“Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China” by Jennifer Lin


In the early 1970s, sports may have sparked a thaw in Sino-US relations, but it was classical music that had more lasting influence and would bring Chinese and American musicians together for the first time in the People’s Republic. In 1973, Zhou Enlai invited the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform in Beijing and Shanghai, thus becoming the first American symphony to play in China in a quarter of a century. At the time of Zhou’s invitation, the US table tennis team had already made the term “ping pong diplomacy” a household name and Nixon had already made his secret trip to China. As Jennifer Lin writes in her new book, Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, this trip not only marked a turning point in Sino-American relations, but also helped set the future direction of classical music in China and around the world.

Lin tells this story in a coffee-table book format, filled with photos from the Orchestra’s 1973 trip to China. Most of the story is told through interviews with musicians, journalists, and diplomats taken from her 2021 documentary film, Great Performances: Beethoven in Beijing. Scattered throughout the book are sidebars that delve further into the subject matter of a given chapter.

It was no small feat to travel to China in 1973 to play classical music. First, China was still in the midst of the Cultural Revolution and classical music from the west had gone through ups and downs since the 1950s. Second, in 1973, Zhou Enlai was engaged in a contentious rivalry with Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao as she was known in English. A year earlier Zhou had invited the London Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic to perform in China, but inviting the American symphony would show how much Zhou wanted to improve relations with the United States.


From the perspective of nearly a half century later, what transpired next looms as a watershed event in the cultural histories of the two nations and in the personal lives of the people involved. Our present-day cynicism inclines us to reject the sentimental notion of music as a bridge between people, of art and culture as diplomacy. But at that time, the propaganda-fueled suspicion and wariness between the nations was undeniable—as was the mutual goodwill of those who performed and connected during the trip, however briefly.

Jiang Qing insisted on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, Jennifer Lin, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (foreword) (Temple University Press, May 2022)
Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Historic Journey to China, Jennifer Lin, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (foreword) (Temple University Press, May 2022)

Zhou Enlai’s pick of the Philadelphia Orchestra was not arbitrary. He knew of and appreciated the Orchestra’s support, including that of its new co-conductor Eugene Ormandy back in 1940 when they performed to raise money for China’s Eighth Route Army. In 1973, Ormandy was still conducting with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Zhou Enlai felt it would be fitting for the Orchestra and Ormandy to make this historic trip

The flight itself was not easy. The musicians flew on a Pan Am charter from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Honolulu, Tokyo, and finally Shanghai before heading on to Beijing. The pilots had never flown to China and with neither experience nor much in the way of information didn’t know what to expect upon landing in Shanghai and had trouble at first navigating the runway. Once in Beijing, Chinese officials told the Philadelphia Orchestra it must play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Ormandy at first refused, claiming he couldn’t conduct it since he had not brought the scores along to China. He wished to play other pieces, but their Chinese hosts easily found the scores. According to Francis Tenny at the US State Department, Jiang Qing was the one who insisted Beethoven’s Sixth be a part of the Orchestra’s program.


She had, after all, been a film actress in Shanghai before the war, and she must have seen the Disney film, Fantasia, set to the music of Beethoven’s Sixth [the “Pastoral”]. Chinese officials, however, explained that the Sixth was desired because it reflected the rural farm life dear to the ideals of the Chinese Revolution.


If Jiang Qing wanted the Sixth to be performed, it would be performed.


Some of China’s most well-known classical musicians and composers were directly touched by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s visit. “Yellow River Concerto” composer, Yin Chengzong, worked with the Americans. And way out in the Hunan countryside a teenager named Tan Dun heard broadcasts of these historic concerts—his first time hearing any orchestra—that would change his life. Upon the Orchestra’s return in 1993—its first time back since the 1973 trip—a ten year-old pianist named Lang-Lang would decide he would one day study in Philadelphia. That day would arrive four years later when the young teen entered the Curtis Institute of Music.

Soon after the Philadelphia Orchestra left China in 1973, classical music—including Beethoven—would become blacklisted again in China, this time for a couple of years. Formal Sino-US diplomatic relations would not occur for another six years. Still, the trip was always seen as a grand success. As Ormandy, mentioned on the 1973 trip, “Music creates quick friendships between people. That’s why we are here.”

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.