U of Michigan Cancels Chinese Composer Who Survived Cultural Revolution

Academic freedom is becoming rather academic.

The University of Michigan has removed the composer Bright Sheng from teaching a composition class after student protests over his showing a film of Laurence Olivier playing Othello in blackface.

Another professor, less qualified, will teach the class.

Unlike many modern victims of the cultural revolution, Sheng was around for the original Maoist cultural revolution.

Sheng: I took piano lessons when I was a child. According to my teacher, I was talented, although I didn't really like it. Then the Cultural Revolution started and the Red Guards came and took the piano away, as it was considered "bourgeois." I was rather happy at first about that since I didn't have to practice. But a year later, I heard piano music on the radio one day and I realized how much I missed playing the piano. Since I didn't have a piano at home, I would play it at school. Shortly afterwards, I decided I would like to play the piano all my life, although I didn't think I could be a musician. My family isn't a musical family.

During the Cultural Revolution, there was no high school and college because one of Mao's missions was to demolish the education system. All the young teenagers graduating from junior high school could become social problems if they did not have jobs. Because the economy was not so great at the time, he decided to send all the young city people to the countryside to be "re-educated'' by the peasants. 

It turned out Sheng couldn't outrun the cultural revolution after all.

Sheng, a highly accomplished composer, conductor and pianist, has had his music featured by prestigious groups including the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra and the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Sheng also received a commission in honor of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji visiting the White House in 1999, as well as numerous awards and fellowships.

The Chinese composer was not aware that this was even an issue, but ignorance of the triggers is no excuse. And apologies don't help.

Sheng sent out an apology on Sept. 10 shortly after the class ended, noting that the casting and portrayal “was racially insensitive and outdated.” A copy of this email has been obtained by The Daily. A planned “Othello” project was then canceled by Sheng.

On Sept. 16, Sheng sent out a formal apology to the department. He wrote that after doing more research into the issue, he realized the true extent to which racism impacts American culture, adding that he failed to recognize the racist connotation of blackface makeup.

“In a classroom, I am a teacher representing the university and I should have thought of this more diligently and fundamentally; I apologize that this action was offensive and has made you angry,” Sheng wrote. “It also has made me lost (sic) your trust.”

Apologies are not only futile, they just feed the appetite of the cultural revolution mob now that it smells blood in the water.

However, the apology has been another source of controversy among students. Students have taken particular issue with the section of the letter where Sheng lists multiple examples of how he has worked with people of color in the past. 

“At the world premiere of my opera The Silver River in South Carolina in 2000, I casted an African American actress (for the leading role), an Asian female dancer and a white baritone for the three main characters,” Sheng wrote.

After a few more examples, Sheng concludes by writing that he has “never thought (of himself as) being discriminating against any race.”

Obviously, this just provided more ammo. The first rule of cancel culture is never apologize. It won't help and any attempt at proving you're not a racist will just be used to show that you are.

“Professor Sheng responded to these events by crafting an inflammatory ‘apology’ letter to the department’s students in which he chose to defend himself by listing all of the BIPOC individuals who he has helped or befriended throughout his career,” the letter reads. “The letter implies that it is thanks to him that many of them have achieved success in their careers.”

The letter also called for Sheng to be immediately removed from teaching the undergraduate composition seminar, saying he failed to create a safe environment

Finally, the University of Michigan is safe from talented and qualified faculty.

After hearing that Sheng stopped teaching the seminars, the graduate student told The Daily they thought it was “the bare minimum” and wished more was done.

“I feel like the thing that we all actually needed (was) a true and honest and genuine understanding that he did something wrong, not just (him) trying to defend himself,” the graduate student said. “I feel like there’s still a lack of trust there because none of us think he is actually sorry.” 

The cultural revolution continues.


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