[UPDATED] Yuja Wang and the Rise of Asians in Classical Music

A simple walk through the halls of Northwestern’s new music building during a class change reveals that the demographics of classical music are not what they used to be. Music departments and conservatories across the country have seen a dramatic increase in Asian and Asian American students over the past 20 years. While some point to this increase as a signifier of a more inclusive classical music field, there has been little to no discussion of the complexities and difficulties of being an Asian body in this white-dominated discipline. In this blog entry, I will analyze Yuja Wang, and how gender, race, sexuality, and nationality influence how she is perceived as an Asian female classical musician.

Click here to watch Yuja Wang perform Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto.

29-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang has shocked the classical music world. Aside from her astounding technical prowess and entrancing musicality, Wang is also known for performing in tight, revealing dresses and six-inch heels. The piano prodigy came to the US when she was 14 to study at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Although the classical music world today tries to present itself as apolitical, Yuja Wang’s simultaneous rebellion against and assimilation to hegemonic norms exposes the complexities of being a foreign-born Asian woman in America.

Classical music has always been a weapon of colonialism, dating back to Catholic church music in Spanish colonies in the Americas. Because of this history, classical music has been globally appreciated as sophisticated, desirable, and superior. If one plays into the binary of authenticity versus assimilation, Wang’s career as a classical musician can be viewed as an ethnic betrayal.

However, when read through an American perspective, this interpretation is complicated. Due to the model minority myth and images of stereotypical Tiger Moms and their children, excellence in classical music performance is now seen as a characteristic essential to being the “perfect Asian.” Mirroring the way that Asians are viewed at elite universities, many in the classical music world view the influx of Asians as a new “yellow peril,” a foreign invasion of a space that “belongs” to white people.  For example, in a 2008 interview, solo violinist Jennifer Koh talks about awkward encounters she often has with Europeans who are surprised that Asian musicians are able to play “their” music.

Although Asians are “invading” classical music, white classical musicians still maintain that they lack the ability to perform it correctly. As Brandzel and Desai discuss, Asians/Asian Americans are often constructed as not just alien, but as non-human; they are portrayed as robotic, unemotional, and mechanical. In the same way Cho Seung-Hui was racialized following the Virginia Tech Massacre, Asian musicians are consistently racialized as unfeeling, robotic players, focusing on technique while ignoring artistry. This racialization is apparent in my own experiences over the summer at a music festival. The professor I studied with while there constantly made racist remarks, telling his students to “stop playing like a Chinese pianist” whenever he felt we weren’t playing expressively enough.

Wang’s outfit choices can also be interpreted as a betrayal of her ethnic identity. As Bow discusses, the performance of one’s sexuality can influence one’s perceived ethnic and national affiliation. Asian American women can use the expression of their sexuality as a way to show disdain for the “backwards, uptight” East while exhibiting their connection to the “free, liberating” West. However, this view of ethnic betrayal is from a Western neoliberal feminist perspective, one which imposes Western hegemonic femininity and equates freedom with the flaunting of one’s sexuality. The notion that the East is traditional and oppressive while the West is modern and liberating is deeply flawed. Western cultures are extremely oppressive to women, positioning a hegemonic femininity that is white, heteronormative, and upper class as superior. Although some decisions to conform to these hegemonic notions of ideal femininity are now portrayed as empowering expressions of female agency, these notions are still misogynistic at their roots and further marginalize the femininities of women of color and working class women. In reality, Wang’s outfit choices are not a betrayal at all, because such a concept relies on the construction of the East as unusually misogynistic and sexually restricting.

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Yuja Wang performing a solo recital in her signature dress and heels. NYT 2013.

The pervasiveness of this East/West concept of betrayal is evident in Wang’s own views. In an interview with the New Yorker last month, Wang expressed her personal conflicts with Chinese culture. She describes her parents as “naive” and “traditional.” She goes further to explain how the environment in which they lived “never allowed them to develop to their full potential,” expressing how she feels “lucky” to have been able to leave at such a young age. Through the sentiments she expresses in this interview, we can see how influential Western orientalism is on a global scale. Although Wang was born and raised in China, she still views her home country as “naive” and “traditional” and expresses how thankful she is for being able to escape to the sophisticated and modern United States.

While Yuja Wang’s scandalous outfit choices have garnered a surprising amount of praise, much of the attention she has attracted is gendered. Her marketing images are sexualized, capitalizing on her Asian American female body, and many of her reviews comment not only on her impressive playing, but also on her revealing outfit choices. Perhaps one reason why her rebellion against dress norms has been so accepted is because of gendered racism. Asian women have always been perceived as hypersexual, and Wang’s choice to perform in revealing clothing play into the image of what classical music’s overwhelmingly white audience expect from an Asian woman, as opposed to what they might expect from a pure, sexually normative white women.

Yuja Wang’s success as a classical pianist mirrors the rise of Asians/Asian Americans in the field of classical music. Although some would hail this increase in diversity as progress, I believe that diversity is meaningless if it simply means substituting bodies of color into positions previously occupied by white bodies without simultaneously interrogating the influences of race, gender, sexuality, and class. If we want to attain meaningful diversity in any sphere, we must examine how the sociopolitical implications of different identities and work to change spaces to serve people of all backgrounds.

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