Sing to me, about your new policies

September 1st, 2009 by Mei

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! )

7 Responses to “Sing to me, about your new policies”

  1. Avatarram

    Very interesting, and very funny post. To think that people would actually sing about ….. the Brief ?!? I was hoping to see the anti-corruption video — but when I clicked on the link, it says it is a “private video” and I need to accept the sender’s friend request. How do I do that?

  2. AvatarMei
    Author Comment

    Sorry, can you try again? I had set the video to “private”, thinking that the link would be live (even though the video would not be searchable), but apparently not … It’s set to public now.

  3. Avatarxgz

    This is so funny. Since you mentioned “the sun is the reddest, and Chairman Mao the dearest”, here is Richard Clayderman playing that song:

    Was it because the song was bad or was Clayderman bad? The way he played it, it sounds so bland, as if Clayderman was thoroughly bored by it.

  4. AvatarLara

    This video is a hoot – especially as the emotional climax of the song coincides with the presentation of the brief, page by page, on the screen.

    DId you know that there’s a prize given out (by some science group associated with the New York Times) for the best-choreographed Ph.D. thesis in the sciences? Last year’s winner was a completely wonderful ballet about beta cells producing insulin after exposure to vitamin D……Come to think of it, the author/choreographer had a Chinese name! although she was based in Australia.

    So now I’m all excited about the prospect of seeing American public policy debated in song form! The closest we’ve come to this is the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” a few years ago, about refusing to apologize to GW Bush for sneering at the Iraq war during a concert.

    Let’s compose a heart-rendingly beautiful folk song about death panels, the public option, Granny’s cancer medication, and the Republican Party’s support of my right to tote an AK-47 to any public gathering I want.

  5. Avatarxgz

    When they took my gun from me, it left my heart in misery
    When they took my gun from me, it left my heart in misery
    Ever since that day boy, I don’t think I’ll ever be a conservative again

    If I can get my gun back again, I’ll never eat no more
    If I get my gun back again, boys, I never eat no more
    I had a good gun, but I did not treat it right

    It’s my fault, only have myself to blame
    It’s my fault, it’s my fault boys, I only have myself to blame
    It would have been in my hands right now, if I hadn’t traded it in for the food stamp

    I found out one thing, these food stamps don’t mean you no good
    I found out one thing people, these food stamps don’t mean you no good
    You traded a good gun for some bread, then you have nothing left after eating your food
    Yes, yeah

    I’m having bad luck, having bad luck ever since it been gone
    I’m having bad luck, bad luck, bad luck, ever since my baby been gone
    When it was in my hands, Lord, I was not a good Republican

  6. Avatarram

    Nice! God, guns, food stamps and Republicans all in one song :-)

  7. AvatarMei
    Author Comment

    I edited xgz’s comment above to insert the video properly, should be visible now — at least it is on my computer …

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