My motherland, right or wrong?

08:26, January 28, 2011      

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Piano prodigy Lang Lang rides high on a cross-Pacific career where both music lovers and officials flock to his performances. JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY

Lang Lang's choice of music for a state dinner in the US was both lauded and chided, although it has evolved to be another folk song about love of country.

Depending on your view, pianist Lang Lang either pulled off a sucker punch or committed a diplomatic faux pas last week. He played a tune from a movie that has anti-American subject matter at the Jan 19 state banquet US President Barack Obama gave to the visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao. Even though it did not evolve into a diplomatic skirmish, it created some hoopla on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

I believe Lang Lang when he explained afterwards he did not know the origin of this song. Its popularity has far outstripped the movie itself. While everyone in the Chinese mainland can hum it, relatively few have seen the movie or can immediately connect the "jackals" in the lyrics with the American soldiers fighting in the Korean War, or what we in China call the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.

The movie Shangganling, released in 1956, experienced a surge in popularity during the post-"cultural revolution" (1966-76) years. People of my generation are familiar with the plot, a typical war picture, but the song comes at a telling moment, a hiatus in the battle when the soldiers are reminded of the beauty of the motherland, while a few lines refer to "greeting jackals with hunting rifles".

By Chinese standards the song is quite apolitical and lacks the propaganda vibe of the time. Rendered by the most popular folk singer of the day, the beautiful Guo Lanying, it was an instant hit and has since become a classic.

As a student, before the bass singer Tian Haojiang became famous at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, he used to moonlight as a piano player at restaurants. One night a Chinese busboy requested he play the song and afterwards broke down in tears, because he was so homesick.

It is quite possible Lang Lang was attracted to the melody and oblivious to the hidden meaning of the lyrics.

However, he is now in a quandary. After I tweeted the incident on my Sina Weibo micro blog, I was overwhelmed with responses, which neatly belonged to two camps: One lauded him for jabbing the Americans with the subliminal message of contempt or enmity; while the other criticized him for making an inappropriate choice. After his explanation, the first group naturally stopped seeing him as a hero.

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