Many Chinese kids of my generation grew up singing very upbeat songs about the good life we had, how great our leaders were, and how bright our futures would be. They were all laden with “positive” messages. Of course there was an occasional song or two just on the joy of a field trip in the park, without the requisite reminder on how it was made possible only by the blood our forefathers shed on our behalf. As kids we absorbed them all, oblivious of the wise distinctions usually made by older people. The songs were music and laughter, and they made me happy.
Thinking back on some of those songs, I realized that the lyrics were laughably unsubtle. One song (with a particularly beautiful melody) compared “Our Party” to a mother. Another sang about how “the sun is the reddest, and Chairman Mao the dearest”.
Such lyrics gradually faded out in the 1980s. There are still songs and movies that are considered “mainstream melody (主旋律)”, but most of them carry less obvious messages. So I was a bit surprised to find a song with the very unsubtle name A Mountain Folk Song about The Brief (山歌一曲唱纲要) while searching for performances by Abao, a popular folk singer in China. The lyrics and melody follow a pattern typical of west China folk songs, reminiscent of the songs I grew up with. Yet somehow, this new song lacks the emotional power of the old propaganda songs. It feels strangely like a corporate marketing piece.
Here is my clumsy translation of the lyrics:
A Mountain Folk Song about The Brief
Great trees grow to ten thousand yards high,
their roots always connect to the hill’s side.
Our Party Leadership publishes the Anti-Corruption Brief,
all over the country rises a spring tide.
Mountain cliffs are high, and river valleys deep.
On top of every hill, we sing about the The Brief,
To battle corruption, now there is a new way,
with a sturdy foundation, our walls won’t sway.
The Party applies its magic to govern our nation well,
“Great Walls” are built, one after another.
If a dam leaks, how can you keep the water in?
If small holes are not mended, great floods will happen.
Sandy slopes are where weeds grow,
only rich soil can support fine crops.
Our Party is the only one we can count on,
everlasting, like the sun.
The melodies we sing drift over many hills,
the sun shines joyfully, upon wild flowers’ smiles.
Anti-corruption policies are winning people’s hearts,
our nation will be forever strong!
In reading the lyrics again I realized what made the song so strange. It doesn’t sing about anti-curruption, just about “the brief”, a document that is a summary of anti-corruption policies. It’s an ode to a stack of paper with words printed on them. I can almost imagine the writer staring at the red-titled government documents, searching for lines to express anti-corruption policies in folk song style. In the end he settled on singing about the most concrete object associated with the concept, the document itself. It’s certainly an unconventional choice, as lyrics writers always go for the vague and the untangible if they can help it. I remember a popular song a few years ago named Flowers Seen through Misty Air(雾里看花), which was a commissioned piece for a concert on policies against product counterfeiting (well, that’s just the Chinese way — we hold a concert for every policy that needs to be communicated). The lyrics for Flowers in Mist were so vague that many people thought it was a song about misunderstood love, or uncertainties of life, or the zen of an unknowable world.
In comparison, Mountain Folk Song about The Brief is unsubtle to the point of endearing. It doesn’t have any of the seductive persuasion power that signified the songs I grew up with, and it may not be from a lack of abilities on the writer’s part. The song was written not to change the general public’s opinion, but to impress higher-ups in party leadership. It is similar to mission statements in corporations: something generally laughed at by employees and customers, yet passionately loved by higher management. That’s why such songs (as well as mission statements) won’t die out even though nobody believes in their content anymore. They are essentially homeworks handed in by lower level executives to prove they have done something.
Mountain Folk Song about The Brief was performed at a concert for promoting anti-corruption policies. It also won “grand prize in anti-corruption song contest”. Hopefully, all people involved in creating this song got promotions as a result.
This got me thinking — how come we don’t get concerts for our annual project reviews at work? They were always boring PowerPoint presentations. Would be nice to have Whitney Houston sing our project summary. I’m sure it will boost morale greatly. “The melodies of our review drift over many cubicles; compact fluorescent lights shine joyfully, upon customers’ smiles …”
The video below shows folk singer Abao performing this song at the anti-corruption concert mentioned before. To see Abao sing about “The Brief” in his traditional west China farmer outfit, and with his Shanxi dialect, is quite a sight. In addition, I bet you have never seen a music video with a montage of red-titled government documents. The song itself is based on traditional folk-song melodies, and it’s actually a good tune. Abao has a very high voice, so please be forewarned — as Abao would sometimes joke before his performances: if you have a heart condition, now is a good time to take your medicine …
(If you are in the mood for more after seeing this, you can search for the official music video released with this song, which has subtitles with timed cues so you can karaoke to it — I kid you not! )