The Musical Career of Belle James in China

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Feb 112015

These days I get a steady stream of news about business, academic, and cultural connections between Tennessee and China. This was not always the case, of course. Because of World War II, for example, there was an entire generation of Tennesseans who went to China, fought there, and occasionally stayed.

But by far the most consistent connection has been with religious missionaries, who have been going to China from Tennessee since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. Belle James is a more recent example:

James started working as a ballet accompanist when she was 16 and was teaching piano in her native Malaysia by the time she was 18. After earning her bachelor’s degree in piano performance, James put her musical career on hold for seven years when she and her husband moved to China. Then one day she got a call that a professional soprano from Denmark needed an accompanist for a recital, and “everything opened up,” James remembers.

She spent the next seven years playing for professional singers who visited China and producing musical events, the most important of which was a 2010 Christmas concert of Handel’s “Messiah” sung by the Chinese minority people, the Miao. “We made history that day,” says James, noting China is a Communist country where preaching was not allowed at the service. “It was very cold that day, zero degrees, and still 3,000 people came.”

Another treasured memory is of a Tibetan monk who attended one of her worship concerts in China. “When I started to play the piano, he said, ‘I saw a vision of lotus flowers floating down from heaven, and I could smell them, too,'” James remembers. “At the end, he came forward and accepted Christ. I didn’t do anything. I said, ‘I’m just going to play and bless somebody with my music.'”