A great river flows, its waves wide and calm
Wind blows through rice flowers, bearing fragrance to both shores
My family lives right there by the water
I am used to hearing the punters’ call
And seeing the white sails on the boats
This is the beautiful Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this expansive stretch of land
Everywhere there is wonderful scenery to behold
How flower-like are the young ladies
How big and determined are the hearts of the young men
In order to usher in a new era
They’ve woken the sleeping mountains
And changed the face of the river
This is the heroic Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of ancient land
There is youthful vigor everywhere
Great mountains, great rivers, a great land
Every road is broad and wide
If friends come, there is fine wine
But if the wolves come
Those who greet them have hunting guns
This is the mighty Motherland
This is the place where I grew up
On this stretch of warm and friendly land
There is peaceful sunshine everywhere
(Translation from Wikipedia)
In a University of Hong Kong (HKU) auditorium full of attentive listeners, a question was asked about “the first song in your life that inspires you”. “Frank Sinatra’s My Way,” answered one man sitting in the front row. “What about you?” “It should be a song that senior students taught me in college, My Motherland,” said the man next to him.
The one asking the question was Lung Ying-tai, one of the best-known Taiwanese intellectuals of today and a former Culture Minister. The occasion was a “Hall of Wisdom” lecture she was giving about the power of songs in transcending time and history. The second respondent was Dr. Albert Chau, Vice President of Hong Kong Baptist University, a scholar who attended HKU in the 1970s. The song he mentioned was from the soundtrack of a 1956 Chinese movie that portrayed the China’s heroic efforts at the Battle of Triangle Hill in the Korean War.
The answer acted like an electric current that electrified the air in the room. The chemistry in the atmosphere suddenly became interesting. There was giggling in the audience. Lung, seemingly unaware of the song, asked how it sounded like. After a brief, awkward moment of silence, a few in the audience began to sing, in a hesitant, humming voice. “A great river flows, its waves wide and calm…” More people joined in and in no time it became a resounding chorus. “This is the beautiful Motherland. This is the place where I grew up.” On the stage, Lung watched the scene with curiosity. She laughed profusely, and then encouraged everyone to clap for those who were singing. The episode ended in a largely friendly atmosphere.
Two months later, when video clips of this exchange emerged on the Internet, those involved, particularly Lung Ying-tai, found themselves in a much less congenial environment.
“A mysterious embarrassment”(谜之尴尬), as nationalist outlets such as Guancha described the incident. Other outlets were even more blatant: “a slap on the face.”(打脸) They presented Lung’s response as a sign of humiliation rather than just humorous play-along, implying that Chau’s choice of the song served as a direct refute of Lung’s preaching.
In recent years, some people on the mainland have grown increasingly critical of Lung’s signature message of a liberal humanism, the elevation of fundamental human values ABOVE political disputes. Her declaration of “a disinterest in the rise of a great nation but a deep concern for the dignity of its small civilians” once won her applause across the Taiwan Strait, but has since met with ever stronger pushback. The occasion provides those who detest Lung an opportunity to get it even.
1949: River and Strait
Year 1949 was a defining watershed of Chinese history and of the fate of millions of Chinese families. As the People’s Liberation Army crossed the majestic Yangtze River with thousands of hired junks and pressed against Kuomintang’s last strongholds south of the river bank, Nanjing (the capital) and Shanghai, millions started their humiliating retreat across the Taiwan Strait. The Republic of China, which endured years of gruesome war against the Japanese fascists, was driven to exile not only by the militarily more capable Communists, but more importantly, by the infinite appeal of a People’s Republic serving the starved and embittered mass fed up with Kuomintang’s corrupt rule.
The river of history has diverged, irreversibly, since then. And it became a theme that writers such as Lung, herself the offspring of a Kuomintang official displaced to Taiwan, explore. In her Hong Kong lecture, she mentioned the ancient tunes of Silangtanmu (“The fourth son visiting his mother”) and the tender love songs written by Chen Gexin, a songwriter who earned his reputation in Shanghai in the 1930s. For the generation of Lung’s parents, the songs represented a past and a home that were forever gone. They exposed the wounds of those severed from homeland, and through their soothing tunes, healed the homesick souls.
Lung also touched on other types of songs. Those are songs with an overt political message. Jokingly, she referred to the kind of Kuomintang propaganda songs that she as kid was taught to sing: “Fight the communists! Eradicate Zhu (De) and Mao (Zedong)! Kill the collaborationists!”
There was no ambiguity as to what kind of songs Lung held to be superior. Those that appeal to the fundamental human emotions: the connection between mother and song, the love of men and women, are especially powerful when they imply a kind of subtle protest against the dehumanizing force of politics. It is in this line of thinking that she brought up the tragic fate of Chen Gexin, the songwriter whose songs warmed the tortured hearts of so many drifters in Taiwan, who himself remained in the mainland and was later sent to a labor camp like many of his peers in art and literary circles. It is seen as a case of politics devouring those who were simply being human, which for an intellectual like Long, represents what’s fundamentally wrong about political struggles.(Though there is evidence of Chen collaborating with the Japanese during the war.)
Her most famous book in the Chinese-speaking world, Great River and Sea: 1949, expands on essentially the same theme. By recreating the separations and suffering caused by the turmoil of the last year of the Chinese civil war, she tries to transcend party politics that have defined the dynamics between both sides of the Taiwan Strait by appealing to the shared values of family, filial piety and love. “Is there really a winner of the civil war? Everyone is a loser in that war. And I’m proud of being a loser’s daughter,” she writes in the preface of the book.
This intellectual tendency may explain why, at that very moment, Lung was caught a bit off guard. “My motherland” surely doesn’t fit into her category of humanizing songs above politics. But she might have also underestimated the song’s transcending power, a different kind. In her written response to the controversy, published by Southern Weekly, she admitted that her first reaction when hearing Chau’s answer was that “this was a Red Song (红歌）”, which implies cheap communist propaganda. Even though she maintained that she immediately understood what Chau meant by bringing up the song, a reminiscence of a special period in contemporary Hong Kong history, when young students looked at socialist China as an inspiring alternative to corrupt colonial rule, she somewhat downplayed the significance of the spontaneous chorus in the auditorium, suggesting that it would be a mistake to try and derive too much from that moment: “The river was just a river.”
The mother nation complex
For Lung’s more serious critics on the mainland, who are willing to give her the credit of handling the situation with grace, her major problem is the almost blind universalism that wipes out any meaning in the country’s historical struggles of the early 20th century. As scholar Liu Yang puts it in his piercing criticism, Lung’s attempt to depoliticize those songs she mentioned in her lecture erases the clear moral values originally imbued in them. “(For something as universal as “death”, there is a difference between the death of a murderer and that of a martyr… Without the sacrifice of the men and women that defend the nation, the tranquility of the river would not have be cherished this much.”
A similar critique can be found about her book on the civil war. It argues that her emphasis of the suffering and the “human cost” of the civil war blurs the historical responsibility of the Kuomintang government and belittles the sacrifice of those who fought in the Chinese revolution, as if it was a value-free natural disaster.
Liu attributes Lung’s intellectual leaning to her “confused” identity: the lack of a fully-grounded national affiliation pushed Taiwanese intellectuals such as Lung to embrace a “supra-national” set of universal values, which allows them to declare themselves “world citizens” and build their cultural confidence around the assumed “end of history”: they are on the right side of a lineal progression towards a liberal end-state. But the “return of history” in recent years and the reemergence of religious, racial and class strife globally make her ahistorical treatment of themes such as human suffering “embarrassingly inadequate.”
World citizen or not, it is pretty clear that at the very moment, there was a discernible disconnection between Lung Ying-tai and Albert Chau. The song got lost in the narrative that Lung painstakingly constructed at the lecture and became a disruptive outlier. And Lung’s dismissal of its significance not only met with criticism from the mainland, but also invited a pushback from within Hong Kong.
Even though Prof. Chau himself never came out to explain his choice of the song, those who are familiar with the Hong Kong of his student years provided their interpretation of what happened. They believe that by invoking the song, Chau was paying tribute to the “Fiery Red years” of the 1970s, where young students of Hong Kong, disappointed by the corrupt colonial rule of the British, turned to the Motherland for inspiration. The northward affection was a combination of a successful “united front” campaign waged by the communist government on the mainland and a genuine longing for a national identity that brought pride and dignity. Commentators brought up almost forgotten historical events such as the 1971 Hong Kong student protest against the United States for attempting to “return” the Diaoyu Island to Japan along with Okinawa and the subsequent tour of a Hong Kong student delegation in the mainland, carefully organized by the Chinese government to impress them with the achievements of the socialist state (in the middle of the Cultural Revolution). The tour successfully ignited the imagination of Hong Kong’s youth, still under the influence of leftist student movements everywhere in the world, about the possibilities of a socialist alternative to capitalist colonialism. In its aftermath, the Hong Kong student movement decisively oriented itself to the motherland, and one of its major achievements was the establishment of Chinese as official language in the British colony.
As a University of Hong Kong student of the class of 1979, Chow was possibly involved in the last wave of student activism of that era. Later on, a booming local economy and the mainland’s abandonment of a revolutionary position by itself would mute much of the movement’s core appeal.
Almost 40 years later, the buried memory of that decade surfaced again on the Chinese Internet with a new found relevance. When Luwei Rose Luqiu, a well-known former TV journalist from Hong Kong, cited those events in a Weibo post, she clearly took aim at a more recent sentiment on the mainland: “Some of those students were disheartened after what happened in 1989. The rest of them were considered ‘unpatriotic’ for their participation in the Umbrella Movement. But they continued to love the country by their own principles.” There is bitterness in such response: when netizens and media on the mainland hailed Chau’s act of national solidarity, they were probably unaware of where his national imagination came from and whether it’s identical with what’s broadly understood as patriotism by the mainlanders, just as the democratic ideals manifested in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement were widely perceived as separatist impulses on the mainland. Other commentators built on Luqiu’s historical recollection and recounted the continued tradition of Hong Kong’s college students to orient themselves toward the motherland in the 1990s. At that time, students organized reading groups that brought in high school students to discuss the future of Hong Kong and of the motherland, “reading for the progress of history and the rise of China.”
This is a kind of complex that Lung Ying-tai probably didn’t fully grasp. The moment she branded “My Motherland” a “red song”, she underestimated the emotional appeal of those simple lyrics. As people pointed out, “red songs” typically referred to those created during the Communist Party’s Yan’an years (when it was a rebel government conducting socialist experiments in a mountainous enclave) and later during the Cultural Revolution. In both periods, songs were often overtly propagandist, unabashedly praising the Party or Mao himself. But “My Motherland” is different. Written in year 1956 as an interlude in a Korean War themed movie, its expansive lyrics transcend the war and the politics of its time. Rather, it speaks to the very fundamental aspiration of the Chinese people, who at that time, had barely emerged from the decades of turmoil and humiliation that preceded the founding of the People’s Republic. The folk song style (which the song writer borrowed from popular tunes of the early 1950s), the idyllic image of the scenery along the “big river” (which was based on the Yangtze River) and the overall mood of confidence and pride expressed in the song reflect the Zeitgeist of a newly built country finally able to defend itself. Despite the disastrous years that followed, the spirit of the song never stopped inspiring those who believe in national rejuvenation.
On Weibo, people also reflected on the ironic fate of the song in China, further complicating the categorization of this communist era oeuvre as pure propaganda. As one commentator recalled, the song, along with others that were not blatantly “revolutionary” in their messages, were banned during the Culture Revolution. Its creators, including the director of the Korean War movie, were persecuted as “Rightist elements”.
All those nuances were either lost or muted in that October encounter in Hong Kong. Lung Ying-tai could not immediately “get” Albert Chau’s spontaneous expression of his affection for the “motherland”. Nor was the complexity of a Hong Kong professor’s national aspirations fully understood by a mainland audience who hailed it as a rejection of Lung’s universalist message. Rather unfortunately, Luqiu’s account was met with another round of bickering about the legitimacy of the Umbrella Movement, a sign of deep-rooted division between today’s Hong Kong and the Mainland. The situation made some lament the “lack of shared assumptions for dialogue”.
If history is indeed a river, it seems that the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China have each drifted on different rivers for too long. Even with the best intention and an openness for conversation, they find themselves unable to step into the same river anymore.