Cover Story

Parallels in Music and Literature

An Interview with Bright Sheng and Yan Lianke

To a good many people, music and literature are two domains that seem out of reach for students at a science- and technology-centric university like HKUST. This, of course, is a myth. At the IAS, we recognize the profound benefits that the arts offer to our future innovators. Fostering new ways of thinking and provoking imagination aside, the very essence of arts education is to provide our students with a window onto the creative process. 

Albert Einstein, arguably one of the greatest minds of all time and a gifted musician, once said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” and he often attributed his scientific accomplishments to music. One can certainly argue that not every artist is a great scientist, but they do share a few common traits, such as seeing things from a different perspective and having the ability to articulate complex thoughts.

The IAS has been engaging in knowledge exchange beyond scientific research. With two IAS Professors-at-Large, Professor Bright SHENG and Professor YAN Lianke, our students and postdoctoral fellows have access to an incredible array of performing arts and literary activities alongside research in their fields. Here, these two award-winning artists talk about their journeys at HKUST and tell us what it takes to make a great piece of work.

\\  The greatest scientists are artists as well.  \\

Why did you choose to work with the IAS? What is your view on Hong Kong’s arts and cultural scene?


My relationship with HKUST began in 2011 when I was appointed as the Y K Pao Distinguished Visiting Professor of Cultural Studies. At that time, I was mainly in charge of The Intimacy of Creativity (IC), an annual event promoting dialogue between young student composers and eminent performers at the University.

Last year I was honored to receive the IAS Helmut & Anna Pao Sohmen Professorship-at-Large. In this new role, I am here to program Music Alive! and a series of other projects outside IC. The IAS provides me with an office with great scenery and a piano. I am able to work quietly and develop my vision of bridging Asian and Western cultures through music.

In my opinion, Hong Kong, infused by some of the oldest Chinese culture and traditions, is probably one of the freest places in Asia in terms of spiritual thinking. Because of its historical context, Hong Kong is diverse and has all kinds of artists and musicians, providing more possibilities for arts and cultural exchange than any other place in the world.


The HKUST environment is a paradise to me. Inspiration always comes from the world around us, and this place, with the sea and mountains, can change one’s heart and boost creativity.

The IAS offers me much more support than I could ask for and has a diverse student body. The Institute values the importance of literature and creative arts. Many students who attend my creative writing lectures are cross-registered from other local universities. Although they are of different ages, they are all literature lovers.

I don’t think anyone would say that Hong Kong is a cultural desert anymore. It is an oasis instead! With the high level of freedom, people dare to explore and lead new styles in literature. No other city populated by seven million people has the same influence and vigor as Hong Kong.

What about your interactions with students?

To what extent do these interactions contribute to artistic creation?


We are not here to turn our students into artists, but some of them do become musicians in the end. Our goal is to offer them hands-on experience in music and the arts, to help them understand what it means to be a creative artist. I always tell my students to write something that excites them. 

Composers and performers are often too much into composing and performing. Sometimes, they neglect potential collaborative relationships. The IC project aims to regain the intimate relationships between performers and composers, as well as students and communities. It is a reciprocal creative process, I think.



Some HKUST students have excellent writing skills and their works sometimes surprise me. One semester, a female business student wrote an erotic love story with vivid depictions of the city, the people, and the society. The open-mindedness and boldness of her writing, free from any moral restrictions, is something that many mainland students, even those from my master class at Renmin University of China, cannot match.

My mission here is to break the myth of literature and make students fall in love with reading and writing. To say that one must have talent to study literature is an exaggeration. Of course, being a professional writer is one thing; writing as a hobby is another. Writing has power, and HKUST students who are not in liberal arts majors can have great potential in literary writing.

Both of you experienced the Cultural Revolution.

How did it influence your lives and creative processes?


Since I was young, I have known that I am destined to do something different from others, and this is part of my survival instinct. I have the DNA of independence and rebellion! During the Cultural Revolution, I was sent to Qinghai in Eastern Tibet for 7 years. At that time, I was 15 years old. I taught myself music theory and studied the local folk music, which had a great influence on me and became my inspiration in composition. 

People who survived the Cultural Revolution have a different perspective on life. We look at life differently. The ups and downs do not matter. I never feel dismayed and only work on my career according to my own capability.


For someone like me who lived in a village, the primary motivation to write at that time was to move to the city. Because of the Cultural Revolution, the only valuable books that I read before the age of 20 were Dream of the Red Chamber and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. They made me realize that there are two worlds: one in real life, and another one in books. I saw that young people who wrote excellent books and articles were redeployed to the city and earned new “social status”. I was eager to change my fate, so I started writing. 

It may sound a bit pessimistic, but I think the family you are born into determines your fate and the kind of literature you write. Somehow I am against the notion of “observational learning” in real life. In my opinion, good literature writing is in fact related to the writer’s sensitivity and appreciation of life. 

With the Western influence on Eastern culture, as an artist how do you take advantage of and strike a balance between the two cultures?


When learning about different cultures, you have to get into the situation and the context, but most importantly you need to admire your own culture. There is a Chinese saying, “師古而不泥古”, which means that you learn from the past but you are not restricted by it. It took me a long time to figure this out when I first arrived in the US, because reflecting both sides of both cultures in my work is essential.

As an artist, I always remember where I came from; my roots are fundamental. With talent, I can express myself freely from what I have learned and find my own way, my own attitude and temperament. It is like a process of catharsis. Thanks to my cross-cultural background, I can be a bridge linking Eastern and Western musical genres and techniques.


My peer writers, the generation between the ‘50s and ‘60s, are greatly influenced by Western culture, although they may not admit it. The ‘80s was a time of innovation, and every one of us strived to absorb global literature.

I think every culture is unique, so when we talk about ancient and modern, West and East, one should learn about the differences, not for the sake of proving that the East is better than the West, but to nourish our own culture by realizing the differences.

What is the relationship between arts and emotions? How do art forms influence each other, and how do we find their meanings?


All art forms have the same function: to move and touch people. I am always interested in Chinese and Western literature. Although I have very limited training, I am inspired by poetry and I particularly admire Romanticism, which has a simple way of expressing feelings.

Music is a living art, and art itself is emotion. Even now, science still cannot adequately interpret why music can touch the human heart and evoke powerful feelings, taking you to a different world. ​​​​​


Different art forms penetrate each other. Folk music is abundant in China and is a valuable source of inspiration for me. You can also say that my novels are like paintings, with every word and sentence being part of the depiction.

Literature writing is no doubt an expression of emotion. The greatest stories share emotional experiences. Literature is also like the wind on the river. No wind can change the course of a river instantly, but it may have long-term effects, like the impact of literature on people.


Professor Bright SHENG (盛宗亮)

IAS Helmut & Anna Pao Sohmen Professor-at-Large Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition, University of Michigan

Born in Shanghai, China, in 1955, Sheng received informal piano lessons from his mother when he was 4 years old. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to Qinghai, where he performed as a pianist and percussionist in the provincial music and dance theater. He was among the first students admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he earned an undergraduate degree in music composition. He then obtained his MA from Queens College, where he studied composition and conducting under Leonard Bernstein, who later became his mentor. He gained his Doctor of Musical Arts from Columbia University in 1993. In 2013, Sheng was awarded a Doctor of Humanities honoris causa from HKUST.

Sheng’s accomplishments span across stage, orchestral, chamber and vocal works, bringing the East and West together through his musical vision. His commissions and performances have involved the world’s greatest orchestras and foremost musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Slatkin, Kurt Masur and Leonard Bernstein. Sheng was commissioned by the White House to create a work to honor the then Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji during a state visit, and composed music for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony. He was a recipient of the highly prized MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Professor YAN Lianke (閻連科)

IAS Sin Wai Kin Professor-at-Large of Chinese Culture Professor of School of Liberal Arts, Renmin University of China

Originally from Henan, China, Yan is one of China’s most distinctive contemporary writers. He is based in Beijing. He joined the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) when he was 20. Yan graduated from a Political Education degree at Henan University in 1985, and received a degree in Literature from PLA Academy of Art in 1991.

Yan began his writing career in 1979, and has published more than 11 full-length novels, including Lenin’s Kiss, Four Books, Summer Sunset and Years After Years, plus 10 novellas, including The Years, Months, Days, Golden Cave, Marrow, and Toward Southeast; and numerous volumes of prose and discourse. His books have been translated into over 20 languages, and received numerous awards including the Lu Xun Literature Prize and the Lao She Literature Prize in China. Yan is a member of the Chinese Writers Association. He was the first Chinese writer to earn the Franz Kafka Literature Prize, and has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, among others. In 2017, Yan was conferred a Doctor of Letters honoris causa by HKUST.