Last night’s song competition for the Communists Party’s 90th birthday was one of the most bizarre musical experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve had some doozies. Imagine a combo of the TV show Glee, a Maoist communal farm rising up in song, and a martial tune on repeat with an overzealous drum and synthesizer track in the background. One of our theories about the seeming lack of planning and organization is that everything is so structured, ritualized, and prescribed that the locals do not need careful instruction. The foreigners, for example, didn’t even get a straight answer on the time until two hours beforehand.
As always, the event remained mysterious to the foreigners, and most of what I figured out came from reading international newspapers that Red Songs were hottest during Mao’s heyday. “Protecting the Yellow River,” which we heard several times last night was composed in 1938 during the Chinese/Japanese war and concludes with these words
The green fields are full of courageous soldiers
Wielding their rifles and their pistols
Waving their swords and their spears
Protecting the homeland, protecting the yellow river
Protecting the north of China, protecting the whole of China
The command performance of Red Song competitions comes as part of an effort by the government to beef up red culture—a giant pep rally. In big cities governments organized Cultural Revolution style mass choruses and every institution including mental hospitals and jails staged these events. The irony is thick and critics in China say that you can’t feed people with songs. University professors say that forced group revelry attempts to control and that the songs represent an attempt by the party to reclaim control in an atmosphere people no longer believe in communism as a political system and where as an economic system it no longer exists.
We are far enough away from the center of power that almost none of this tension seemed to exist. I even asked the grad students leading questions and still got nothing. The foreigners’ were also asked to participate in a show of solidarity. In a bonding of the other kind of way our group made up of American, Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian, French, Russian, Dutch, British and Scottish people felt very connected at that moment. Our Russian friend had flashbacks to her youth and couldn’t believe that she was actually at an event like this. Our contribution to the event included my playing a Chinese song on the viola dressed as a Dai woman and then the whole group singing Auld Lang Syne in English and Chinese. Luckily the genomics conference that occurred this week left us with a few extra foreigners who could carry a tune, and we had an accompanist, which seemed good until it became clear that he considered the tune to be a traditional Scottish funeral processional and chose his tempo accordingly. My fashion became a collective project. I tried to buy shoes to match but the only thing I could find in town that fit were men’s red flip flops. Rebecca and her friend Surya spent the day beading them and finished it off with a lime green bow—child labor.
The Chinese groups all dressed in matching outfits, which for the most part consisted of black pants and matching bright colored golf shirts. One group’s shirts said Jamaica and another had the playboy bunny on the back. The grad student girls wore tiny plaid skirts and white shirts, which looked like Catholic school uniforms. So I, the tall white woman, was the only person in traditional clothes. And I wore the festival outfit of the Dai people, who are an ethnic minority that comprise the majority of the local population. In 1950 The CCP began labeling ethnic minorities. In their hierarchy of these minorities the Dai stand as ideal. They are “exotic,” and “docile.” Of course this also means that they neither assimilate nor modernize and thus stand far from the ideal Chinese. I’m not clear on the political and practical ramifications of this classification. The government allows the Dai special privileges; they can have more than one child, receive tax breaks, and can practice religions that were banned for Han Chinese. But they have no real political power. And when the government decides that an ethnic minority has gone too far the story is not pretty. So I can’t begin to figure out how to read the performance of a white woman in Dai clothing at a CCP festival. After all, Westerners exoticize the Chinese and the Chinese do the same with the Dai, so the whole process was turned on its head. In the end I was the exotic one.
The foreigners walked up the hill towards the auditorium together, and as we walked we sensed something big. We saw more cars than we’ve seen since we got here. When we arrived the place bustled with groups practicing, all in their outfits. Everyone, including the men had make up on; we especially liked the blue eye shadow to match the blue shirts. And some of the groups sounded really good. This rendered the kids temporarily speechless, and Jonathan wanted to know why their patriotic songs sounded just like ours. A triadic common time martial tune apparently sends a rather universal message.
At about 8 everyone filed into the auditorium and sat in assigned seats. As soon as we saw that the stage featured a scene of the Garden with the Chinese flag functioning as the sun and hammer and sickles all over the place we knew we were in for quite an evening. We saw no picture of Mao, but he was there in spirit. We learned that we were number 13 out of 16. The party secretary of the garden introduced the judges and welcomed everyone to the event. In case we forgot that we are living in a communist country the institute has two administrative tracs—scientific and communist party. The senior scientists (big potatoes according to the students sitting next to me) performed first. What had sounded in the rehearsal like a small decent choir came out as something completely bizarre. They had piped in an accompaniment which was very techno sounding; with a rhythm loop, lyrical overdubbing, and for the martial tunes aggressive triadic accents. The conductor waved his arms enthusiastically in a beat that had nothing to do with the drum loop, and the singers sang together and followed neither the drum loop nor the conductor. The solosits, including the party secretary were terrible. Only a few of them seemed to sport real revolutionary fervor.
The grad students’ stole the show with their glee style combo of “Walking towards rejuvenation” followed by “Love Each Other” I’m working on getting translations of the songs. The first was classically martial and prompted Eli to march up and down the aisles with a pretend sword. Jonathan said it reminded him of the Red Guard and wondered if they were coming. Rebecca was sitting with her friends, so I have no idea what she thought. The grad students had serious revolutionary fervor, big smiles, swaying to the beat. The march moved seamlessly into a cheese pop with techno underpinnings ballad, which basically talks about, shared goals and shared love. The song featured two very buttoned up students belting out soloes as if they played lead roles in a romantic drama. The conductor, who will begin her PhD in Madison, WI this fall, turned around and had the entire audience clapping and singing along by the end. We also heard from the garden staff (as in grounds keepers,) retirees, tour guides, bus drivers, and cleaning people, the pharmaceutical company, and a few others I lost track of. The rejuvenation song came gain and again as did the anthem of the Cultural Revolution: The East is Red.
Interestingly the retirees and grounds keepers had a different kind of timbre; their singing sounded less polished and the pitches warbled. As is poignantly obvious when you live in a fancy house two hundred yards from people who don’t have running water, communism is far from a classless society; in fact the class systems are more rigid here than anywhere else I’ve ever been. But I’ve also never seen an event that literally puts on the same platform high-powered government officials and senior scientists with grounds keepers and people who get up every morning at 5 to sweep the roads with bamboo brooms.
When it was time for our group to take the stage, the grad student in charge ushered us out into the warm up area and sent Manuel, Eli and me to a special entrance with the pianist. This also meant that we had left nine foreign kids with no supervision. I have my Made-in-China crappy viola with me that I purchased for the rock band with me. Our conductor wanted me to talk about bringing my viola to its homeland. I said that dressing up and playing was all I could muster. I was actually getting nervous; this is a big crowd with varying degree of fervor, and for all I knew the idea of white chyc in native garb playing red song was terribly offensive. And for the record it’s been a long time since I TA’d for a world music class, but it sounded more Jewish than Chinese to me. My friend Chai Shen turned pages, and I let it rip. When I got the melodic part that was supposed to be soft I suddenly heard many many people humming along—they did in fact know the tune. I gave up on dynamics and just belted out. Usually, when I perform the Pixar effect of the whole thing, every little thing is exaggerated and brightened, works most dramatically on my mistakes, scratches, fingers on fingerboard etc.. This time I found the sounds of the auditorium captivating—old people humming along with me, little kids clapping, and the occasional screech of one of my children from outside. When we sang out dirge style Auld Lang Syne the audience also tried to clap but it didn’t quite work. Jonathan and Rebecca kept saying “we have this song on the UVa band cd. The words should be glory to Virginia.”
The graduate students won the event which made sense; they rocked. The big potatoes came in second; they sucked. Coming in second though was clearly strategic. They couldn’t win because they so clearly sucked but they couldn’t not place because that would mean loosing face.
When it was all over the foreigners walked down the hill and all noted that in no other place could they imagine an event like this. Rather than booze, watermelon, fireworks and games, the patriotic anniversary was celebrated with a serious song contest, and everyone participated. Manuel wants UVa to conduct similar events to promote school spirit and harmony. I’m pretty sure I have not done it justice but if we get a dvd of it I’ll happily share.