China’s Musical Mishap?


When Hu Jintao came to the United States in 2006, his visit was seen in China as less-than-perfect. Hu did not receive a State Dinner or the formality and ceremony that accompany it. His speech was allowed to be interrupted by a member of the Falun Gong–a religious sect that is banned in China. The most telling American blunder, however, was the smallest one. When introducing the Chinese national anthem, the American announcer referred to it as the “the national anthem of the Republic of China.” The Republic of China is, of course, Taiwan. This musical mistake touched on one of China’s most sensitive and contentious foreign policy issues with the United States–the fate of Taiwan.
President Hu recently wrapped up a four day visit to the United States that was widely seen as a success in China. This time, the national anthem was announced correctly and Hu was given a State Dinner in his honor–the first for a Chinese leader in 13 years. However, music again played an interesting role in the Sino-American relationship.
At Hu’s State Dinner, following a performance with jazz legend Herbie Hancock, Chinese pianist Lang Lang moved on to a solo piece which he introduced as “a Chinese song called ‘My Motherland.'” The song is a patriotic tribute to China and its beauty.
‘My Motherland’ is also the main theme song of a 1950s Communist propaganda film entitled “The Battle of Triangle Hill.” The film follows a group of Chinese soldiers who enter the Korean Peninsula to fight the American Army. Towards the end of the song, the lyrics translate “when the jackals come, they are greeted with a hunting rifle.” Given the context of the film, “the jackals” are unmistakably the Americans.
In both of Hu’s visits to the US, music seems to have been a point of contention or misunderstanding. It is unclear whether the China-Taiwan national anthem mistake was intentional, just as Lang Lang’s choice of music could have overlooked the negative allusion in its lyrics. What is clear, however, is that in both cases, the American audience was mostly unaware of the implications of the mistake.
These examples are instructive of a larger point–Americans don’t know much about China. It is the second biggest economy in the world, it has the fastest growing military, and it holds a huge share of the US national debt. That is all potentially scary. Moreover, given the way that the American and Chinese media approach one another, small disagreements or miscalculations could escalate very rapidly.
However, when the United States is making policy, it needs to be based on facts, not feelings. This is not to say that the US shouldn’t ask for some clarification about Lang Lang’s musical choices, but rather that if we are going to make judgments or arguments about Chinese decisions we should try to understand them before we jump into the debate.

— Jordan D’Amato


17 comments on “China’s Musical Mishap?

  1. nadine says:

    So Lang Lang said he chose the music because it was familiar to the Chinese? Well, that much is true:


  2. Bruce says:

    Context is everything. In China, the most popular classical piece is
    probably the Yellow River Piano Concerto. Its fourth and final
    movement is a fugue based on The East is Red, a patriotic song
    now considered to an unwelcome relic of the Cultural Revolution —
    but that didn’t stop that piece being playing in Tian An Men square
    (by Lang Lang) during the Beijing Olympics.
    The Chinese national anthem is “March of the Volunteers”, with
    “Volunteers” being a carefully selected word for the soldiers sent to
    “assist” Korea from American invasion, without actually declaring
    war on the US itself.


  3. questions says:

    Thanks! I have the Galbraith book already, and have read a chunk of it.
    Tangents are good. And this thread wasn’t being used for much else, so it seems ok to grab it.


  4. sdemetri says:

    questions, I reckon you will find this review interesting given the
    tangents you seem to be off on today:
    It’s an old link, so maybe you’ve seen it already.


  5. sdemetri says:

    Lang Lang in an NPR interview yesterday afternoon said his choice
    of music was based on the familiarity of the piece to the Chinese
    and beauty of the melody. He stated he was completely unaware of
    the 1950’s movie and the political overtones of the piece of music.
    He said his mother was two years old when the movie first
    He was educated in the US, and claims both countries as his home,
    with appreciation and affection for both, and had no designs on
    making a political statement. He says he chose “My Motherland”
    because of the beauty of the melody.


  6. b says:

    The author writes about China: “it has the fastest growing military”
    That is of course absolute false scaremongering. China may spend more on weapons, (ever heard of inflation?), but that is still only a tenth of what the U.S. spends and China is, as Janes writes, downsizing its forces.
    “JDW 09-Oct-2009 *PLA cuts manpower to modernise capabilities:


  7. questions says:

    Somehow, I find this hilarious, especially the second sentence:
    “TIAA-CREF Life Insurance Co., New York Life Insurance Co. and Dexia Holdings Inc. are among a dozen institutional investors who filed the complaint yesterday in New York state Supreme Court.
    The investors claim they bought hundreds of millions of dollars of Countrywide mortgage-backed securities from 2005 to 2007 because they wanted conservative, low-risk investments.”
    When was the last time anyone had “Countrywide” and “conservative, low-risk investments” in the same sentence??
    At any rate, it’s nice to see investors pushing back at BoA. BoA probably really regrets this purchase at this point.
    The only sad thing, really, is that it’s a bunch of billionaires suing a bunch of other billionaires and no one living in an actual house is going to get actual help.
    Of course, we’re so worried about moral hazard among the masses, we’re so full of mutual social resentment, we’d never stand for a real bail out of real homeowners. After all, they didn’t play by the rules, or whatever….


  8. questions says:

    “House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is already saying any education reform bill, another issue the president will speak about, should include private school vouchers, anathema to many liberal Democrats.”
    You know, I HATE vouchers, and I hate guns. I’ve gotten used to guns. I could get used to vouchers if they were TAXED on a disappearing benefit scale based on income.
    So, you know, let someone who earns 35k a year get a 2500 dollar voucher for some Catholic school somewhere in whatever city. It’ll help that family get the kid to a private school, which, let’s face it, a LOT of people do in cities.
    But let’s not pay for someone who earns 100k to do the same thing. The higher earners have some significant choices regarding districts, magnet schools, private tutoring and the like. We subsidize so much of their lives already through all kinds of consumption benefits.
    So let the Republicans have their voucher program. It probably is mildly unconstitutional because of the religious school issue, but that doesn’t seem to stop very many literal readers of the Constitution.
    And maybe a whole bunch of entrepreneurs will open up private schools in cities across the country — schools so incredibly efficient that the proprietors can make a HUGE profit from those 2500 dollar checks. And those very rich and very entrepreneurial AMERICANS will then send donations to the RNC and sit at the next Republican SotU. Or something.
    Let’s face it, it’s a fantasy, but if the Republicans have to keep returning to their fantasy world, maybe we should encourage them on the safer bets.
    I mean, it’s not like city schools are doing so great under RttT funding anyway.
    We already know what city schools really need – intensive intensive intensive verbal and parenting intervention pre-natal to college.
    They need more than wrap-around services. They need drop in and drop off and hang out centers geared towards every age of parent and child.
    They need pleasant places where tired parents can go, the kids can be safe and can learn, and the parents can hang out, nap, feel safe and unstressed, chat, make friends, develop solidarity outside of immediate family, and by the way, the littlest kids can learn and play with every brio and little tykes toy there is. And the big ones can do their thing, too.
    I picture bright and shiny gym/cafe/play/community center spaces with room for bball and skateboarding and legos and arm chairs and books and homework centers with eager helpers and swimming pools and other fun things that the ‘burbs sort of assume as background noise.
    Lots of room for community-building, intervention, talk, and whatever support any particular community decides it needs, from transit and grocery help to medical and mental health services. Wrap-around PLUS, I call it.
    Take away parenting stress, add 32 million words per kid, take away parental frustration at the challenges of coping with 3 toddlers on the city bus routes to get from where you live to Walmart and back again (ugh), and maybe the kids will be able to start kindergarten with what they need.
    So if the cost of this kind of intervention is some round of vouchers, who the fuck cares anymore. It’s not like the private schools do shit for the kids they kick out, but they do do ok for the kids they retain. And that’s more than some public schools seem to manage, given the dearth of proper course offerings, the security issues, and the like.
    Of course, “wrap-around” doesn’t play well with the Boehner crowd. But hey, since when do Republican social “good works” ummm, work?!


  9. Martha Nakajima says:

    Having invited a Chinese national in good standing with the regime in place to play, I’m glad the WH didn’t censor his choice of music. US is “the land of the free.”


  10. questions says:

    Demand issues,
    Print money and circulate it? Stop the oligarchs from hoarding it? Is there a way to circulate the money so that it doesn’t end up in the hands of the billionaire boys’ club in 2 or 3 moves? Local services, local exchanges, local repair jobs, local making and doing?
    If the money goes straight to cable bills and cell phone bills and the like, then it leaves the community. If it goes straight to imports, it leaves the country. Can it stick around for a while before the rent seekers grab it?
    Can the rent seekers be forced to rent the capital by paying returns on savings? Can we switch the flow of the money around?


  11. questions says:

    Pawsitive Rhetoric!
    T-Paw, the man, the legend, the political ad!
    He threatens apocalypse (no, wait, aPAWcalypse!) so subtly that you’re convinced you’re voting for a positive savior with no fearful possibility (Pawsibility)….


  12. questions says:

    And this:
    An abstract. Also Rortybomb-linked.


  13. questions says:

    OT, but worth noting:
    The United States experienced two major economic crises over the past century


  14. Bill Pearlman says:

    Playing a song that celebrates the deaths of American soldiers. That’s the Chinese style. the back handed insult. Interesting that the guy thought it would be well received in the Obama white house.


  15. WigWag says:

    Unless, I’m mistaken, the great cellist Yo Yo Ma also performed at the State Dinner. While he was born in Paris, his parents were Chinese; he now makes his home in Boston.
    One thing is certain, when Yo Yo Ma performs, there is never a mishap.


  16. Paul says:

    Of course, every time “Maryland My Maryland” is played, it is an insult against the United States of America, every time “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is played, it is an insult against the South, and every time “The Star Spangled Banner” is played it is an insult against the English. Note that at the 1924 Democratic Convention the bands made the mistake of playing “Marching Through Georgia” (which celebrates Sherman’s March) in honor of native Georgian William Gibbs McAdoo.


  17. Dan Kervick says:

    I suppose it’s a small thing, but I was also curious about the menu that was served.
    First of all, the menu was billed as “quintessentially American”, and contrasted very noticeably with the Indian-American fusion fare that was served to Prime Minister Singh’s party. I guess Obama wanted to avoid any semblance of multi-culti bowing and scraping. On the other hand, I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with going this way. If I were invited for dinner in China, for example, I would look forward to some great Chinese food, not a Chinese version of an American steak.
    However, the menu also seemed quite heavy on lactose-rich milk products for an Asian guest, including Goat Cheese, Buttermilk Crisp Onions, Double Stuffed Potatoes (probably with cheese and sour cream), Creamed Spinach and Vanilla Ice Cream.
    Take that China, and your 95% lactose intolerance rate!


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