Bright Lights Film Journal

Feedback from the Global Village: Culture Docs

From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China offers three documentaries for the price of one; Genghis Blues is too shaggy for words

The collapse of Cold War rigidities and the explosion of digital communication technologies have led to a fascinating process of cultural systole-diastole (or “lub-dub,” if you prefer): while official “Western” culture drenches the world, obscure cultures experience new life and provincial artists suddenly acquire global audiences.

Two DVDs illustrate this process. From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China offers three documentaries on the subject of Communist China’s suppression and then acceptance of Western music. Genghis Blues tells the story of Paul Pena, a San Francisco-based bluesman who journeyed to the tiny Asian country of Tuva to enter a contest in the once obscure art of throatsinging.

Changing China

Violinist Isaac Stern first traveled to China in 1979, three years after the official end of the Cultural Revolution. Although the Chinese government originally intended for Stern to give only one concert, he ended up traveling through the country for a month, giving several concerts and numerous master classes. Murray Lerner filmed a documentary, From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, telling the story of the visit.

Much of From Mao to Mozart is “official” documentary – bureaucrats talking about “cultural heritage” and scenic footage of China, which is beautiful but which seems to have been chosen to convince us that the country hadn’t changed since the days of Confucius. The master classes, however, are something else. Stern, on screen at least, is a wonderful ham and the Chinese kids are irresistible.1 If only becoming a great musician were really this easy!2

Twenty years later, a white-haired but still vigorous Stern returned to China, to discover that all’s changed: Beijing looks like L.A.,3 and the kids have traded their Red Guard pajamas for black leather jeans. Stern gets to renew some old friendships and teach a few more master classes.

The Gentleman from Shanghai is the third documentary on the From Mao to Mozart DVD. Directed by Heather Greer, the film tells the story of a quiet hero, Tan Shuzhen. Tan was born in 1907 to Christianized parents. He studied the violin from a German teacher and became the first Chinese to play in the Shanghai orchestra (obviously, the city had a large foreign contingent). Tan also became a teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory. To overcome a shortage of violins, he worked with local craftsmen to learn how to make violins himself and to establish a violin-manufacturing industry in China.

In 1937, the Japanese expanded their area of control in mainland China to include Shanghai. Tan resigned from the Shanghai orchestra rather than play for the conquerors, returning to the orchestra when the Japanese left. After the communist takeover in 1949, the Shanghai Conservatory maintained a precarious existence, despite an increasing official suspicion of decadent, Western sounds.

The Cultural Revolution struck in full in 1966. Tan was denounced by one of his students.4 To educate their decadent elder, Tan’s students ransacked his living quarters, destroying “Western” objects and stealing his wristwatch and his wife’s wedding ring. Tan was confined to a windowless, unlighted, unventilated storage room for 14 months. Afterwards, he was put to work cleaning the conservatory’s 122 toilets, a task that not only taught him humility but allowed the students more time to think up ways to torment their elders. In all, 17 of the teachers at the conservatory committed suicide rather than endure the continued humiliations and beatings they received from the Red Guard. Tan attributes his endurance to his Christian faith.

The Cultural Revolution ended in 1978. At age 92, Tan continues to make and play violins and teach the music for which he almost died.

Trekking to Tuva

It all started with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. As a kid, Feynman collected stamps. He was particularly fascinated by stamps from Tuva, a country that seemed not to be on any map. He pursued his obsession with a friend named Ralph Leighton.

Eventually, they solved the mystery. Tuva had only existed as a country for 23 years, between 1921 and 1944, sandwiched between upper Mongolia and lower Siberia. For that brief period, Stalin had been too busy slaughtering kulaks to care about 200,000 sheep-herding nomads, but once things calmed down in Eastern Europe, he set about bringing law and order to southern Siberia as well, and Tuva disappeared from view.

But by the 1980s the Evil Empire was on its last legs. Instead of suppressing Tuvan culture, Moscow was putting it on the air, broadcasting the Tuvan specialty of “throatsinging” – a wordless exploitation of vocal overtones that allows the singer to produce several different notes at the same time.

Paul Pena, a blind blues singer who had gigged with BB King and T-Bone Walker but never had solo career, was living alone in San Francisco, a near recluse after the death of his wife. Pena amused himself by listening to the shortwave radio at all hours and picked up the Tuvan broadcasts from Radio Moscow. Somehow, Pena figured out what the Tuvans were doing and taught himself how to do it as well.5 He tracked down a couple of Tuvan CDs and came into contact with a number of San Francisco’s global music buffs.

In 1992, a group of Tuvan singers, led by master throatsinger Kongarol Ondar, gave a concert in San Francisco. Pena showed up and stunned Ondar with his self-taught skills. Ondar, a man endowed with enough charisma for all of Asia, encouraged Pena to come to Tuva and enter a throatsinging contest.

Pena ultimately set out for Tuva6 in the company of a band of eccentrics who make the Grateful Dead look like the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. Genghis Blues, directed and produced by Roko and Adrian Belic, is the story of that journey. It’s a trip worth taking, although vegetarians may want to skip the sheep-slaughtering ceremony.7

The success of Genghis Blues, which won an award at Sundance and was nominated for an Oscar, has spawned a minor cult on the web. Numerous throatsinging CDs are available,8 along with a variety of Tuvan paraphernalia. You can start exploring

Both DVDs come with plenty of extras. An interview on Genghis Blues with the Belic brothers gives a great perspective on the joys and hazards of shoestring film-making. Thanks to funding shortfalls, the film sat in post-production for almost four years before reaching completion. But hey, it was worth it, if you don’t mind living with your mom (and, apparently, the Belics don’t).


  1. A recent scientific study concluded that Chinese kids are cuter than golden retriever pups and almost as cute as polar bear cubs. There are also some great shots of young acrobats at the Beijing opera. []
  2. According to Stern, this is all you have to remember: 1) hold your fiddle with your chin, not your arm (a piece of foam-rubber, concealed under your shirt, makes this possible); 2) apply most of the pressure to your bow with your middle finger, not your index finger; 3) always know “where the composer is going” – understand the role of each note in a phrase so that you know how the composer wants you to attack it; 4) play with all your heart and all your soul. []
  3. This is literally true. No doubt we’re being shown the Western part of town, but it’s still impressive. []
  4. Tan and this student, Ni Wen-Zhen, are now reconciled. Wen-Zhen teaches violin in Boston. []
  5. He also taught himself to speak Tuvan, and even read it a little, using a special electronic Braille translator and Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries. []
  6. From what we see in Genghis Blues, Tuva is basically Montana without all the people. Special bonus feature: No Ted Turner! []
  7. You cut a hole in the sheep’s stomach and stick your hand up the chest cavity, ripping out the aorta. I guess it works. []
  8. Ondar has jammed with everyone from the Kronos Quartet to Frank Zappa. I have to say that to my provincial ears, throatsinging sounds a lot like feedback, but it does grow on you. []