Chinese Nationalism in Song, 1949 to present

(A guest post by Charmagne Eckert)

Music as a reflection of nationalistic ideas is particularly clear in the case of China where the rapidly changing internal and external influences that have shaped the Chinese concept of nationalism have had a consistent expression through song.

In the late 19th and early 20th century a movement to forge a common Chinese ethnicity was developed by intellectuals, as a counter measure to Western and Japanese imperialism.  A Chinese identity based upon the Han culture was defined, based on a specific common history, culture and clear geographic territory.

In 1949 at the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong famously said “China has stood up” (though there is some debate over whether he actually uttered that phrase.) March of the Volunteers was declared the official National Anthem of China.  “Arise! Arise! Arise! Millions of hearts with one mind.” (Lyrics here.) Originally a movie song, Tian Han wrote the lyrics while in a nationalist prison in 1935. Although the musical structure is Western, it clearly reflects Mao’s concept that music, film and other media were to be a vehicle for the proletarian revolution. Tragically, its author was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison.

The period of Communist construction in the 1950s saw uplifting songs such as Lei Feng’s Good Example. Despite its revolutionary message it was still predominantly Western in musical structure. The song illustrates Mao’s practice of emphasizing the story of the common worker as a standard for all. Lei Feng was a young soldier whose accidental death in the line of duty was utilized as a model for ideal behavior. The song reflects faith in communist ideals, political warm heartedness for the party and the socialist cause, the revolutionary will to work arduously for self-improvement, the moral quality and self-cultivation of showing fraternal unity and taking pleasure in assisting others.

As a time of purging of all things ‘un-communist’ the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) produced a plethora of revolutionary and political songs. A new form of People’s Opera tried to express the revolutionary fervor of the masses, as in the “The East is Red.” With a melody derived from a folk song, it became a de facto national anthem during the Cultural Revolution.

Deng Xiaoping’s opening to the West created a new economic nationalism which was influenced by the interaction of the Chinese state, democratic movements and exposure to artists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. A leading example is the 1982 song My Chinese Heart by Cantopop lyricist Wong Jim. The music reflects a romanticized imagery of the countryside, culture and tradition, and emotional pride. A strong influence of folk music is evident and traditional Chinese instruments were used alongside western.

The 1980’s brought a growing struggle between nationalism and internationalism with dissatisfaction and the desire for change finding ever bolder expression through the rock music culture that was rapidly developing in the PRC. In A Piece of Red Cloth Cui Jian (referred to as the ‘Father’ of Chinese rock) openly challenges the contradiction between the “open door” policy and the Communist dogma. Additionally, he fully incorporates traditional Chinese instruments into the standard blend of rock guitar, bass, and keyboards. The lyrics include the line “That day you took a piece of red cloth, covered up my eyes and covered up the sky.”

In the 1990s, an anticipation of the return of Hong Kong to the PRC was reflected in a surge of consumerism. Ai Jing’s My 1997 looks forward to the material benefits that access to Hong Kong seems to offer. The song includes the line “Come quick 1997! What kind of clothes do they sell at Yaohan?” There is a paradoxical reflection of the desire for Chinese unity along with an interest in Western style consumerism expressed in the blending of Chinese instruments alongside Western pop tempos, lyric structure and instrumentation. In 1997, Ai Jing herself moved to the United States.

By the year 2000 the PRC state only intervened with popular music if it was thought to be directly contrary to its interests. When the immensely popular pop Taiwanese singer A-Mei sang Taiwan’s national anthem at the inauguration of its President Chen Shuibian, it was seen by the mainland government as her endorsement of Taiwanese independence and thus a direct challenge to the state’s authority. The response of the Chinese government was instantaneous – billboards with A-Mei’s image, a Sprite commercial she stared in and all other popular images of her were removed from public view. Only a year later the ban was removed; perhaps with the intention of appearing more tolerant to the International Olympic Committee.

Now in 2013 A-Mei is a mega rock/pop star throughout Asia and arguably a powerful symbol of the new Chinese international nationalism: eclectic, commercially aware, and blending traditional Chinese and Taiwanese imagery with Western and world culture.

In the Inner Mongolian region of China that borders Russia and Mongolia, a new Rap movement addresses the tension between ethnic nationalism, Chinese identity and international culture, opening the possibility of even greater musical complexities both artistically and as a socio-political vehicle of communication.

For more on this topic, see:

Ho, Wai-Chung, “Social change and nationalism in China’s popular songs”, Social History, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 31, No. 4 (2006) (Primary source)

Gao, Helen, “Diaoyu in our heart: The revealing contradictions of Chinese nationalism”, The Atlantic, (2012)

Steen, Andreas, “The history of Chinese popular music,” website: rockinchina.com

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2 thoughts on “Chinese Nationalism in Song, 1949 to present

  1. It is a very insightful piece on the evolution of Chinese nationalism and its reflection on songs. This deserves to be a full length article , for it aroused a lot of questions about the nature of the national and patriotic songs representing the varying image of China at home and abroad. With my limited knowledge I can add a small piece of information that may be partially related to the main theme of the article. This is the creation of Silk Route Ensemble by the leading Chinese music exponent Yo-Yo-Ma. As implied by the name itself, it is an international music troop which include singers and musicians across East, South and Central Asia, Europe and America. Committed to the notion of ancient silk route , this group expands the message of cultural fusion and interface. Considering the growing position of China in international arena, the creation of the ensemble seems symbolic.However, the message of the ensemble is rather symbiotic and interactive rather imposing and dogmatic from Chinese perspective. The presence of such musical forum , for a change , may alter the stereo typical image of China to the outer world ,from an economic invader to an ambassador of cultural eclecticism .

    • Sorry, earlier I read the article without seeing the videos. It is a wonderful journey through strangely evolving culture reflecting on thoughts and expressed through melodies. The one on cultural revolution had been a splendid representation of the collective human power as against the reactionary forces. However, the blinkering effect the revolution might have had, the great victory bringing a collective cultural appraisal of the mass still seems inspiring enough!

      But , to be true, the song how the red flag had turned into a cover on the eyes that forbade the vision to the open sky, is heart wrenching , and one feels sad for both, the revolution and the individual who suffered the repression!

      The rest of the songs are somehow more intent on convergence than maintaining the national tune intact! A-Mei’s Taiwanese song is melodious and well spirited though.

      Hope, the Western influence in tune and presentation someday over shadow the Chinese originality!

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