Monday, January 24, 2011

The Innocent Lang Lang and the Hyper Internet

I haven't paid much attention to news these days, burying my head in writing. This morning, Bob, who was reading the Wall Street Journal, asked me if I knew what song Lang Lang had played at the White House's state dinner for Hu, and why it is regarded as anti-American. 

Surprised, I checked it out on the internet, in Chinese and English. I didn't for a second believe that Lang Lang had any hidden political intention, so the extent of internet and media reaction perplexed me. 

It is true that the song in question, "My Motherland," was the theme song of a Korean-War movie, which I watched more than once as a child. The song's music is melodious and up-beat, and I still sing it occasionally with Chinese friends when we gather. When I sing it, however, I am not conscious of its origin and political connotation (like you might when singing songs such as the Internationale). The lyrics of "My Motherland" are mostly scenic descriptions, with only one line indirectly nasty ("When a friend comes, there is fine wine / When a wolf comes, a hunting gun is waiting"). 

I'm sure many of you often have experiences like this: a familiar melody gives you the mood to hum it regardless of its origin or the meaning of the lyrics. As such I totally believe Lang Lang's explanation: "I selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody."

If anything, this incident shows Lang Lang's innocence as an artist.  He is neither cynical nor politically savvy.  Apparently he did not think of the song's political origin when he chose to play it, as that is not the first concern of an artist. 

This reminds me the movie "Farewell My Concubine," in which the leading role, an artist of Beijing Opera, willingly plays for a Japanese invader who loves his art. For this the artist is later deemed as a Chinese traitor and suffers gravely during the Cultural Revolution. Yet until his death he always placed his love for the art higher than politics, to quite naïve extent. This detail of the movie moved me enormously. The man's devotion to art is inseparable from his political naivety, as tragic as that is. And that's what is moving.

Those who extract political pleasure or resentment from Lang Lang's playing of "My Motherland," are savoring their own sentiment, not Lang Lang's. That is my conclusion anyway.

Did Lang Lang make a mistake by playing that song?  I don't think so.  I, for one, advocate an artist to choose whatever music he loves to play.

On a related note, some Chinese netizens take a great pleasure to search for hidden political meaning everywhere. As a means of entertainment, I often find such speculations fun to hear about, for example I once blogged an instance during the Beijing Olympics, see "Hidden Code in the Opening Ceremony."

A more recent example is from the 2011 New Year Chinese movie "Let the Bullets fly," in which the 6th son of the main character, a Robinhood-like hero, dies to prove his innocence. At his funeral, the first man who mourns is his 4th blood brother. Some Chinese netizens speculate that this is the movie's hidden code for commemorating June 4th (6/4).  Borrowing a Chinese cliché, this is something that "exists if you believe; doesn't exist if you don't." (信则有,不信则无)

But in most cases speculations are just that – speculations.  In Lang Lang's case, there is little point for the media to take the speculation seriously, much less to blow it out of proportion.  

And I second Lang Lang's call: Don't politicize art.

Update 1/25: James Fallows –  "Sample convincing/exasperated detail, about the Korean War movie that introduced the song: 'This movie was like.. when my mother was two years old.'"


pug ster said...

If many Americans are offended about Lang Lang song, I hate to see Canada and Uk's reactions when Americans play the play The Star-Spangled Banner in their country.

Anonymous said...

He may insist in English that his choice of the song was purely on musical grounds, but in Chinese he asserted on his blog that: "能够在众多外宾,尤其是在来自“五湖四海”的元首们面前演奏这首赞美中国的乐曲,仿佛是在向他们诉说我们中国的强大,我们中国人的团结,我感到深深的荣幸和自豪。" You can read that in different ways, but it is inescapably a political statement.


Xujun said...

I can believe that Lang Lang has strong feelings for his motherland, but I don't believe he has any intention to insult Americans. This song has lost its political connotation to many of us now.

Anonymous said...


Lang Lang show his wide-eyed innocence and say that the Korean war took place 50 years ago, when his mom was only two years old and so on, but that kind of so in time never seems to apply when Chinese diplomats and fenqing chose to feel insulted by acts of foreign representatives.

We are talking about a country where people are taught to look for hidden messages. We have these kinds of incidents on a yearly basis. Remember the episode last year, when Chinese protocol officers wanted PM Cameron to remove his poppy, because it may have some connotations with the Opium War - some 160 years ago.

Now, events like the White House dinner are orchestrated down to the last toast and it strains your imagination to think that the Chinese government would not have a hand in deciding what tune one of China's most renowned artists would perform there.

The past couple of months there has been huge tensions between the US and China over North Korea, and of all possible songs that Lang Lang could have played, he (or the protocol department in the PRC Foreign Ministry) choses to play a song from a movie that deals with one of the bloodiest confrontations between Chinese and US troops during the Korean War. Imagine what would have happened if the shoe was on the other foot!

kailing said...

@ pugster:
One is a national anthen with a special status, the other is not.

Yeah, would be like in a visit from the Taiwan affairs guy to Taiwan and they play 反共复国歌
or any other of the many 1000 similar songs they have on this topic... and they are all very dear for many taiwanese (or should I say republican chinese?), you now, national pride, blood on the fields, treason and tears... and all those things, like lang lang said. He is free to choose whatever he wants, if he did it on purpose, I believe he lacks propriety (mmm such a forgotten confucian virtue); if he did it out of ignorance... OMG I thought he was a professional musician.

Anonymous said...

This is better

Anonymous said...

I personally like the lyrics of the song since I grew up in the 60's in China. But I would tell my son not to play it in the White House if my son is invited to go there or at least let him know about the song's origin.Lan Lan's father is with him everywhere he goes. I doubted that his father did not mention or say anything about the song. He is going the same path like Jackie Chan. Getting famous in the US then making money in both countries!
I have doubt about he is that innocent! Give him ten more years!
Nanjing Ren

pug ster said...


I don't know about you, but most (at least I hope most) Americans knows the history of The Star Spangled Banner was inspired by the war between the British Canada and British Empire at 1812. Yet the song still talks about how US was able to defend itself from the Bombardment of Fort McHenry.

I remember that my Dad kept playing the Lyrical version of Lang Lang's piano piece over and over again and I thought it was a good song, but I don't know its origins until recently. Even the white house said this is not this song is not an insult to the United States.

Anonymous said...

The relations between China and the US are very different from UK, Canada with the US !!!!
I see people use playing The Star-Spangled Banner to compare this incident. To me this is not appropriat at all.
Nanjing Ren

Anonymous said...





柴可夫斯基1880创作的《1812序曲》(Tchaikovsky Overture 1812)也是一首爱国曲目,表现了俄罗斯人民反抗拿破仑入侵俄国的斗争。但这首著名的交响乐一百年来被各国包括法国的交响乐团演奏,听众并不认为这是在反法。改编自“义勇军进行曲”的抗日歌曲的中国国歌不也在日本国土上奏起吗?


mutikonka said...

It would be a bit like Billy Joel playing the Colonel Bogey Theme on a visit to the Japanese Diet "because I like the melody".
Lang Lang was raised by a Tiger Mother (or a Tiger Father)... is the product of this Amy Chua school of brilliance so thick he does not realise the significance of choosing such an inappropriate tune?

Anonymous said...

Please see the article written by Hu Ping on WWW.chinadigital times.COM about the analysis of this incident!
Nanjing Ren

Anonymous said...

There is no right or wrong art, only good or bad.-Chen Yifei.
He is an artist. He played a pretty song.

Anonymous said...

To Chen Yifei,
Many artist also can be used as TOOLs !! Don't be so naive! Read some history books if you are not in China.
China uses Motherland versus Homeland . Why? Only WW2 Germany, Stalin Russia and North Korea exclusively used/use Motherland/Fatherland. The title of the song itself is a propaganda.
Do you realize this?
Nanjing Ren

ordinary malaysian said...

We should all just grow up, not act like kids anymore. If someone chooses to insult us or behave badly, it is not our problem. It is the other guy's problem. Why waste time speculating as to whether or not the other guy's action carries a hidden meaning Life goes on, and nobody's perfect.