CNBC Meets

China is obsessed with winning awards: Lang Lang

China is obsessed with winning awards: Lang Lang

Chinese pianist Lang Lang has told CNBC that the Chinese place great importance on winning competitions – a fact that proved detrimental to the beginning of his career.

Following a musical education at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Lang performed in Beijing with the Philadelphia Orchestra to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2001.

However, the Chinese were not initially pleased with Lang's appearance with the famed American musical institution.

"I still remember my really awkward first press conference in Beijing at the end of May 2001," Lang told 'CNBC Meets' Tania Bryer. "This was four years after I moved to study in America. So, first question: why do you think Philadelphia Orchestra is choosing you to come back with them? What did you do in America?

"I said, 'Nothing much, I was studying.' 'Why you didn't win any big prize?' Or in the past four years, why you didn't go to any major competitions? Why do you care about being a good student?'"

Lang said that as a child prodigy, the Chinese press expected him to have won numerous awards by the time he returned for his first concert in 2001. Lang said he told the press at the time," I realised competition is not everything and my teacher told me to focus on developing a big repertoire and that's my plan.

"And they (the press) said, 'But how can the Philadelphia Orchestra take you if nobody knows you?' I said, 'You know, I don't want to talk about it. I just want to play a good concert.' So it was really difficult."

Lang Lang wins in the category 'best music international' at the Golden Camera awards in Berlin, 2013

China's focus on winning was highlighted during the London 2012 Summer Olympics. After winning a silver medal in men's weightlifting, Wu Jingbiao cried when he was interviewed by China's CCTV network, stating, "I'm ashamed for disgracing the motherland, the Chinese weightlifting team and all those who supported me. I'm sorry."

"Taking part in competitive sports has greatly inspired China in shrugging off its poverty and isolation in the past decades," the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times wrote in August 2012. China finished the 2012 Olympics with 38 gold medals, placing them second in the world medal table.

Lang said it was not until a year later, in 2002, when he returned to China, this time with the New York Philharmonic, that the mood started to change. Lang performed a popular piece for the Chinese market, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number 2, which was seen as a "bigger" piece of music to perform than when he played Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto the year before.

"For the public, (with the) Mendelssohn Piano Concerto, they thought this piece, everybody can play, it doesn't mean much," Lang said. "And then this Rachmaninoff's Number 2 just breaks through my home country and then gradually people start to understand competition is not everything."

Lang said that this seeming obsession with awards and competitions was not just an attribute of Chinese culture.

"It's not only in China but the whole Asian countries, people still believe competition is very important and to win a major competition; it's very important to have that," he said. "So that's just mentality."

The full program - CNBC Meets: Lang Lang - will air on CNBC Europe on Wednesday 11 December.