomes more than a hobby for their children, start them young. One Beijing-based former tutor, who asked not to be named, says one mother demanded she give lessons to a two-year-old boy, before it became apparent after two sessions that he was too young to concentrate.

"I heard later than when he was four he started to learn the piano with another teacher, and he plays very well. Two is not a good age," she says.

At the Beijing New World Centre branch of the Verdi and Jiang Jie piano school, where Chu Ziyu practises, the evening sees each of the 27 practice booths occupied by a child and a tutor. It is piano teaching on an industrial scale.

Lessons with a top tutor such as a professor at a Beijing conservatory can cost 450 yuan (Dh262) per hour. Yet there is no shortage of takers. Across its 18 branches in the capital, the school claims to have 10,000 pupils.

The piano's popularity has created a bonanza for Chinese manufacturers, which produce pianos ranging in price from about 16,800 yuan (Dh9,780) for a basic upright to 58,000 yuan (Dh34,000) for a sparkling white grand piano.

The Pearl River Piano Group in southern China's Guangdong province claims to be the world's largest piano manufacturer. Last year the company produced 115,000 instruments and this year the figure is expected to reach 135,000, says Kong Zhenhui, a spokesman for the company.

"In China, many parents think becoming an artist is the way to succeed, so more and more children are learning the piano," he says.

Succeeding as a concert pianist is an ambition too far even for Ms Chu. She hopes to become a piano teacher or a professor in a music conservatory, assuming she wins a place in Tianjin.

If she does not gain a place, she says she will continue to play for the simple joy it gives her - something many of China's hard-pressed young piano learners may miss out on.

"I feel I am naturally connected to the piano," she says. "When I feel down, the piano is the best company. I can pour my feelings into it."