Watch: 1980 Video of Tian Jinqin, “Originator of Chinese Electronic Music”

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5:30 PM HKT, Mon April 23, 2018 2 mins read

Shout out to Create Digital Music for dropping this in my stream the other day — “The amazing touch-controlled synth made in secret in 1978 China“:

At the tail end of China’s Cultural Revolution, one inventor secretly created a futuristic take on traditional instruments – and it easily still inspires today.

I don’t know much about this instrument, but given CDM’s readership, I expect our collective knowledge should say something (not to mention some of you speak the language). But according to the video, it’s the work of Tian Jin Qin, a ribbon-controlled analog synthesizer first prototyped in 1978 and featured here in a documentary movie entitled “Dian Zi Qin / 电子琴” (1980).

A CDM reader called RTL piped up in the comments with some more context on China’s early adoption of then-new musical instruments, writing that in the 1970s, “analog synthesizers were seen as a very interesting technology by the CCP.” RTL cites a quote from a private conversation he had with American musician Bernie Krause, who reportedly told him:

We took a Moog Model III to China…in late 1973. It was soon after Nixon opened up the country for travel and we (Paul Beaver, my late music partner, and I) went as part of a State Dept sponsored trip to show new politically vetted technologies among which was the analog synth. We set up a few sounds based on the voices of traditional Chinese instruments, plus thunder, rain, ocean waves, human breathing…

They (the Chinese govmint [sic] at the time) were curious about the Moog because, as explained to us rather frankly, the instrument had no particular cultural bias. Therefore, it was acceptable politically and culturally to demonstrate in the country and composers there could generate their own voices through the use of the instrument.

After a bit of digging, it turns out that Tian Jinqin didn’t create his instrument “secretly” — he was in fact a prolific, well-respected inventor, and won several awards from official government bureaus. And he made a lot more than just the instrument shown in the video above.

A 2005 forum post (link in Chinese) on a site called the China Electronic Keyboard Information Network includes photos provided by Tian himself of some of his other inventions throughout the 1980s, including a sweet-looking electric dulcimer. Sometimes he has his son demonstrate the instruments in these photos:

The 2005 post also contains a bio, which is translated below in case you want some more background on the man who is evidently China’s most prolific inventor of electronic instruments:

The oldest Chinese inventor of electronic musical instruments, Tian Jinqin, spent half his energy and devoted himself to the research and development of electronic musical instruments, especially electronic folk instruments. Many of his works are known at home and abroad, and he is known as the originator of Chinese electronic music… He pays respect and encourages younger generations to work hard to learn and promote the popularization of electronic musical instruments in China.

Profile: Tian Jinqin, engineer, graduated from the Shaanxi Xianyang Machine Manufacturing School in 1955. Formerly senior engineer of Taiyuan Semiconductor Factory. In 1980, founded China’s first professional electronic musical instrument research institute. Has produced more than 40 inventions and patents, and published more than 70 professional papers in over 10 publications at home and abroad, totaling more than 570,000 words. Major works include Electronic Instruments [电子乐器] and Principles and Technical Practice of Electronic Sound Synthesis [声音的电子合成原理及技术实践]. His company won third prize in the National Invention contest, a Special Prize from the Ministry of Electronics, and the First and Second Prizes for Scientific Research in Shanxi Province. The development of a variety of dynamic keyboards won him a Chinese patent in 1986. He also made the documentary film Electronic Instruments, and became an inventor.

So the only question that remains is: where are these instruments now and how can we jam them?

All photos: China Electronic Keyboard Information Network

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