Monday, January 24, 2011


The big online kerfuffle yesterday was this story, from the Falun Gong newspaper The Epoch Times:

Chinese Pianist Plays Propaganda Tune at White House
US humiliated in eyes of Chinese by song used to inspire anti-Americanism

... At the White House State dinner on Jan. 19, about six minutes into his set, Lang Lang began tapping out a famous anti-American propaganda melody from the Korean War: the theme song to the movie "Battle on Shangganling Mountain."

... The movie and the tune are widely known among Chinese, and the song has been a leading piece of anti-American propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for decades....

The song Lang Lang played describes how beautiful China is and then near the end has this verse, "When friends are here, there is fine wine /But if the jackal comes /What greets it is the hunting rifle." The "jackal" in the song is the United States.

The name of the song is "My Motherland," originally titled "Big River." In an interview broadcast on Phoenix TV, the first thing Lang Lang is quoted as saying is that he chose the piece.

He then said, "I thought to play ‘My Motherland’ because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song. I think it’s especially good. Also, I like the tune in and of itself, every time I hear it I feel extremely moved."

He expressed this idea more frankly in a later blog post, writing: "Playing this song praising China to heads of state from around the world seems to tell them that our China is formidable, that our Chinese people are united; I feel deeply honored and proud." ...

OK, let's back up. First of all: the song? Here are the lyrics, in Chinese and English. They begin:

This is a great river, its waves are wide and calm
The wind blows through the rice flowers, bearing fragrance to either shore
My home is right there by the water
I am used to hearing the punters' whistle
and seeing the white sails on the boats

This is the beautiful motherland
The place where I grew up
In this expansive stretch of land
Wonderful landscape can be seen everywhere

It's only in the third verse that you get the reference to shooting jackals with a hunting gun -- and if this is a reference to killing Americans in the Korean War, that's something that has to be explained, because it's not clear at all from just the plain words. By contrast, it's obvious that our national anthem is, from beginning to end, about our flag surviving a battle, and our military might. It's know that the words were written about a battle in the War of 1812, a war in which we fought off the British. And yet don't we play the anthem in the presence of British dignitaries? George H.W. Bush took Queen Elizabeth to a baseball game in 1991 and no one thought that we shouldn't play our anthem -- it was played in her presence. Should she have been offended?

Here's a video of the song Lang Lang played as it appears in the original movie:

See anything anti-American in this? Me either. What it reminds me of is an American movie set in World War II. The song comes off as the Chinese equivalent of "America the Beautiful" (um, minus those industrial smokestacks about three minutes in, which our version doesn't have).

Look, this is how patriotic songs (and texts, and statues, and so on) work -- patriotic people feel that evocations of patriotism are benign, that they're about just the good stuff about a country. An American who sings "Over There" or "Yankee Doodle Dandy" or some similar song from the twentieth century doesn't inevitably feel active hatred for, say, the Germans -- the world wars are over and these songs now have just a general patriotic glow. The same with our anthem. I can't help thinking that's what this song means to Lang Lang. (Did I mention that he was born in 1982, decades after the Korean War ended, and after the death of Mao?)

Inviting Lang Lang to the White House wasn't some sort of radical gesture on the part of an America-hating president -- when Hu Jintao was at the White House in 2006, in the Bush administration, Lang Lang was also in attendance. It's not clear whether he performed that day, and, if so, what he played, but he did play at the White House in the pre-Obama era, according to multiple press reports and his own memoir, which was published in 2008. Maybe he played this song then as well -- we wouldn't know, would we? After all, it would be OK if he'd done it in front of a Bush, wouldn't it? (There's said to be a photo of Lang Lang with George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush in a prominent place in the pianist's New York apartment.)

Look, I don't love China. But, as a nation, for better or worse, we've made the decision (from the Nixon era on) that it's not Nazi Germany -- that it doesn't need to be purged of the traces of its past in order to occupy a place in the community of nations. You may not like that decision, but Republicans as well as Democrats have assented to it. And if a pianist who's not yet thirty enthusiastically responds to an official moment of U.S.-China engagement by playing a patriotic Chinese song, well, I've got more important things to worry about. Unlike much of the right blogosphere.

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