Xian Xinghai or Sinn Sing Hoi[1] (Chinese: 冼星海; pinyin: Xiǎn Xīnghǎi; Wade–Giles: Hsien Hsing-hai; 13 June 1905 – 30 October 1945) was one of the earliest generation of Chinese composers influenced by western classical music and has influenced generations of Chinese musicians.[2] Xian composed in all the major musical forms (two symphonies, a violin concerto, four large scale choral works, nearly 300 songs and an opera), and is best known for the Yellow River Cantata upon which the Yellow River Concerto for piano and orchestra is based.[3]

Xian Xinghai
Xian Xinghai.jpg
Xian Xinghai at about 23 years old in Shanghai in 1920s.
Born(1905-06-13)13 June 1905
Died30 October 1945(1945-10-30) (aged 40)
Moscow, Russia
Other namesSinn Sing Hoi, Huang Xun
Years active1929–1945

Early life and educationEdit

Xian was born in Portuguese Macau in 1905, to Tanka[4][5] parents whose ancestors were from Panyu, Guangdong.[6][7][8] He moved frequently in his early life with his mother as his father had died before Xian was born.[6] Xian moved with his mother to Singapore when he was six years old, he was enrolled in Yangzheng Primary School [1] for his primary education. It was while at Yangzheng Primary School that he took his first step into his musical career. His teacher, Ou Jianfu, first noticed Xian Xinghai's musical talent, and he was enrolled into the school's military band. Xian received training in both musical instruments as well as musical theory.[clarification needed] He was later brought to Guangzhou for further education by his then school principal, Lin Yaoxiang, along with 19 other students. Xian started learning the clarinet in 1918 at the YMCA charity school attached to the Lingnan University in Guangzhou (Canton).

In 1924 he studied in Saint Andrew's School of Singapore.[1] In 1926 he joined the National Music Institute at Peking University to study music and in 1928 he entered National Shanghai Conservatory of Music to study violin and piano. The same year he published his well-known essay The Universal Music. In 1929 he went to Paris (where he met Ma Sicong who introduced him to many artists there) and was disliked by his teacher first because he didn't know how to play piano but one night he got home and was mad and composed a song which the teacher heard. The teacher came inside and was fascinated with his work and asked him to bring his piece of work to the university where the composers competed their work and he won and he was accepted to that music school. In 1934 he was the first Chinese student admitted to the Paris Conservatory to study senior composition[6] with Paul Dukas.[7] And before this, he had studied with Vincent D'Indy. During this period he composed Wind, Song of a Wanderer, Violin Sonata in D Minor, and other works.


Xian returned to China in 1935 to the Japanese occupation of the northeastern part of the country (known then as Manchuria).[7] Using his music as a weapon to protest the occupation, he took part in patriotic activities.[7] During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), he wrote vocal works that encouraged the people to fight the Japanese invaders, including Saving the Nation, Non-Resistance the Only Fear, Song of Guerrillas, The Roads Are Opened by Us, The Vast Siberia, Children of the Motherland, Go to the Homefront of the Enemy, and On the Taihang Mountains, among others. He worked for film studios before going to the Communist headquarters in Yan'an, where he became dean of the Music Department at Lu Xun Institute of Arts in 1938. It is at this time that he composed the famous Yellow River Cantata and the Production Cantata.

Tomb of Xian Xinghai

In 1940, Xian used the assumed name Huang Xun.[9] In 1940 Xian went to the Soviet Union to compose the score of the documentary film Yan'an and the Eighth Route Army.[6] Before departure Mao Zedong invited him to dinner. In 1941 the German invasion of the Soviet Union disrupted his work and he attempted to return to China by way of Xinjiang but the local anti-communist warlord, Sheng Shicai, blocked the way and he got stranded in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. It was here that he composed the symphonies Liberation of the Nation and Sacred War, and the suites Red All Over the River and Chinese Rhapsody for winds and strings.

During Xian's career, he has composed over 300 works and published 35 papers, including Nie Er-the Creator of New Chinese Music.[3]


Personal lifeEdit

Xian developed pulmonary tuberculosis due to overwork and malnutrition. After the war, Xian return to Moscow for medical treatment but died of pulmonary disease on October 30, 1945[6] at the age of 40.


Xian's influence in Chinese music won him the title People's Composer.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), when all the Western and some Chinese art was forbidden, the pianist Yin Chengzong arranged the Yellow River Cantata into a concerto for piano and orchestra, by the name of Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969).

After China opened its doors to the world in late 1970s, Yin planned the performance of the piano concerto. There was a debate whether some politically incorrect anthems like "The East Is Red", which Yin interpolated into the concerto, should be removed. It was decided that the work itself was a cultural legacy of the time when it was created, the melodies reminding listeners of that period and creating a unique sense of history. Hence, the work remained intact as it was originally arranged.

Beginning in the 1970s, the Yellow River Concerto has been heard in the West, often performed by Yin Chengzong himself, and in 1988 the Italian pianist Riccardo Caramella became the first Western pianist who performed it in China with a Chinese orchestra, the Beijing Radio Symphony Orchestra.

In 2009, the epic film The Star and The Sea was created by directors Qiankuan Li and Guiyun Xiao. The film is about the hard childhood and suffering of Xian in that period of his life and the efforts of his mother to help him developing his musical talents. In 2011, the film won the Huabiao Film AAwardfor Outstanding Children's Film.[11][12]


Xinghai Concert Hall
Statue of Xian Xinghai

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b 何乃强 (2013-09-01). 冼星海在新加坡十年 1911-1921:历史补遗 谬误纠正 (in Chinese). Lingzi Media.
  2. ^ Smith, Nicholas (20 September 2003). "Conductor's Notes: Xian Xinghai Yellow River Cantana". Beijing International Festival Chorus program 20 September 2003. Beijing International Festival Chorus. Retrieved 27 August 2010.
  3. ^ a b c "Xian Xinghai". baroqueorchestra.org. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  4. ^ 武芳莉. "冼星海:坎坷而壮丽的音乐人生--青春励志--中国青年网". qclz.youth.cn. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  5. ^ "毕星星:音乐大师冼星海的疍民身份_评论频道_凤凰网". news.ifeng.com. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Xian Xinghai: Short-Lived but Not Forgotten". ChinaCulture.org. Ministry of Culture, P.R. China. 2003. Archived from the original on 21 September 2009. Retrieved 27 August 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d Appiah (ed), Kwame Anthony; Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1997). The Dictionary of Global Culture. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 703. ISBN 0-394-58581-X.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  8. ^ a b "Bronze statue of Xian Xinghai". AsiaRooms.com. AsiaRooms.com. Retrieved 27 August 2010.
  9. ^ "Xian Xinghai". icm.gov.mo. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  10. ^ "Lang Lang: Dragon Songs". allmusic.com. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  11. ^ "The Star and the Sea". chinesemov.com. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  12. ^ "The Star and the Sea (2009)". IMDb. Retrieved March 17, 2019.
  13. ^ 人民公园:广州第一公园 [People's Park: the first park in Guangzhou] (in Chinese). Guangzhou Daily. 2008-02-17. Retrieved 2014-04-24.

External linksEdit