In the first part of this series of two articles on Chinese historical propaganda songs we looked at the lyrics and themes in songs that were popular prior to China’s opening up. In this second part we investigate how lyrics and themes changed after opening up.
After the revolutionary period, in which individual emotions were denied, people were craving for different music (Baranovitch 2003: 12). During this period foreign music, among many other cultural products, influenced Chinese people’s aesthetics. In my exploration I will focus on the 1990s since it was approximately 10 years after opening up, and many changes had appeared in society. Furthermore, it was prior to the period of growing internet penetration, which can be considered a different era owing to the wide distribution of music. Internet and internet censorship require more research than can be covered in this article.
What are the Communist elements?
One of the most well-known songs from this period is Great China , published in 1995. This song is performed by Gao Feng, who also composed the song and wrote the lyrics. English translation of its lyrics from Baranovitch (2003: 210-211):
We all have one home, which is called China
Plenty of brothers and sisters and a nice landscape
There are two winding dragons at home, these are the Yangtze River and the Yellow River…
Look at that Great Wall of ten thousand li shuttle back and forth in the clouds
Look at the Qinghai Xizang [Tibet] Plateau, vaster than the sky
Our great China, yah! What a big home…
I want to accompany her forever and ever…
The most frequently repeated words are “our great China” and “a big home”. All the “brothers and sisters” belong to this “big home”. These lyrics emphasize national unity. Moreover, typical national symbols are mentioned in the lyrics. The Great Wall is one of the most frequently used symbols for China. The Yangtze River is the longest river in China and the Yellow river is known as the “mother river” for all Chinese people. The dragon is also a typical cultural symbol in China. In ancient times, the dragon is associated with the emperor and power. In modern times, the dragon is a spiritual and cultural symbol in China, representing prosperity and superiority. Chinese people consider themselves to be the descendants of dragons. When the beautiful landscape is praised in the song, Tibet is also mentioned as part of the “big home” although the official authority over Tibet is a controversial issue in international society.
In Great China, typical symbols for China are mentioned, the beauty of the country is praised. “Brothers and sisters” all belong to the “big home”. Therefore, we see themes of national pride unity.
The aforementioned symbols for China are not only present in this well-known song but can also be found in other popular songs. One example is My Chinese heart. Since Hong Kong singer Zhang Mingmin performed the song at the Chinese New Year Gala in 1984, it has spread widely. These are the lyrics and translations as found on Wikipedia:
My Chinese Heart
Music by Wang Fulin. Lyrics by Huangzhan.
Mountains and rivers are only in my dreams
I’ve not set my foot on the old country for ages
Yet nothing can convert
My Chinese heart
Though I rig myself out in a foreign suit
My heart is still Chinese
My forefathers branded every inch of me
With the Chinese mark
Great Yangtze, Great Wall
Yellow Mountain, Yellow River
Weigh so heavily on my bosom
Whenever or wherever I am
You are always dear to me
The blood surging in my heart
Echoes China, China
Even I am in an alien land
Nothing can convert my Chinese heart.
The singer, Zhang Mingmin, is from Hong Kong. In 1984, Hong Kong was still a British colony. In this song, a young man grows up in a western environment, wearing a “foreign suit”. He has not been in China for a long time, however, he dreams about “mountains and rivers” of China. He is originally Chinese, and he has a “Chinese heart” which will never be changed.
Both in Great China and My Chinese heart, the Great Wall, the Yangtze River and the Yellow River are mentioned as typical symbols of China. However, I perceive them differently in those two songs. In Great China, those symbols are praised as pride of the Chinese “brother and sisters”. While in My Chinese heart, those symbols are connecting China and Chinese abroad who were born outside mainland China. Those symbols bring the Chinese abroad back to mainland China, back to their forefathers and their origin. These symbols represent their authentic Chinese spirit and sense of belonging.
Another comparable song about all Chinese people both in China and abroad is called Chinese. It was performed by Hong Kong singer Liu Dehua. Translation is from Chow (2007: 99):
Music by Chen Yaochuan. Lyrics by Li Anxiu.
Same tears, same pain
The sufferings we had stayed in our hearts
Same blood, same race
The dream we will have awaits our exploration
Hand in hand, you and me, keep our chins up, march on
Let the world know we are Chinese
Chinese was published in 1997, the year in which sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. The song uses a very broad definition of Chinese people. No matter where you are and where you were born, as long as you are the “same race”, you should proudly “let the world know we are Chinese”. What we see here once again are national pride and a calling for national unity.
In the pre-opening up period, we saw songs praising the CCP and its leaders, if there is one such song in the 1990s, it would be Spring Story. It was performed by Dong Wenhua. English translation is from Baranovitch (2003: 198):
Music by Wang Yougui and lyrics by Ye Xuquan & Jiang Kairu.
In the spring of 1979
There was an old man
On the coast of China’s South Sea
Who draw a circle
As if in a myth, many cities suddenly appeared on the horizon
And many golden mountains appeared as if in a miracle
Spring thunders, ah! Awakened both sides of the Great Wall
Spring sunlight, ah! Warmed up both banks of the Yangtze River
Ah! China! Ah! China!
You stride in new steps that are full of power and grandeur
You walk into a spring in which everything looks fresh and gay…
In this song, we did not see any CCP leader’s name, however everyone knows “an old man” refers to Deng Xiaopeng who implemented the opening up policy. “A circle” refers to the Special Economic Zones. Then, the appearance of “golden mountains” implies that the wealth increases. Here we do see the praise of a CCP leader, but in a more subtle way. Furthermore, symbols for China such as the Great Wall and the Yangtze River are also used.
From above four songs, we can see that Communist elements in this period are national unity and praise of CCP leaders. However, unlike during the pre-opening up period, national unity doesn’t just refer to mainland Chinese, it also includes the Chinese diaspora. Praise of CCP leaders is no longer explicit.
How is music presented and promoted?
By the mid-1990s, 75% of the country’s population had access to television. In cities as much as 90% of households had at least one TV. Television was the dominant mass medium in 1990s (Baranovitch 2003: 1994). Like today, all television stations were under control of the CCP.
There were various ways in which music was promoted through television. Establishment of the Chinese Music Television channel in the mid-1990s took control over Chinese music to a new level. The channel was presenting songs almost non-stop and covered many topics, but of course with emphasis on nationalism (Baranovitch 2003: 195-197). Great China became widely known thanks to the TV channel’s repeated broadcasting of the song.
The Chinese New Year Gala is another incomparable opportunity to promote music. Watching the Chinese New Year Gala can be considered a family tradition. Songs can become hits and artists can become celebrities overnight. Artists fight for a chance to perform on this show. All aforementioned four songs have been part of the Gala. Great China was performed twice in 1996 and 1998 respectively.
It is interesting to see is that in 1996 the song was performed by Gao Feng and another Mainland singer, while in 1998, the singers were Mao Ning, Liu Dehua and Zhang Xinzhe from mainland China, Hongkong and Taiwan respectively. With the three of them singing “We all have one home, which is called China”, every viewer received the message that Hong Kong had returned to the “big home”, mentioned in the lyrics, in 1997. The PRC considers Taiwan to be part of the nation, therefore Zhang Xinzhe’s inclusion implies that Taiwan will also one day return to the “big home”. Furthermore, the name of the song was changed from China to Great China, which suits the theme of reunification. Other performances of Great China together with Chinese and My Chinese Heart by Hong Kong singers created a new identity of the Chinese. The differences between mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas communities were blurred and a single, global Chinese family was created (Gorfinkel 2018: 161).
Various campaigns were organized to promote songs praising the CCP, for example for the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Communist Party of China in July 2011 singing contests were organized. Songs were required to “praised the Party, praised the motherland”. The region where the campaign was most actively promoted was Chongqing, where around 30 million people were required to participate in a “chorus of praise for the ruling party”. Songs like Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China were sung by thousands of people in big events (Gorfinkel 2018: 41-42).
Various music competitions were financially supported by the government, having to meet certain requirements. By doing so ordinary people were encouraged to participate in singing songs that were considered appropriate according to official artistic standard (Baranovitch 2003: 213-215). Pop concerts were also sponsored by the government when they met certain requirements, such as letting Gao Feng sing Great China as the final song.
After opening up, there was a far wider range of music available to the people. Instead of loosening control, the CCP has created an unwritten cooperative system with musicians. A politically correct song will be rewarded by intensive promotion on television (Baranovitch 2003: 191), as was the case with Great China (Baranovitch 2003: 234) and Chinese (Gorfinkel 2018: 127).
Comparing two periods and conclusion
Communist elements such as national unity, praise for the CCP and its leaders are present in Chinese music in both the period before and after opening up. In the later period, more national pride is shown in the songs and praise for the CCP and its leaders is done in a more subtle way compared to the pure worship during the earlier period. National unity in the later period was enlarged from mainland Chinese to all Chinese in the world including Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad.
In the earlier period, existing folk songs were given new political lyrics to increase familiarities for people. With pamphlets and performance, the songs were promoted in areas controlled by the CCP. After the establishment of the PRC, a nationwide radio network was established for promoting party ideas. After opening up, television became the dominant mass medium used for promoting songs through a diverse range of programs, among which the Chinese Music Television channel and the Chinese New Year Gala played important roles. Furthermore, all level of regional and national state sponsored music competitions and pop concerts enabled participants to reinforce the official ideology. The CCP has successfully adapted to the market economy and created mutual benefits for artists, especially famous singers, and has thereby enabled the official ideology to reach millions of people.
Finally, based on my personal experience, I assume that education also helped to spread popularity of songs. As mentioned, during 1920s and mid-1940s the CCP was involved in education in Shanghai. After the establishment of the PRC, their involvement would be stronger. The role of music with communist elements in education could be a subject for further research.
Baranovitch (2003) – Baranovitch, Bimrod. China New Voices: Popular Music, Ethnicity, Gender, and Politics, 1978-1997, Berkely, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2003.
Chow (2007) – Chow, Y.F. Descendants of the dragon, sing! In E. Jurriëns and J. de Kloet (eds.)
Cosmopatriots: On Distant Belongings and Close Encounters. New Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 95– 104. 2007
Gorfinkel (2018) – Gorfinkel, Lauren. Chinese Television and National Identity Construction, Abingdon & New York: Routledge, 2018
My Chinese heart (Wiki) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Chinese_Heart. Accessed on May 26, 2019
 In this article, I only use English translation for all the Chinese songs.