Tan made arrangements of the tunes using whatever folk instruments and other noisemakers were available (including things such as woks and agricultural implements) creating often fantastic effects. Tan played the erhu, the one-string traditional Chinese fiddle. By the time he was 17, he was the musical leader of the village, playing celebrations, weddings, and funerals. Then a riverboat carrying a Peking-style Chinese Opera troupe capsized, killing many musicians. Tan was immediately sent to join the company as a replacement.
When the Central Conservatory reopened in 1978, Tan won one of thirty slots for composition students over thousands of applicants. He was taught by Li Yinghai and Zhao Xingdao, and visiting lecturers Alexander George, Hans Werner Henze, Chou Wen-Chung, Isang Yun, George Crumb, and Toru Takemitsu. Tan became a leader in a developing "New Wave" of art when he wrote, at age 22, a symphony (Li Sao), based on a fourth century B.C.E. Hunan lament. The work, for western symphony orchestra, won a special "incentive" prize at the first National Symphonic Competition.
Tan received international recognition in 1983 when his String Quartet (Feng Ya Song) won the Weber Prize from Dresden, making Tan the first Chinese composer to win an international prize since the Communist Revolution of 1949. That same year, Party officials initiated a program attacking the New Wave as "spiritual pollution" and specifically cited Tan. But the campaign was canceled, and Tan continued in his chosen path.
His international breakthrough was an orchestral work called On Taoism (1985), inspired by the death of his grandmother. It was recognized as a remarkable assertion of Chinese esthetics and musical material in the medium of the Western symphony orchestra.
Columbia University offered Tan a fellowship in 1986. Tan moved to New York (where he still makes his home) and worked on his doctorate in music. His student-period works are in an international atonal style, but his true nature reappeared in the Eight Colors for String Quartet (1988), using Peking Opera material. Then he wrote Nine Songs (1989), a revolutionary work in the form of a ritual opera using fifty newly created ceramic instruments.
Tan developed a concept of the orchestra as a form of ritual, a major feature of his subsequent work. His major prizes include the Suntory Prize Commission of 1992 and the Grawemeyer Prize for his 1996 opera Marco Polo. In both cases, he was the youngest composer ever to win.
He has been associated with major events of his time. He composed Symphony 1997 (Heaven Earth Mankind) for the transfer of Hong Kong, incorporating popular song, Chinese opera, solo cello, orchestra, and recordings of the great tomb bells of Hubei, which were cast in 433 B.C.E.
In 1999, he composed 2000 Today: A World Symphony for the Millennium for use in the BBC's worldwide 27-hour broadcast of the arrival of the millennium.
His rapidly growing catalog and discography includes two film scores: for Denzel Washington's film, Fallen, and Ang Lee's martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which unites ethnic and symphonic music, cello performances by Yo Yo Ma
, and songs by Asian pop star CoCo Lee.