“A more open China awaits the 2000 Games” was the slogan used for the PRC’s failed attempt to host the Summer Olympics that year. A different slogan was adopted in their successful bid for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The underlying reality, however, was that the years leading up to the 2008 Olympics did manifest more cultural openness than in the years that followed. One of the more amazing manifestations of that openness was the performance of Handel’s Messiah in 2001. The chosen venue was not only in Beijing. It was actually inside one of China’s greatest cultural symbols—the Forbidden City.
When Christian conductor Timothy Su Wenxing (苏文星) took the podium in the Forbidden City to conduct Messiah, he displayed a public manifestation of faith seldom seen in the People’s Republic of China. Who was this bold young musician?
Su was born into a poor Miao family in the remote Suinan county of Hunan. When he was five, Su's musical talent was discovered by a purged musician, who had been sent back to live in his village in the countryside. When that musician was allowed to return to Hunan’s capital city, he arranged for Su to study at the College of Fine Arts of Hunan Normal University. Su later studied in the music department of the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing. There he was befriended by foreign Christians and was baptized in the faith in 1996. With the help of both the Chinese music community and Chinese and foreign Christians, Su was able to arrange for the 2001 performance of Messiah, only the second performance since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949—and the first time it was performed in Chinese in China.
A review in “Sina Entertainment” speaks of that first Messiah performance in Beijing by Conductor Su.
Su Wenxing has invested a lot of enthusiasm in this work. For the first time last year, he initiated and directed the singing of this world famous song in Chinese. At the end of this year, on the evenings of December 7th and 8th, the Zhongshan Concert Hall was full, and the atmosphere was warm . . . After the closing ceremony, the applause lasted for ten minutes . . . A staff member of the theater said that this scene is too rare. The Messiah is incredible . . . for the climax of the world-famous Hallelujah chorus the audience stood up and sang softly. This scene was [very] impressive. The applause echoed in every corner of the theater, and with every curtain call of Conductor Su, the applause suddenly exploded. The flowers on the stage piled up and Su Wenxing dedicated the kind of audience participation as exciting and memorable . . . After the show ended, flowers to the band, the choir and the soloists. The audience continued their thunderous applause. Someone made a cry and someone gave a friendly whistle. This kind of scene of enjoying a concert is really rare . . . For a young conductor, people gave the highest praise—Changming's applause . . . That night, the temperature in Beijing was -10°, which formed a great contrast with the warm atmosphere in the concert hall. The outside was cold and the passersby rare. However, inside the audience and the actors singing together warmed the heart. Some viewers saw it last year and watched it again this year. They said that since they saw it last year, Messiah has become a concert they must watch every year before the New Year, and said that they will come again next year.
Su was then able to conduct Messiah in Beijing in the following two years and also in Guangzhou, Qingdao, Wenzhou, and Changsha.
As his renown burgeoned, Su helped establish the Canaan Music School to train worship leaders for unregistered churches, a project that continued for many years. In October 2005, Singaporean author and business executive, Chan Kei Thong, arranged for Su and Rev. Zhang Boli to lead a week of evangelistic meetings in Singapore. Su directed the Canaan Music School choir and more than a thousand people believed in the Lord during those meetings.
As the era of relative openness in China waned after the Beijing Olympics, Su’s public ministry also receded. However, he recently returned to the headlines through a “gift to the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China.”
On the evening of June 23, a large-scale symphony concert with the theme of celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China was held at the Changsha Concert Hall. The special conductor of this concert is a well-known Chinese conductor, Su Wenxing.
In that same article, Conductor Su shared some of his goals. “I went to the United States in 2003. Since 2007, I have been working closely with my hometown. I have already cooperated with the Changsha Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Hunan Symphony Orchestra) for a number of large-scale concerts and participated in many of the music season's planned performances.” Su added that he has been working to promote cooperation between foreign artists and local symphony orchestras, and that he also “hopes to see more Hunan-based artists ‘going out’ and more internationally renowned artists ‘walking in,’ so that the regional art scene can be enriched.”
What are the chances of another public performance of Handel’s Messiah in China in the near future? In 2017, the Economist printed an article entitled: In China, singing Handel’s “Messiah” is forbidden in public. So is performing any religious music outside places of worship.
The lead paragraph addresses the hope of future performances of such music.
The words of the chorus die away: “Quan Zhongguo de ernu yongyuan xiang taiping” (China’s children will always wish for peace). The members of the orchestra pack up their instruments—cello and dizi (Chinese flute), yangqin (dulcimer) and double bass, suona (reed horn) and xiaobo (cymbals). Beijing’s International Festival Chorus (IFC), a 60-strong group of Chinese and expatriate amateurs, finishes its final performance, a recording of a cantata by Xian Xinghai who studied in Paris in the 1920s, and was one of the first Chinese composers to be influenced by European classical music. The chorus has now disbanded. Xi Jinping, the president, has scored one more, small, Pyrrhic victory over Western cultural influence.
This is certainly no longer the China of 2002. When will Messiah next be performed in Beijing or anywhere in China? Will it be before the New Year this year, or next year, or in five years, ten years? Only God knows. He’s the one actually in charge.