When I visited the Revolution Memorial Museum in Yan’an, I noticed music was a prominent component of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ethos. And this ethos could have helped them drive out the Japanese and the National Party (Kuomintang) and found the new China in 1949.
As a species, humans love music. We know that music is an intrinsic part of every culture. But then, why is that so? Charles Darwin concluded if music is part of every culture, it must have a survival value for individuals or societies. Music, as it has evolved in humankind, allows for unique expressions of social ties and strengthening of relational correctness. Thus, music can bond people and create identity – which explains why we have, for example, festive season songs, school songs, and national anthems. They feature prominently in gatherings.
The CCP has a formidable organisation in mobilising both the people and the soldiers through songs. During the Anti-Japanese War and the war against the National Party, the CCP leveraged effectively on the National Salvation Song Movement. Some Japanese claimed the CCP, not because of battlefield strategy or tactics, but because they could sing their way to victory! There was no equivalent singing culture in the Japanese military or the Nationalist Party.
James Bertram* (a New Zealand journalist who followed the CCP soldiers) reported how the soldiers often sang as they marched their varied repertoire. The army has always composed their songs, and some of them, were based on local airs from the various provinces the Red Army traversed – these songs have a real musical as well as historical interest.
We can trace the effort to use music (and language) to unite a broken, shattered and occupied country back to the father of Chinese Jazz (时代曲), Li Jinhui (黎锦晖). He initially started a music school for children to promote Mandarin to unite the people. His school failed financially, and he established a dance and drama school. He turned to popular music (from composing children’s songs). Nie Er (聂耳), a native of Yunnan joined his music school but broke away from his mentor to form music for the liberation of China. His most famous composition, March of the Volunteers (义勇军进行曲, 1934) was later chosen as China’s national anthem.
Nie Er greatly influenced Liu Liang-mo (刘良模). Liu became the National Salvation Song Movement leader in promoting patriotic mass singing. This social grassroots movement depended on the organisation of amateur choral groups, the composition of numerous patriotic songs, and mass song rallies. Observers have described these rallies as “wildfires sweeping through barren hills with the force of prairie fires.”
China was an impoverished country then, and peasants were mostly illiterate. Hence, music was far more effective in reaching the masses than writing. Composers and lyricists worked together to mobilise both the soldiers and the people. These songs for the masses were simple but highly effective. As they were not technically challenging, workers, peasants, children, and soldiers could all sing along – usually a cappella (for simplicity and because there was a lack of musical instruments). Through singing together, young Chinese could build a shared consciousness of their nation.
Fast forward to a different country and a different era. Do you recognise these songs – Stand up for Singapore (1984), Count on Me Singapore (1986), and We are Singapore (1988)? They are just samples of National Day Songs – specially composed to bond the nation.
Darwin was right – songs do unite people and they have a survival value.
To be continued – Songs II: Did Singaporeans Sing Their Way to Success?
*Bertram, James M. 1939. Unconquered: Journal of a Year’s Adventures among the Fighting Peasants of North China. New York: John Day.