Local journalist chronicles orchestra's groundbreaking trip to China

by Len Lear
Posted 6/1/22

Lin's new book, “Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra's Historic Journey,” was just released May 24 by Temple University Press.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Local journalist chronicles orchestra's groundbreaking trip to China


In the mid-1970s, when Jennifer Lin was a student at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown, her dream was to become a journalist and eventually a foreign correspondent in the People's Republic of China, the land of her father's birth. Her late father, who came to the U.S. from Shanghai in 1949, was a brain surgeon at Temple University and other area hospitals. 

Lin attended “The Mount” with her four sisters while her brother went to La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor. She then went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where she majored in English and journalism.

In 1983, she was hired as a reporter by The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she stayed for 31 years, eventually achieving her goal of being a foreign correspondent in China for four years in the 1990s. Her husband, Bill Stieg, and two small children lived with her there, where Stieg published a magazine for the U.S. embassy.

“I was lucky to live out my dream,” Lin said last week. “The most impressive thing I saw there was the remarkable transformation (from a rural, poor, agrarian society to countless modern skyscrapers almost everywhere).” 

Lin was also a financial correspondent in New York for the Inquirer, covering Wall Street in the late 1980s and then covering national politics in Washington, D.C., before going to China. 

“The Inquirer also asked me to cover the Philadelphia Orchestra in China in 2008, and I jumped at it,” she said. “That made me realize the importance of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s going to China. Many people know about the ping-pong diplomacy (during the Nixon era in the early 1970s), but not many know about the music diplomacy.”

After leaving the Inquirer in 2015, Lin worked on a remarkable family memoir “Shanghai Faithful: Betrayal and Forgiveness in a Chinese Christian Family” for two years. Then she co-authored  “Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running.”

In 2015, Lin also started doing research for a documentary film about the Philadelphia Orchestra's historic tour of China in 1973. She traveled to China four times for her research, worked on it for years and finally was able to create and co-direct the compelling feature-length documentary “Beethoven in Beijing,” which premiered on public television's “Great Performances” in April of 2021. 

Lin's primary collaborators, producer Sam Katz and co-director Sharon Mullally, are both West Mt. Airy residents. “Sharon and I had every intention of showing the film at film festivals,” Lin said, “but that plan fell apart when the festivals all went virtual because of the pandemic.”

But Lin thought there was a lot more to be said about the pioneering musical adventure in 1973, so she began working on a book about the subject, and the result is “Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra's Historic Journey,” which was just released to the public May 24 by Temple University Press.

Lin draws from interviews, personal diaries and news accounts to give voice to the many American and Chinese musicians, diplomats, journalists and others who participated in and witnessed this historic event, which helped to open up diplomatic relations between the two mortal enemies. The book is filled with fascinating photos as well as anecdotes, ranging from amusing sidewalk Frisbee sessions and acupuncture treatments for musicians with sore muscles to a tense encounter involving Madame Mao, Chairman Mao Zedong’s wife, dictating which symphony was to be played at a concert.

According to Lin, there were fewer than 100 Americans living in China at the time of the orchestra's 1973 trip. 

“There were more Philadelphians than that on the plane, 130,” she said. “The Chinese people they encountered had never had any contact with Americans. Some people shared their journals with me, such as Nick Platt, a diplomat who is in the movie. His wife had some very funny observations. I called up more musicians than the ones in the film. . .

“In 1979 my dad took us to Shanghai. They were just starting to recover from the Cultural Revolution. We stayed in the house my dad grew up in. There were at least three families living in the one 'rowhouse.' Now it's all high-rises and bullet trains between every city. Now every city has elaborate new concert halls like the Kimmel Center.”

Lin particularly loves the anecdote about Philadelphia Orchestra violinist Bob de Pasquale, who saw a child playing a violin on a street in Beijing.

“Bob started playing Sibelius and Bach on the kid's small violin,” Lin said. “A crowd of about 100 people gathered around to listen. They had never heard this kind of music before ... 

“This work took up a lot of my life, but I am so proud of the film and the book, which has gone deeper than the film could.” 

For more information, visit Beethoveninbeijing-thebook.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com