The 2024 Cambridge University Chinese Orchestra SocietyCambridge University Chinese Orchestra Society

As a second-year Natural Sciences student, Simin Wu carries an extensive workload. Yet amid his studies, he has taken on an additional leadership role as president of the Cambridge University Chinese Orchestra Society (CUCOS) from 2023 to 2024. In steering the largest student-led Chinese orchestra in Europe, Wu aims to fuse his lifelong passion for Chinese music with bridging eastern and western cultural divides.

Since being founded in 2007, CUCOS has included both Chinese and western instruments from the erhu to the cello to make Chinese music accessible: “For Chinese instruments, we feature the erhu, dizi, pipa and zheng etc, while on the western side we primarily have cellos, violins, piano and even drum sets, harp and accordion,” Wu explains. This diversity drives an ethos of inclusion that sets CUCOS apart from many peer music societies at Cambridge.

“Western people generally know little about Chinese culture, especially in the music realm”

Yet, as current president: “When the society was handed over to me, there were only two of us in the committee,” Wu recalls, regarding the orchestra’s state after the pandemic hit and graduations took their toll. He explains the intense rebuilding effort: “We really emphasised a lot on publicising our orchestra leading up to the Freshers’ Fair. I also brought some Chinese painting style postcards, which attracted a lot of attention. Even before the fair formally started we began extensive posting and publicity efforts.” Through this vigorous outreach, CUCOS staged an impressive regeneration at the 2023 Freshers’ Fair. The orchestra now holds weekly rehearsals with over 40 regular members under the dedicated efforts of the committee members subsequently welcomed to the society, most of whom are Chinese. This regrown ensemble diligently prepares concerts and events aimed at community bonding and cross-cultural education.

Wu faces considerable challenges in engaging wider audiences unfamiliar with or indifferent towards traditional Chinese music. He acknowledges the regret where classical western orchestras thrive on campus, while CUCOS pursues openness but garners less visibility. “The audience or musicians interested in Chinese music” remain comparatively small, Wu notes.

“For us as Chinese students, we have multiple channels to get to know western culture, but the western people generally know little about Chinese culture, especially in the music realm. That might be a great pity,” he says. Several factors perpetuate this awareness gap. Chinese culture spreads overseas primarily through profit-driven pan-entertainment prioritising popular appeal over in-depth or historical connections. So, while Chinese cuisine enjoys recognition, traditional music stays relatively marginalised. Especially among younger generations immersed in rapid digital content consumption, the proclivity is low for engaging artforms like Chinese orchestra. The dominance and export strength of western classical motifs and Korean pop culture also relegate Chinese offerings as less palatable abroad owing to their cultural roots.

In strategising how to advance Chinese music against these currents, Wu sees choosing modernisation over preservation as imperative for staying relevant, not as concession. He actively arranges neo-folk styled works alongside more traditional orchestra pieces to resonate with contemporary youth. This modern genre infuses pop influences into classical Chinese music, amplified through elevated incorporation of western instruments.

“Fewer and fewer younger generations are interested in the authentically traditional culture or music”

Wu positions CUCOS as an arbiter gently moving tradition forward rather than an orthodox bastion. “I would say it’s like a sort of development or evolution, because that’s really the trend we are observing even within Chinese society. Fewer and fewer younger generations are interested in the authentically traditional culture or music.” He also spotlights multimedia concert booklets and member briefings contextualising musical selections to inspire deeper emotional emphasis during performances.

Despite its niche challenges, CUCOS has nurtured a culturally bonded community at Cambridge while showcasing the diversity of Chinese music through successful concerts like this year’s Chinese New Year Gala. The upcoming March event at the West Road Concert Hall is set to once again illuminate the society, featuring student compositions alongside solo instrument performances that span a variety of styles.

Looking ahead, Wu hopes to catalyse cross-cultural exposure between western and Chinese music by facilitating exchange. “I hope to facilitate more interactions with western orchestras. Musicians discovering unfamiliar instruments and audiences accessing new cultures breeding appreciation – that’s my purpose,” Wu states. He envisions collaborations between CUCOS and western ensembles, so that unfamiliar instruments spark musicians’ intrigue while joint repertoire expands audiences’ ears. More diverse committee membership could also enable connecting with a wider student base.


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On a granular level, the partnership with Robinson College securing rehearsal venues in exchange for a yearly concert spotlights the creative reciprocities enabling CUCOS to continue thriving. However, Cambridge’s minority music circles often remain segregated without many institutional bridges to foster intermingling. Wu appreciates college festivals arranged to incentivise musical collaboration between individuals, but notes: “It would be great if there’s a university-sized platform or like chance for different music groups to collaborate with each other.”

When asked what motivates assuming such an intensive leadership role for a niche orchestra, Wu emphasises the meaning of building community and continuity. “I feel like it’s more than just an orchestra. Instead, it’s also a platform for people to connect with each other, to share their opinions, experiences, and to make friends,” he shares. Despite limited resources and recognition, Wu persists through the trials because of his firm belief in music’s power to enlighten cultural understanding. He invites more students, regardless of background, to experience the diverse colours of Chinese music. And through CUCOS’s resonation with modern times and celebration of heritage, Wu is composing a bold new movement fusing east and west.