Chou Wen-chung

Excerpts from “Wenren and Culture”


What he [Béla Bartók] taught us is how to transform seemingly simple folkloric ideas, such as those from his native East European cultures, into a sophisticated grammar for modern music and one's own compositions. This process of creatively utilizing existing folk material has made a long lasting impact on the development of contemporary musical language. His also reminds us that, in studying non-Western music, one must consider the character and tradition of its culture as well as all the inherent qualities of the material itself, because not all of them are perceptible or definable according to Western concepts. In my opinion, this is a great principle few Asian artists have paid attention to.

Fifty years of learning, questioning, experiencing and deliberating have convinced me that if one admires the past achievements of Asia and believes in its future, one must be as critical of its present, as history has been of its past. Only then is there a future. But being critical alone is not enough, and one must be actively engaged in practice. To learn about the future, we must understand the present. To understand the present, we must know the past. For me the present is the past half-century, and the past is everything before the millennium.

If there was art and culture, it was mostly imitative in nature — an ugly manifestation of a colonial psychology that finds security in worshipping past colonial powers. This explains why, before and after the war, Asia was filled with works that were emulations of European and Soviet art of another time. Although, economically and politically, the struggle in the 1950’s did eventually lead to a brighter economic future, culturally, the neglect of the arts and education led to a cultural void, contributing to the further erosion of heritage and a massive loss of collective memory.

Happily, there were exceptions — even if only a handful. Surprisingly, there were a few Asian artists who had, on their own initiative, nourished their roots and experimented at transcending cultures, by refusing to copy the modern West or echo the Asian past. Their vision and dedication may eventually re-ignite the creative spark that will continue the great cultures of Asia.

…The situation is not the same for Asian artists who blindly emulate their Western colleagues, lose their own heritage and throw away their own legacy. Are they not programmed to self-destruction? Contrary to the easy acceptance of the argument that roots are no longer necessary in the modern world comes the rude revelation that the so-called modern world is in fact the fruit of creativity in Western culture — albeit with periodic ingestion of creativity from other cultures.

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