In May 2022, shortly before the Platinum Jubilee, I began to work on a story on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II considering it apt to look into HM’s connection with Chinese musicians, particularly those who had met her and had had a photo with her.
As I dug into the extensive archives, I found interesting accounts in the media on those who had been granted an audience by the Queen during her 70 years’ reign. While all shared the deepest admiration for her and all were proud of shaking hands with her, pianist LIU Shikun’s story on meeting the Queen as told by some Chinese newspapers stirred my imagination.
A widely circulated press handout of the Queen shaking hands at Buckingham Palace with Chinese piano legend LIU Shikun (劉詩昆), her left hand holding a glass of champagne, was attached with largely the same text describing the occasion as ‘celebrating the 70 years anniversary of the London Symphony Orchestra’, and the photo was captured ‘by a hidden camera concealed in the corner of the Palace walls’.
The release date of the photo indicates that it was taken on March 11, 2015. On that day, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, performed at the Palace for the Queen to mark the conclusion of the ‘Moving Music’ campaign and to celebrate the Orchestra’s long association with MTT, who turned 70 the same year. Chinese pianist Yuja Wang also played and was received by the Queen at a reception.
The contradictory and somewhat twisted media story may add some layers of mythological aura to Mr LIU’s public persona, who just celebrated the birth of his youngest daughter at 83, it nevertheless revealed the Chinese readers’ lasting fascination with the British monarch. Sometimes the government became obsessed, too.
The Diamond Jubilee in 2012 was when four different Chinese musicians were received by the Queen. The first was Lang Lang, who played Liszt and Gershwin for the Queen in the Diamond Jubilee Concert on June 4 outdoors at the Albert Memorial at the end of the Mall. No stranger to the monarch, Lang was formally introduced to HRH Charles, Prince of Wales (now HM King Charles III) in 2007 when he gave the premiere of Nigel Hess’s piano concerto. The work, dedicated to the Queen Mother, had been commissioned by Charles. Lang Lang went on to perform at the Royal Variety Performance that year, and was received by the Queen.
The Royal Variety Performance was soon recognized as the fast track in receiving a Royal ‘warrant’. At its centennial in 2012, China’s Three Tenors took to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall after an introduction by Plácido Domingo. A banal parody of the Three Tenors, China’s Three Tenors, the trio of Warren Mok, WEI Song (魏松) and DAI Yuqiang (戴玉強), sang two songs during the show and were received by the Queen afterwards.
Back in China, the Royal reception was deemed a propaganda triumph. Beijing Youth Daily reported, not without embellishment, that under the auspices of the Beijing State-owned Cultural Assets Supervision and Administration Office, supported by the Municipal Bureau of Publicity, recommended by Plácido Domingo, and suggested by the former manager of The Beatles, China’s Three Tenors, categorized as state-owned cultural assets, had been a triumph in London. Seizing the opportunity of the London Olympics, they had won the heart of the world’s dominant figures.
Media exploitation prompted me to dive deeper into my archive. There was an interview with LU Chunling (陸春齡) I conducted back in April 2015, three years before his death in 2018 at age 97. A master of Chinese traditional music and a towering figure of bamboo flute, LU affectionately looked back on how he met the Queen. He was probably the first Chinese musician received by the Queen.
HM made her only trip to China, the first British monarch to do so, in October 1986 with stops in Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. At Yu Garden, in the old town of Shanghai, the Queen was treated to tea at the Mid-Lake Pavilion, a legendary tea house, by JIANG Zemin (江澤民), then-mayor of Shanghai who was later appointed President of China. Himself a versatile musician, able to play a range of musical instruments including piano, guitar, accordion, erhu, and mandolin, Mayor Jiang, a very musical and cultured man, arranged for live music while tea was served, as would have been common in a historic tea house. It began with Suzhou storytelling and ballad singing (評彈), soon followed by string and bamboo flute music (江南絲竹).
LU Chunling, bamboo flute master, in one of his final stage appearances
LU was in his prime at 66 at that time. As he was demonstrating all sorts of flutes, the Queen showed special interest in a fife, given her natural affinity with Scotland. LU performed two pieces for the royal dignitaries: English Country Garden and Glad Tidings. ‘The Queen appears delighted. She shook hands with me three times, wearing gloves,’ fondly recalled by LU.
Now, as the world is mourning the death of HM the Queen, I hope that this recollection serves as a collective memory and tribute taken from those received by her.
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