What Carrie Lam does not know about the national anthem

September 01, 2017 18:00
A file picture shows delegates standing for the Chinese national anthem in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People ahead of a key conclave. The history of the anthem is drenched in politics. Photo: Bloomberg

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's top leader, has urged the public "not to politicize" proposals for the introduction of legislation on use of the Chinese national anthem, The March of the Volunteers. Mrs Lam either has a wicked sense of humor or a very poor understanding of history.

If she was being intentionally ironical in urging people not to politicize this matter, we can all have a chuckle but if she was being serious I strongly recommend that she starts reading up on the history of this anthem because it is drenched in politics and the current plans for legislation are part of the continuing political story.

If she had bothered with even a small amount of research she would know that the March began life as stanzas taken from a poem written in 1934 by Tian Han. Tian, a Chinese nationalist, was engaged in the struggle against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. However he fell out with the Kuomintang, the main nationalist organization, and was jailed by them.

Interestingly, the transformation of these stanzas from his poem into a song only came after they were used in a film and were set to music by a Russian Jewish composer Aaron Avshalomov; strangely you hear nothing these days about the foreign origins of the music.

Anyway the song made its first appearance in an anti-Japanese film and by 1935 it had been taken up by leftists who found the urge to 'Chee Lai' or arise rather inspiring.

Five years later the great American singer, sportsman and actor Paul Robeson, one of the icons of America's then small but influential Communist Party, was introduced to the song and brought it to the attention of an international audience, singing it in both Chinese and English.

Fast forward to 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party was about to seize power and played the song for the first time as the national anthem at the World Peace Conference, a Communist gathering. Robeson did the singing.

However when the new Communist government was installed later in the year it had not actually decided which song would be chosen for the national anthem. A committee was established and 694 options were considered.

Even at this stage The March of the Volunteers was criticized for its defensive and negative tone. It talks of China facing 'its greatest peril' and 'braving the enemies' while using flesh and blood to 'build a new Great Wall'. National anthems in other countries extol the virtues and possibly the beauty of the nations they represent but this song does nothing like that, it merely emphasizes the need for struggle.

As this kind of talk was much favored by Mao Zedong it became clear that other anthem options were to be discarded.

It might be thought that once a national anthem had been chosen that would be that but during the mayhem of the 1960s Cultural Revolution The March was effectively banned as its author, Tian Han was denounced as a counter-revolutionary. In its place the operatic The East is Red served as the de-facto anthem. Tian died in jail in 1968.

Ten years later the anthem was reinstated, albeit with some word changes referring specifically to the Communist Party and Chairman Mao, and the following year Tian was posthumously rehabilitated. It took another four years for the original lyrics to be restored and for the song to gain official status as the national anthem.

Strangely the Mainland, until now, has had no law governing the use of the anthem but Macau enacted its own law shortly after the handover in 1999. This begs the question of why a law is required and why the Hong Kong SAR's leaders are so anxious to prove their loyalty and mirror whatever is being done on the Mainland.

Nations that are confident in their own skin and, most importantly, trust their own people rarely get excited about the way national symbols, ranging from flags to anthems, are used because they understand that what matters is the cohesion of their societies and their adherence to common values, something which evolves over time and has at its core a voluntary adherence, not requiring laws and threats of punishment to ensure compliance.

So, what does this tell us about a society that does not trust its own people and believes that they can only be kept in line by threats?

As for the idea that none of this is political…

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author