SHANGHAI, CHINA — Basketball and cartoon drawing were 10th-grader Hui Yunhu's main hobbies when he lived in a small Shanghai flat. But five years ago, the Hui family moved in with the maternal grandparents. That meant extra space - and room for a used Chinese-made upright piano.
Now, each evening, Yunhu spends an hour at what has become in recent years a national passion.
Known here as "the queen of instruments," the piano's new popularity in China is a story, in part, of an emerging middle class. Just as American couples in the '50s and '60s dragged their "boomer" progeny to piano lessons, Chinese parents in the budding suburbs of China prod their offspring to tickle the ivories and tackle Chopin.
For many Chinese, what was a luxury is now a possibility. With more disposable income, more living space for 300 to 400 million Chinese starting to don white collars, and with new rhetoric in the air about the virtues and paybacks of learning an instrument - sales of pianos, piano music, and piano lessons are rising.
A piano in the home brings new status. Skill at the keyboard is a new factor in acceptance to China's crowded better schools.
Some here brag that the sheer size of the piano boom will make China in a decade the world's most fruitful ground for music prodigies.
Others soft-pedal that notion, arguing that the strict Soviet approach to teaching music still used here may produce technical virtuosity - but thwarts the interpretive impulse needed as pianists develop past adolescence.
Either way, China is producing a lot more musical raw material.
"In the mid-'90s, about 5,000 kids took the annual Shanghai piano exams," says Lin Heng, a concert pianist and professor at the Shanghai Music Conservatory, China's oldest. "This year there are more than 25,000 exams" - a test that measures levels of piano proficiency.
Similar proportional increases are reported in south and central China.
Conservatory teachers in their 30s now say the two hours a day they practiced would no longer be enough for a career. For many serious young musicians, in fact, piano competition is so stiff, they've turned to other instruments.
At the Shanghai conservatory's Music Middle School, oboist Zhou Li, who waits offstage to perform with several fellow woodwind students, confides, "There are just too many piano players. It is hard to be outstanding, so I chose the oboe."
The piano boom is being made possible in part by the availability of new, affordable Chinese-brand uprights.
In a row of music shops on a leaf-dappled street in the old French section, sales of the Shanghai-produced Toyama and the Beijing-made Cadenza have nearly doubled. At $1200, they are a third to half the price of many Japanese models, whose ownership has long been a sign of upper-class wealth in China.
Urban families can rent a piano for 1500 yuan per year, about $180.
"We did about 400,000 yuan (about $48,300) worth of piano business last year," says Zhu Jiang, a saleswoman who picks her way through a clutter of trumpets, violins, and drums. Our previous best was less than 200,000."
"It used to be that parents would eat less if the kids could have a good education. Going to school was enough," says Guo Shaobin, owner of the Hollywood Music Academy, the first private music school in Shanghai. "But today there's more money, and there is more space in the home. It used to be if people could afford a piano, they would still have no place to put it."
The Hollywood school has grown from 12 students in 1996 to more than 2,000 now. Mr. Guo says his success is partly due to a keeping-up-with-the-Wangs phenomenon.
"Traditionally, Chinese families have an eye on what the neighbors ... are doing. Parents would like to be able to say their kids can play, too."
In fact, pianos are part of a lifestyle-improvement trend as China's middle class explores the concepts of "leisure time" (for vacations and sports clubs) and "leisure space" (for TVs and computers).
For 900 million poorer Chinese, however, pianos remain in the luxury upper-stratosphere in cost.
Interestingly, the piano craze here comes at a time when audience interest in both Western classical and Chinese traditional music is ebbing. Despite such highly promoted and state-sponsored events as last weekend's "Three Tenors" performance at the Forbidden City in Beijing, public support of classical music has been dismal in recent years.
Sources close to the Beijing and the Shanghai Symphonies acknowledge that it is not unusual on concert nights to find half-filled chambers, and give away tickets.
"I call it 'the lonely symphony,' " says one Shanghai composer for his city's namesake orchestra, founded in 1882. "They've got a funding problem. They also have an audience problem."
"Even when we bring in the big names, we can't count on ticket sales," says the musical director of the Shanghai Symphony, Xian Chenguang, adding that the orchestra today gets only half the state sponsorship it used to.
In increasingly market-oriented China, Mr. Xian is expected to raise about $600,000 a year from donors - most of which goes toward salaries.
Yet strong interest in piano playing among China's urbanites is seen as a sign that classical music will endure.
"Until 20 years ago, the only thing we were allowed to listen to was classical and Chinese traditional music," says one pianist. "There was no pop, no rock, no jazz. Eventually, people will turn back. This is a phase."
In Beijing, however, modern music colleges are loaded with guitar players, not pianists. The rock-and-jazz oriented Beijing MiDi Music Academy has 400 students; only 15 play the piano.
But some evidence of a new generation of keyboard talent already exists.
The young stars include 17-year-old Lang Lang, who recently made his debut with the Philadelphia and Baltimore symphonies.
Among other names, the most mentioned is 19-year-old Li Yundi, who did not study in Beijing or Shanghai, but in the southern area of Shenzen.
Last year Mr. Li won the Chopin competition in Poland.
His Shenzen colleague, Chen Sa, age 21, won fourth place.
This year, 14-year-old Wan Yujia, from Beijing, won the Seiler International Piano Competition in Germany. Shao Ting, from the Shanghai middle school, placed first in the Osaka International Competition last year.
"I think China will produce some great pianists in the coming years," says Ms. Lin, who performs next month at an international competition in Paris.
"Classical music is not just Western. It is universal."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor