10 Of The Greatest Chinese Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

It’s no secret that some of the greatest composers in history hail from Europe. But did you know there are also many Chinese composers who have made an impact on the music world?

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at 10 of the greatest Chinese composers, their lives, and their work. Read on to learn more about them!

1. Tan Dun

Tan Dun by lluv2write (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you’ve seen the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ve heard the music of Tan Dun.

Tan Dun is a Chinese composer who creates contemporary classical music. He is also a skilled pianist, viola d’amore player, and conductor with a deep knowledge of traditional Chinese music.

He grew up working in rice fields under the Mao Zedong government, where he learned musical traditions that inspired his work. In 1986, he moved to New York to study music at Columbia University and wrote his first opera there.

Tan has won many awards, including a BAFTA, an Academy Award, and a Grammy. On June 5, 2020, he gave a concert called “Prayer and Blessings” to help bring people together during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Chen Yi

Chen Yi is a composer and violinist and was the first woman to earn a Master of Arts in musical composition from Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music.

Chen Yi is a distinguished professor at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, where she is known for blending Western and Chinese musical traditions. She also serves on many advisory boards and encourages young musicians to find their voices.

Her list of honors is impressive, with names such as Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts offering her fellowships.

Over the years, she has written hundreds of pieces for various orchestras, ensembles, and soloists. Today, she continues to compose new works, including the piano solo Plum Blossom.

3. Qigang Chen

With a wide range of works from chamber music to ballet, Qigang Chen leaves an impressive mark on the world of classical music.

Born in Beijing, he moved to France in the 1980s and became a French citizen in 1992. This move helped Chen discover new types of 20th-century music and broaden his style to match a worldwide perspective.

In 2008, he was the musical director for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and has since been honored with a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Qigang Chen now hosts a workshop in China for youth, encouraging them to become more involved in music in their communities. He was one of the final students of Olivier Massien, a brilliant French composer and teacher who shaped Chen’s musical style.

4. Xian Xinghai

Xian Xinghai

Xian Xinghai was one of the first Chinese composers to use Western musical influences. He had a hard life and died at 40 due to poor health from malnutrition, but he still made a big impact on Chinese music.

Unlike most musical prodigies, he started learning to play the violin in his 20s, which makes his achievements even more impressive.

His most famous piece is The Yellow River, a cantata he supposedly wrote in six days while hiding in a cave during the Anti-Japanese War.

Aside from this, he composed symphonies, concertos, choral works, an opera, and nearly 300 songs. Today, there is a street named after him in Kazakhstan.

5. Li Jinhui

Li Jinhui

As a young composer, Li Jinhui became famous for his political satire and bold musical statements. A student of progressive history, he clashed with the Communist takeover of China due to his progressive views.

His early work was lyrical and innocent, but it later became more sensual and was associated with the female form and sexuality. Because of this, his music was banned as “pornography.”

Li Jinhui’s compositions inspired the 20th-century sounds of cantopop and mandopop, which are still popular in China today. Because of this, he is often hailed as the father of modern Chinese music.

He also wrote several children’s operas and developed a Chinese jazz style that upset conservative listeners.

6. Benjamin Lees

Benjamin Lees was born Benjamin George Lisniansky in Harbin, Manchuria, a northern province of China. His family, of Russian-Jewish descent, moved to the United States when he was a baby.

Music was part of Lees’ life from a young age. He started playing piano at age 5, and after moving to Los Angeles in 1939, he studied piano with Margueritte Bitter.

Lees preferred classical composition over atonalism or Americana and devoted his time to learning classical methods.

In 1954, the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed his piece Profiles for Orchestra on the radio. In 1985, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned his work Memorial Candles to remember the Holocaust.

Lees earned both Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships and received a Grammy nomination for Kalmar Nyckel in 2003. He composed music throughout his life.

7. Melissa Hui

Melissa Hui was born in Hong Kong, China, but immigrated to Canada in 1974. She studied piano performance at the University of British Columbia and earned a master’s from the California Institute of Art and a doctorate from Yale.

Hui has already left quite a legacy on Chinese music with two dozen pieces to her résumé and is known for her poetic sound. While her work is mainly chamber music, she has also composed for orchestra and choral ensembles.

In 1998, Hui composed the soundtrack to the film Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, an Oscar-nominated short film.

She taught for several years at Stanford University before returning to Canada in 2010.  She now works as an Associate Professor of Composition at McGill University in Quebec’s Schulich School of Music.

8. Joseph Koo

One of the most widely respected composers in China, Joseph Koo was born in Guangzhou, China. At 17, he began to study piano and, in the 1960s, earned a sponsorship to attend the Berklee College of Music.

When he returned to Hong Kong, Koo found work as a film composer, with such notable films as Fists of Fury and The Way of the Dragon in his portfolio.

He wrote many popular cantopop songs, including the first Cantonese TV theme song. His first hit song, “Meng,” was sung by his sister Koo Mei.

In 1982, Koo became a Member of the Order of the British Empire and received the Bronze Bauhinia Star from the Hong Kong Government in 1998.

He later moved to Canada, choosing to retire from conducting and composing fewer new works. Now, he enjoys oil painting. 

9. Ma Sicong

Known as the King of Violinists, Ma Sicong has a long and cherished history in Chinese classical music. His most famous piece, Inner Mongolia Suite, is considered one of the greatest musical compositions of the 20th century.

Ma Sicong got caught up in politics. In 1966, he was targeted by the Red Guards and the Chinese government, but he escaped to New York with help from the US Consulate. After his escape, China charged Ma and his family with treason. This charge was lifted in 1985.

Despite these political troubles, Ma continued to excel in music. Although his style changed as a refugee in the United States, most of his works were composed while he lived in China.

Ma Sicong’s legacy includes dozens of compositions, securing his place in the musical history of China and the world. His body was returned home to China in 2007.

10. Ye Xiaogang

Ye Xiaogang

Ye Xiaogang is one of the greatest contemporary Chinese composers. He studied at the Eastman School of Music in New York and was a Resident Composer and Lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music in China for five years.

Ye composes chamber music, orchestral works, symphonies, stage music, and film music, often inspired by Chinese culture, Buddhist ideals, and nature.

He also contributes to music preservation as the chairman of the China Musicians Association, vice chairman of the International Music Council, and the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.

Ye is a professor of composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He founded and is the artistic director of the Beijing Modern Music Festival.

Over the years, Ye has won many awards and, in 2020, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous Chinese Composers

It is said that the Chinese have a richer musical tradition than any other culture in the world. This may be due to China’s long history of music, which dates back thousands of years.

We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some of the composers who have contributed to China’s rich musical legacy.

We’ll be adding to this list, so let us know which composers we should check out and add next.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.