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