Propaganda Songs – Part 1: Before opening up

Music is one of the fundamental art forms. When we listen to music, we are not merely listening to a “sequence of sounds”; we have certain images in our mind. We might link the music to a certain colour or even a story (Samama 2016: 27). Music plays an important role in our lives and certainly has an influence on us. I notice that when I’m in a singing mood – mostly when I feel cheerful – I not only hum the melody of a song, but often also sing the lyrics. Surprisingly, the songs I tend to hum have one thing in common: they are very communistic. For example, the lyrics are “I love my country”, “China is getting stronger”, “We are all Chinese” etc. Certainly, this behaviour does not only happen to me, but whole generations of people.

I was born in China in 1982. In the 1980s, when China was opening up to the world under the Open Door Policy. Prior to this, the Chinese economy was under full control of the government. After opening up, more investments from abroad flooded into China and the economy started to depend more on the market. The same goes for music: before opening up, music was under the control of the government and the ruling party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the theme was revolutionary. After 1980s, together with foreign investments coming to China, music from outside arrived and influenced Chinese people’s taste.

If the 80’s generation was growing up with an opening China and was influenced by diverse music, why are they still unconsciously under great influence of music with communist elements? Since the Open Door Policy of the 1980s was an important turning point, I will examine the music before and after opening up. I choose four typical songs from each period based on the popularity and my personal experience. When I examine the communist elements, I primarily focus on the lyrics. In two articles, I would like to examine what the communist elements in Chinese music are and how those songs were presented and promoted inside China, before and after the 1980s. 

Historical background and Open Door Policy

Starting with the first Opium War in the mid-19th century, China faced attacks by western powers. Losing this and other wars, the Chinese government was forced to sign several unequal treaties. The hundred years from the first Opium War to the mid-20 century is referred to as “the century of humiliation”. Anti-imperialism has been on top of the agenda for Chinese politics since the mid-19th century. In 1949, the CCP defeated the Nationalist Party, took power over Mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and established a new political power: The Republic of China [1]. Until the 1970s, China was still quite isolated from the western world.

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping gradually seized power. Among other problems, the biggest challenge for the CCP was leading China to economic prosperity.  China was poor at that time. There was as little as $100 million in hard currency reserves in the central bank (Xiang 2010: 204). Deng initiated the idea to open China’s door and welcome foreign investment, to embrace market economy. In 1979, Special Economic Zones in Zhuhai, Shenzhen, Shantou and Xiamen were established (Spence 2013: 605). Since then, many foreign investments have been coming into China. Huge numbers of migrant workers from poor rural areas came to work in factories at low wages. The Chinese economy was booming. Poverty has been alleviated for hundreds of millions of people (Xiang 2010: 206).

The influence of opening up has been enormous. First, the Chinese economy developed rapidly. Chinese people became more affluent. It enabled them to buy things they previously could not afford. Second, foreign investment was accompanied by foreign immigrants and foreign cultures including music. There have been more exchanges between China and the rest of the world. Third, the Chinese economical system has radically changed from a government-controlled economy to a market economy.

Music before Opening Up policy

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established in 1921. Music related to the CCP from years before opening up can be traced back to the 1930s, starting from the anti-Japanese war. After winning this war in 1945, a civil war immediately followed. Shortly after the establishment of the PRC, the Cultural Revolution took place from 1966 to 1976. The period from the 1930s till the Open Door Policy was in general a revolutionary period.

During the Cultural Revolution arts and music had their own characteristics. Songs focussed mainly on class-struggle and were less popular in the later times (Gao 2015: 475). I have therefore decided not to focus on the songs created during this period.

What are the communist elements?

I will start by examining the Chinese national anthem: The March of the Volunteers. It initially was a song for the film Feng Yun Er Nü ‘Children of Troubled Times’, released in 1935. It soon spread and became very popular around China. Two years later, the Japanese invaded the country. This song had just the right theme and was very influential during the Sino-Japanese war. In an interview (Dangshi: 2011) a journalist from the United States recalled Chinese soldiers singing this song and fighting fiercely with the Japanese soldiers in a crucial battle. These are the lyrics:

The March of the Volunteers

Music by Ni Er and lyrics by Tian Han

Get up! Those who won’t be slaves!
With our flesh and blood,
let’s build a new Great Wall!
As the Chinese people face its greatest danger,
everyone’s forced to let out one last cry.
Get up! Get up! Get up!
We’re millions with one heart.
Against the enemies’ fire! March on!
Against the enemies’ fire! March on!
March on! March on! On!

Listen to the song

We can see that “built a new Great Wall” and “one heart” are calling for the unification of Chinese people to stop the invasion by enemies just like the purpose of the Great Wall. “Against the enemies’ fire”, “March on! March on! On!” are to encourage the people – especially the soldiers – to fight against the enemy.

Patriotic music in war time does not only occur in China. However, the CCP also used music as a political tool to create socialist images, to let music enter the lives of peasants and workers and finally liberate them (Hung 1996: 905-906). That is why the CCP promoted The March of the Volunteers into an ode to the socialist movement and an attack on their enemy: the Nationalist Party (Hung: 1996: 902). In this case, the “enemies’ fire” does not refer to the Japanese but the nationalists. The brave soldiers are the Communists.

During the anti-Japanese war and civil war, all music can be classified into two categories. Besides war songs like The March of Volunteers, another category is songs praising the CCP and its leader (Hung 1996: 925).

The typical song to praise the CCP leader is this all-time well-known song: The East Is Red. Translation of the lyrics by Hung (1996: 920).

The East Is Red

The east is red,
The sun is rising.
China has brought forth Mao Zedong.
He works for the welfare of the people,
He is the people’s great saviour.

Listen to the song

This is pure worship of the leader Mao Zedong. It compares him to the sun. He is described as a great man who cares about every Chinese person’s life and works for their happiness. Mao Zedong is a big hero, is the “people’s great saviour”. The melody of this song derives from a Shaanxi folk song. In 1945, songwriters Liu Chi, Wang Dahua and others edited this song and named it “The East is Red” (Hung 1996: 920).  

Another two well-known songs I would like to mention are Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China and Learn from Lei Feng’s Good Example.

Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.

Lyrics from Wikipedia.

Without the Communist Party, there will be no new China.
Without the Communist Party, there will be no new China.
The Communist Party toiled for the nation.
The Communist Party of one mind saved China.
It pointed to the road of liberation for the people.
It led China towards the light.
It supported the War of Resistance for more than eight years.
It has improved people’s lives.
It built a base behind enemy lines.
It practiced democracy, bringing many advantages.
Without the Communist Party, there will be no new China.
Without the Communist Party, there will be no new China.

Listen to the song

As with The East is Red, this song is pure propaganda for the CCP. From the lyrics, we can see that the CCP is the one to care about the country and the people, to work hard for democracy. Even though until 1949, the Nationalist Party was still China’s official leading party, the lyrics only mention the CCP fighting during the eight years anti-Japanese war.  

Lei Feng is an enormously influential figure for several generations of Chinese people. In a study about the memory of Lei Feng across generations, 41 interviewees aged between 18 and 81 all had “distinctive” memories about him (Bischoping & Gao 2016). As legend has it, Lei Feng was a common soldier, worked hard and always helped others. He died in a work accident. Mao Zedong announced that everybody should learn from Lei Feng on March 5th. Later March 5th became a “Lei Feng Day” and a song called Learn From Lei Feng’s Good Example was created in 1963. In Bischoping and Gao’s research project, one of the interviewees sung the following from a song:

Learn from the good example of Lei Feng,
Loyal to the revolution, loyal to the Party.
Be clear about what to love and what to hate,
Never forget his [proletariat] origin: stand firm with a fighting spirit.

Listen to the song

In my personal experience, these lyrics are extreme recognizable, they naturally flow from my lips. One of the interviewees shared how people were required to do good deeds every week. It reminds me of our primary school annual cleaning of the railings on both sides of the road on March 5th. I assume this song’s lyrics and the annual “Lei Feng day” are engrained in the minds of numerous Chinese people. The message the CCP delivered through the music was: love of and loyalty to the CCP are basic qualifications for a good person.

From these four well-known songs, we can see the communist elements in this period were: calling for people’s unity; directly praise the CCP and its leaders, especially Mao Zedong. Through these songs the CCP created an ideal image of itself and its leaders caring about the nation’s destiny and the livelihood of every Chinese person. They fight against international imperialism and the Nationalist Party to create a new China for all ordinary persons like Lei Feng. If every ordinary person learned to be “loyal to the revolution and party” like Lei Feng, they would be as great as Lei Feng. 

How was music presented and promoted?

The reason the aforementioned songs are so well-known and sung in those days is mostly due to an important technique: combining the political lyrics with an existing folk melody. They became immediately recognisable and dear to the local people (Hung 1996: 927). Furthermore, Mao Zedong was used as a powerful symbol to emotionally connect the CCP and the people (Hung 1996: 918). I argue that Lei Feng was also a symbol to connect the hero with ordinary people.

As for promotion, the methods were limited. First, in 1938 the CCP established a music department in Lu Xun Academy of Art as their official academic base with the purpose of using music as a political tool to mobilize people for their socialist revolution (Hung 1996: 903-904). Second, there were several propaganda departments such as Yan’an Chorus to perform and entertain the farmers in remote areas. In this way, the CCP kept a close relationship with the farmers, and convinced them to actively participate in the socialist revolution (Hung 1996: 925-926). Third, there were other ways like teaching people singing on the street or distributing song lyrics. Overall, the reach of the audience was limited. Especially during the civil war, most of these activities could only be conducted in areas under the CCP’s control. Only after the CCP seized power in 1949, the government set up a wired radio network to enable music to play a key role in socialist transformation. In 1964, loudspeakers reached 95% of the Chinese population. (Gao 2015: 474). Finally, it is interesting to note that although in the 1940s education was still only available for social elites, the CCP was already actively getting involved in education in Shanghai. During the 1920s and mid-1940s, the CCP took control of music in education in Shanghai in order to spread nationalism and communist revolution (Ho 2012: 198).

In the second part of this article we will see how music changed after the introduction of the Opening Up policy.

Bischoping & Gao (2016) – Bischoping, Katherine & Gao, Zhipeng.  ‘Learn from Lei Feng!’: Education, Social Context, and Generational Memories of a Chinese Communist Hero, Jan 2016, York University. Unpublished.

Dangshi (2011) – Accessed on 31 May, 2019

Gao (2015) – Gao, Zhihong. When Nationalism Goes to the Market: The Case of Chinese Patriotic Songs, Journal of Macromarketing 2015, Vol. 35(4) 473-488

Ho (2012) – Ho, Wai-Chung.  Music education in Shanghai from 1895 to 1945: the cultural politics of singing, Music Education Research, 2012, 14:2, 187-207, DOI: 10.1080/14613808.2012.685461

Hung (1996) – Huang, Chang-Tai. The Politics of Songs: Myths and Symbols in the Chinese Communist War Music, 1937-1949, Modern Asian Studies 30, 4 (1996), pp. 901-929.

Samama (2016) – Samama, Leo. The Meaning of Music, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2016

Spence (2013) – Spence, Jonathan. The Search for Modern China, New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2013

Xiang (2010) – Xiang, Lanxin. Opening Beijing’s Door, Survival, 52:3, 201-206, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2010.494925

[1] In this paper, when I use “China”, I mean the People’s Republic of China instead of the Republic of China.