Acclaimed as the Father of Contemporary Chinese Music, composer Chou Wen-chung has had a critical impact on the development of modern music. As an influential educator based at Columbia University, he nurtured young composers from around the world and trained the first generation of contemporary composers from Mainland China. Chou devoted the last forty years of his life to an unexpected career as cultural ambassador. In 1978 he founded the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University and bridged diverse cultures through projects in the performing, visual and literary arts.

Finding One’s Identity

Chou Wen-chung’s collection of unusual antiques and cultural curios included a number of Chinese seals, or “chops,” carved out of stone, wood or jade. Seal carving was once a traditional art form in itself, and many artists enjoyed learning this skill as a hobby or to create a unique signature to stamp on their works of art.

In his later years Chou Wen-chung carved a seal identifying himself with the four characters 四不老人 , which translates as “Old Man of Four No’s.” The “no’s” to which he was referring were “neither East, nor West; neither old, nor new.” Chou wanted to make clear that he himself represented none of the extremes, and that his musical style defied categorization or oversimplification.

Awareness of one’s cultural identity often begins with a recognition of what we are not.  It starts with observing “the other.” At a very young age, Chou’s exposure to diverse cultures led him to question universal values, attitudes of superiority and to wonder about his own identity.

“If one is blessed with a cross-cultural heritage, one must regard it as a privilege and obligation, and commit oneself to the search in both practices.” —Chou Wen-chung

Straddling East and West

Chou Wen-chung was born in 1923 in Yantai, a city in Shandong Province. When he was a toddler, his family moved to the seaside city of Qingdao, where his father worked as a customs official. Shandong had been a colonial territory, leased to and inhabited by Germans until the end of World War I, when the Allies turned it over to Japan in the Versailles Treaty. Living in Qingdao gave young Chou exposure to European aesthetics in architecture and design, to the gutteral sounds of Teutonic languages and a lifelong taste for German sausage.

His childhood fell within what the Chinese called “100 Years of Humiliation,” which, beginning with the Opium Wars, refers to the era when numerous European countries claimed “foreign concessions” in cities and territories of China. Their citizens could reside in these districts and enjoy the privileges of extra-territoriality, exempting them from China’s laws.

No one would cite colonialism as a positive example of cultural exchange, but, according to Chou, it did have its perks. His father’s job required the family to relocate to Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai, cities where he could enjoy cultural offerings from the West. In 1919, the Shanghai Orchestra was taken over by an Italian conductor who, benefiting from an influx of highly trained White Russian musicians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution, upgraded the orchestra and presented public concerts of classical music. The Chou children loved music and created their own ensemble to perform for their parents and guests. Chou taught himself violin, piano, harmonica and several Chinese instruments, receiving formal training in violin only in his late teens. At home, the family spoke several languages, including Mandarin and Shanghainese, and the children learned English in school. At one point during his teenage years, Chou was addressed as “Vincent” by his westernized Chinese classmates.

In addition to providing the niceties of English marmalade and French baguettes, the foreign concessions also promoted blatant western arrogance and prejudice, which the Chinese faced daily through their status as second-class citizens. The Chou family, with ancestral roots in Changzhou, an ancient cultural center in Zhejiang province, came from a long line of affluent literati, or wenren. Chou’s parents combated the damaging effects of racism upon their children by passing onto them a deep reverence for, and appreciation, of Chinese culture and civilization. They also valued education above all. Rather than encouraging any religious beliefs, they taught their children the moral values expected of the wenren, or people privileged with education. They believed that with this advantage came the responsibility to contribute to the betterment of the whole society, even when it required personal sacrifice.

Family Life in Colonial China

Chou Wen-chung was the third child in a family of seven. His father, Chou Zhongjie, whose passions were poetry and calligraphy, began his early career as a classically trained school teacher; the elder Chou joined the 1911 Revolution to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. In 1919, he took part in the May 4th demonstrations, condemning the decisions of the Versailles Treaty and demanding reform and modernization of China’s government. Conditions in China sparked his political activism and eventually inspired him to take a job with the new Nationalist government.

Born with a chronic heart problem, Chou was frequently ill as a child and bedridden for long periods of time. This disadvantage, however, brought the benefit of an unusually rich education. He was taught at home by tutors, but his studies were closely supervised by his father, a strict but compassionate patriarch who passed onto his son a steadast sense of integrity and a dignified demeanor.

Born with a chronic heart problem, Chou Wen-chung was frequently bedridden as a child. This disadvantage, however, brought the benefits of an unusually rich education. He was taught at home by tutors, but his studies were closely supervised by his father—a  strict but compassionate patriarch who passed on to his son a steadfast sense of integrity and a dignified demeanor.

Chou Wen-Chung (far right) and family in China, 1932
Chou Wen-Chung (far right) and family in China, 1932

Chou Zhongjie maintained a magnificent library at home that was strictly off limits to his children. Little did he know that his sickly little son managed to sneak in every day and furtively read forbidden literature for hours while his father was away at the office. Little Wen-chung also enjoyed the rare adventure of exploring much of China by train when his father took on the job heading up the government railway system. His parents were always concerned about his health and preferred to bring him along on business trips rather than leave him with others at home. The observant young boy was entranced by the changing scenes of landscapes, towns, people and animals, all so different from what he saw at home; and would discuss his observations with his parents.

Chou remembered warm and open communication between his parents and their children. As the foreboding political situation in China intensified in the 1930’s, Chou’s father would gather the family together after dinner to explain events and to allow them to ask questions. But nothing could prepare them for the horrors of war that were coming.

Four Years on the Run

In 1937, the Japanese army swept south from its base in Manchuria and attacked the capital city of Nanjing where the family was living. They fled to Shanghai and eventually settled into a house in the international concession, where Chou’s father hoped to find sanctuary. A family employee caught up with them days later after making his way from Nanjing to Shanghai on foot. He described the nightmare they had escaped. Their house had been looted and everything was gone, including the books in the precious library built over time by Chou’s father. It was later rumored that the Japanese army had converted the front garden of their home into a plaza for public executions.

Adapting to the uncertainty of wartime life in Shanghai, Chou began studies in civil engineering at St. John’s University and started his first formal lessons in violin at the Shanghai Music School. The soothing routine was shortlived. When the Japanese army entered Shanghai in 1941, Chou’s family convinced him to flee the city to avoid conscription by the enemy. At the age of 18, he embarked on a four-year trek across hundreds of miles with a group of boys led by a relative, constantly on the run with violin in hand. 

Chou witnessed death and suffering day after day, yet his travels also brought an intimate relationship with the staggering natural beauty of his country.  He was deeply inspired by his travels through the mountains of Guilin, and recreated those moments of discovery in his later works Echoes from the Gorge, Riding the Wind and Windswept Peaks.

In spite of the chaos, he managed to enroll in two universities and even completed his degree in civil engineering at Southwest University in Chongqing where the Nationalist government had set up its wartime capital. After the Japanese army surrendered in 1945, Chou made his way back to his family in Shanghai. He arrived home a changed man. The brutalities that he had witnessed haunted him for the rest of his life.

Throughout this four-year nightmare, Chou’s violin had been his constant companion. He sustained himself by playing alone in the wilderness or on a deserted mountain top with a sheet of music nailed to a tree. He credited his survival to neither his physical stamina nor his luck, but solely to the spiritual power of music.

A New Life in America

Like many young Chinese people after the war, Chou felt duty-bound to contribute to the re-building of his shattered country. Committed to this mission, he headed to the U.S. in the fall of 1946 with a much-coveted scholarship to study architecture at Yale University. This practical (and parent-approved) plan had been put together with great effort by his brother who was studying at MIT, and Chou agreed to follow his parents’ wishes. He didn’t have the audacity to reveal his own dream of devoting his life to music. Such an idea would be viewed as self-indulgent and even amoral at a moment of extreme national suffering.

Upon his arrival in New Haven, however, Chou decided that he had no choice but to turn down the golden Ivy League opportunity and pursue what he then saw clearly as his destiny. “Music was calling me,” the composer explained without irony when he was well into his 90’s. “I really felt like I would die if I didn’t do this.”

The young Chou sincerely believed that his responsibility as a wenren was to rescue Chinese culture. He viewed the physical destruction of China’s infrastructure as a practical challenge requiring financial support and technical solutions; his greater concern was that the psychic degradation and spiritual damage that he had witnessed during war would profoundly affect the future of Chinese civilization. Modern architecture and new tall buildings were needed, but could not cure the deeper wounds. That damage required healing on a cosmic scale. Music, art and literature, he believed, were the treatment and therapy needed to heal the human soul and he knew that he himself could not be cured by any other means.

After responding to his family’s initial shock and disbelief, and their eventual acceptance, he enrolled in Boston’s New England Conservatory. Here he studied joyfully with composer Nicholas Slonimsky and began a new life as a musician and an American. He was the only Asian student in the school. To his surprise, he made friends quickly. Some of the new students were American veterans recently returned from the war who were benefiting from the new GI Bill. Like Chou, they had suffered trauma. Some had lost limbs. Chou found consolation and empathy among these veterans.

Chou Wen-chung studied music in Boston until 1949 when the Communist victory in China cut him off from Shanghai and from family support. Forced to abandon his studies before completing his degree, he followed his brother to New York where he would have a safe place to live while finding a way to support himself. In 2019, the New England Conservatory revisited this history and awarded Chou Wen-chung an honorary doctorate.

Student and Composer

The New York City that welcomed Chou was celebrating an exhilarating cultural moment. After the war ended, an influx of artists, musicians and writers from Europe, seeking escape from persecution or war-time destruction, swarmed into the city and transformed it into a mecca of intellectual and creative energy. New York dubbed itself the new “cultural center of the world”—an honor previously claimed by Paris, now in a shambles. Chou found himself right in the middle of an exciting community of artistic immigrants.

He began private studies with French composer Edgard Varèse and, in exchange for free tuition, served as the maestro’s copyist and assistant. The wildly creative and notoriously temperamental Varèse was an iconic figure in 1950’s Greenwich Village. He encouraged his young Chinese pupil to join in conversations with an endless stream of illustrious friends, including Marcel Duchamp and Georges Braque.

That year Chou completed his first composition, Landscapes, which is known today as the first work that is independent of either Western or Eastern music grammar. Written for western instruments, but inspired by Chinese poetry, Landscapes was premiered in 1953 by the San Francisco Symphony orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. This was a big break for the young composer and launched a career that steadily gained momentum for the next twenty years.

Varèse’s influence upon Chou was significant and his protégé reciprocated beyond the call of duty. After Varèse died in 1965, Chou became his literary executor and continued to promote his work through writing and organizing concerts. He credits Varèse with helping him discover his own voice as a composer and to value the integrity of his work, above all. “He taught me what it means to be an artist,” Chou wrote.

Chou’s first decade in New York was as productive as it was exciting. He entered a music program at Columbia University where he studied with Otto Luening and Henry Paul Lang. After completing a master’s degree in 1954 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct research at the Library of Congress on ancient Chinese music. For two years he studied old mateChou’s first decade in New York was as productive as it was exciting. He entered a music program at Columbia University where he studied with Otto Luening and Henry Paul Lang. After completing a master’s degree in 1954 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct research at the Library of Congress on ancient Chinese music. For two years he studied materials about the 3,000 year old qin, an instrument that, together with Chinese calligraphy, became a profound inspiration in his distinctive musical style.

He composed prolifically. A commission by the Louisville Orchestra titled And the Fallen Petals premiered in 1955 and has become his most performed work, played worldwide by leading symphony orchestras. He also collaborated with the edgier artists of the day, including choreographer Merce Cunningham, kinetic artist Tsai Wen-ying and choreographer Chiang Ching.

Chou Wen-chung’s creative contribution was recognized in the United States early in his career. He received a music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1963 and was elected a full member in 1982. His many awards included Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Ministry of Culture, awarded in 2001.

Artists in Exile

Success in New York’s music world did not diminish Chou Wen-chung’s sense of duty to his homeland. In the 1950’s he was delighted to be introduced to a group of like-minded wenren who shared his concern about the future of China. He became a member of the “White Horse Society,” a circle of artists and writers from China who met regularly to discuss political issues in the Manhattan apartment of artist Tang Degang. These men and women had come to the U.S. to study in the 1940’s and, like Chou, had planned to return to China to contribute to rebuilding the country. The Communist victory in 1949 changed everything, and they found themselves stranded in New York, artists in exile. The new government had begun persecuting intellectuals and redistributing the property of the affluent class. Returning home would be dangerous for themselves as well as their families.

It was at one of these gatherings that Chou Wen-chung met his future wife. Yi-an Chang was a gifted concert pianist who was born in Shanghai and had grown up in Europe in a diplomatic family. Her father, Chang Hsin-hai (1898-1972) had served as Chinese Ambassador to Portugal, Czechoslovakia and Poland. The couple married in 1962 and brought up their two sons, Luyen and Sumin, in the house of Edgar Varèse, which Chou bought from Varèse’s widow Louise. Yi-an began a thriving new career in floral design. 

Professor, Administrator, Visionary

In 1964 Chou joined the faculty of Columbia University. There he distinguished himself as a gifted teacher and a highly effective administrator who stretched the university’s Eurocentric curriculum by adding courses in Chinese music and Asian humanities. He started the first Ph.D. program in composition, which attracted an international student body, including emerging composers from China, many of whom have won international acclaim. Among them are Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Tan Dun, who is best known for the award-winning soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Chou’s students revered him as an elder and creative visionary. “He is the godfather of Chinese contemporary music,” Tan Dun told the New York Times at the time of his mentor’s death in October 2019. “He was the only one who could share a very deep knowledge of the traditions of China, but also bring us into a completely new world. He was the one who built a dream for us.”

Cultural Ambassador

Hostile relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China made it impossible for Chou to visit his family. Then, in 1972, he was suddenly permitted emergency entry to see his father-in-law, Chang Hsin-hai, who had suffered a series of strokes while visiting China as a guest of the government. Ambassador Chang died in the hospital shortly after Chou’s arrival. 

Before returning to New York, Chou spent time with his family, and met with a group of musicians and cultural officials in Shanghai, as arranged by the government at his request. The Cultural Revolution was still in full swing, but the atmosphere warmed when Chou discovered that some of the musicians present had been former classmates in Shanghai in the 1940’s. He was moved by their obvious plight under political repression and felt compelled to help them get access to a larger world of creative expression. However the prevailing political climate made such a dream impossible for several years.

In 1977, Chou visited again–this time with a delegation of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. The Cultural Revolution had ended, and the climate was transformed. Artists were eager to hear about worldwide cultural developments, and Chou was ready to propose a formal exchange program. He spent two weeks in Beijing and Shanghai and returned to the U.S. with the commitments needed to get Columbia University to sign on and to locate donors. Suddenly everything was put on fast forward. Several months later, on October 1, 1978, Columbia University announced the establishment of the Center for U.S.- China Arts Exchange, three months ahead of the official normalization of diplomatic relations on January 1. The next month the Center launched its exchange activities. Chou led a group of film professionals to China, which became known as “the first American cultural delegation to visit China since 1949.” From then on, the momentum continued at a rapid pace.

Artist, First and Foremost

When Chou established the Center in 1978, he was fifty-five years old and an established composer with an impressive repertoire. He was a full-time professor at Columbia who also held demanding leadership posts in the university and volunteer positions with music and arts organizations. His new role as cultural diplomat was exhilarating and rewarding, a satisfying fulfillment of his wenren responsibilities. Yet directing the Center was extremely time consuming and demanding. The bilingual communications and the culturally complex nature of the program made it difficult to delegate tasks. With his burgeoning schedule, something had to give, and it was Chou’s composing that slipped off the agenda. For more than fifteen years he was unable to create any new works. And then, without any fanfare, Chou began to compose again.

Friends and critics have speculated on the impetus behind this astounding creative comeback. In 1989 he completed the percussion quartet Echoes from the Gorge, which has been ranked as his magnum opus. Bernard Holland of The New York Times described the work as “the most remarkable of Chou Wen-chung’s entire repertoire and [one that] offers a reassuring accommodation between two worlds.” To create a true masterpiece at age 65, after two decades of silence, is a rare phenomenon.

Chou was keen to keep this energy flowing. He was full steam ahead on a piano quartet commissioned by a chamber ensemble when the news of the June 4th massacre at Tiananmen hit New York and rocked his universe. He was shattered. It took him two months to release a sober, professional statement about postponing the Center’s exchange programs. Yet no words could express his personal feelings of shock, grief and despair. His new composition provided a space for release.

Windswept Peaks is a musical interpretation of the imagery that filled Chou’s mind when he witnessed the footage of violence unleashed upon unarmed students and intellectuals. He visualized the ancient pine trees in landscape painting, gnarled and weathered with age, clutching onto rocky cliffs. When Windswept Peaks was published the following year, Chou dedicated it “to the Chinese wenren, or intellectuals, frequenty suppressed and persecuted; they stand tall among the mightiest peaks in the history of humanity.” 

When Chou Wen-chung retired from teaching in 1991 he was able to devote more time to composing. During those years he traveled frequently to Yunnan Province, where the Center was carrying out programs on the cultural conservation of the arts of indigenous ethnic minorities. The musical instruments of these rich cultures provided inspiration for Chou’s compositions. After his auspicious revival, he continued composing for another twenty years and completed numeorus works, including two string quartets and a piece for a traditional Korean ensemble. 

He composed his final piece at the age of 89. Eternal Pine for Six Traditional Chinese Instruments was the first and only piece Chou ever wrote for a Chinese ensemble. More than sixty years earlier, at the age of 26, he launched his career in New York with the composition Landscapes, for Western orchestra. Eternal Pine, whether or not Chou intended this to be his finale, is a fitting denouement, bringing his life-long repertoire full circle.    

Chou Wen-chung passed away in New York on October 25, 2019. During his ninety-six years, the “Old Man of Four No’s” succeeded in accomplishing his own mission. Yet he also knew there was much more to be done. He bequeathed a heavy responsibility to the next generation of wenren.


In November 2018, the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou announced the opening of the Chou Wen-chung Music Research Center, a library to which Chou Wen-chung donated more than 1,500 of his personal books and printed scores. These were publications that Chou collected from the time of his arrival in the U.S. and that he relied upon in teaching his students at Columbia University for three decades. The new Center will serve as a platform to encourage scholarly research on Chou’s music theory and contemporary music in China. Its mandate includes supporting emerging composers by organizing international conferences and other research-related programs.

Chou Wen-chung at home in New York, 2018
Chou Wen-chung at home in New York, 2018

Chou Wen-chung’s music manuscripts are housed at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, and are available for research at The Paul Sacher Archive and Research Center for the Music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.

In 2018, Professor Chou Wen-chung donated the forty-year archive of the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange to the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University. The collection has been accessioned into the Library’s East Asian Special Collection.