Chen Yi was born in 1953 in Guangzhou, China. She grew up in a very musical household, where she was exposed to Western classical music.
Chen Yi began piano lessons at the age of three and started violin at the age of four and proved to have an exceptional talent. In 1968, during the “Cultural Revolution” Chen’s family possessions were seized and she, her parents, brother and sister were sent to different parts of China to receive “re-education through labor.”
Chen Yi recounts: “As with many other Chinese “intellectuals” during the Cultural Revolution, my family and I couldn’t escape from the suffering of having our home searched, of being compelled to perform forced labor, of having to engage in public self-criticism, and of having to live our lives under the persistent stress of political pressure. The target of the Cultural Revolution was always the people who had an education, especially if they had been exposed to Western culture.”
Despite this traumatic upheaval, Chen Yi would continue her devotion to music, performing Paganini-style arrangements of revolutionary songs on her violin. It was also during this time that Chen heard authentic Chinese music for the first time. The discovery would become a source of spiritual strength for her, and forge a bond between her and the farmers and their families.
At age seventeen, her ordeal ended and she returned to Guangzhou and began working as concertmaster in the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe in Guangzhou, where she remained for the next eight years. When the Beijing Central Conservatory reopened in 1978, Chen Yi was among the first students accepted. In 1986, she became the first woman in China to receive a Master’s Degree in Composition.
Following earning her Master’s, Chen was invited by Chou Wen-chung to pursue her doctorate at Columbia, where she also studied with electronic music pioneer, Mario Davidovsky. Following the completion of her doctoral studies in 1993, Chen Yi’s music literally exploded onto the western musical scene.
She has received numerous awards and grants, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1996) and the National Endowment for the Arts (1994), as well as the Lieberson Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1996). She has been a recipient of the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2001-04), and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005.
Chen Yi has, since 1998, served as the Lorena Searcey Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Music Composition at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.