The Juilliard School Bets on China, Builds Outside Beijing

The legendary U.S. conservatory plans to develop its first overseas campus, in the coastal Chinese city of Tianjin.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Luo Xiaoguang / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Pupils learn violin at a primary school in Donggaocun Township of Pinggu District in Beijing, capital of China, April 6, 2011

In a classroom that doesn’t exist, in a building that has yet to be built, in a town where nobody lives, a new generation of Chinese classical music prodigies will soon be trained. That, at least, is the bet that New York’s famed Juilliard School is making. The legendary school, long a breeding ground for American musical talent, last month announced plans to develop its first overseas campus, in the coastal Chinese city of Tianjin.

The school, offering courses for pre-college and pre-professional musicians, will be located in Yujiapu, a city-within-a-city rising out of mudflats on the outskirts of town. Marketed as China’s answer to Manhattan, Yujiapu will be 10 times bigger than London’s Canary Wharf and include dozens of skyscrapers. The area is envisaged as a hub for “financial innovation” in China, to rival Shenzhen and Shanghai. Joseph Polisi, the president of Juilliard, says he is not daunted by the fact that Yujiapu is, for now, little more than a hole in the ground. “In all that openness, we can really create something that absolutely new and great for China,” he said.

(PHOTOS: China on the Wild Side)

The Juilliard brand is landing in China at a time when interest in — and money for — the arts is on the rise.  As part of President’s Hu Jintao‘s plans to build the nation’s soft power, the central government has established ambitious targets for the development of what it calls China’s ‘cultural industries.’ In the current Five Year Plan, the government’s blueprint for growth, for instance, 2 billion RMB, or about $315 million, has been earmarked for a national arts fund.

This level of enthusiasm and funding is a welcome change for American educators who are used to dealing with dwindling audiences and funding cuts. “The tradition of government funding of the arts has never existed in United States,” Polisi told TIME on a recent visit to China to announce the new campus. “What has supported the arts for most of the 20th century in America was the value system where the public educational system saw the arts as being important as part of an overall education.” That, of course, has changed. But in China, he says, parents and school systems increasingly value music. “I see Chinese students, I see Chinese faculty members, I see Chinese educational administrators, who are all working towards an environment that is supportive of the classical arts.”

(MORE: Has Shanghai Lost Its Artsy Edge?)

Indeed, Chinese youth are increasingly exposed to Western classical music, says Wu Jiatong, whose company, Wu Promotion, specializes in arranging for foreign music troupes to tour around China and vice versa. “In the west, most of the audience members are older people, 50 and above, but in China most of the audience are in their 20s or 30s – or even younger,” he says. “I am absolutely convinced that the market for classic music is in China — right now we have a generation of young people who were raised on classical music.” Wu says his business is growing 20% to 40% a year as parents spend on developing their children’s musical skill and tastes. “In China, people 50 and older don’t really feel the need to hear a symphony or see an opera on a regular basis — but they want their children to have that need,” he says. “It’s become fashionable for parents to bring their children to see performances.”

Many Chinese parents see classical music as a way to develop disciplined minds, says Cai Jindong, a Chinese-born conductor at Stanford University and author of Rhapsody in Red, an analysis of the growth of classical music in China. “You know to play violin or piano, you have to practice day after day, every day for hours and hours — that really gives the child good discipline.” Cai cautions, however, that children who play classical music do not necessarily grow up to become classical music fans. “You have to love music,” he says. “If you don’t love music, your parents ask you to play for several years, then you drop out, you won’t even go to a concert.”

That is where Juilliard hopes to jump in. Polisi says that in addition to the school he wants to develop a public space that could help larger numbers of Chinese youth to experience  the ” joy”  and “complexity” of classical music. “I would be surprised if you not see absolutely world-class orchestras, soloists, conservatories in China,” he said. “I think there is no questions that the future is very much in that direction.”

MORE: Can China Successfully Educate Its Future Workforce?