'March of the Volunteers' anthem endured a long route to acceptance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 September, 2009, 12:00am
 

As it blares out before the evening news or as all-conquering Olympians stand on top of the podium, it is easy to imagine that March of the Volunteers was enshrined in the constitution as soon as Mao Zedong had finished the inauguration of the People's Republic.

In fact, the national anthem's journey to formal acceptance is as twisting as the march it portrays, and it was not ratified as the national anthem under the constitution until 2004.

Just like The Star-Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise, March of the Volunteers was written during a war. It was first used in the soundtrack to a 1935 Shanghai film called Children of a Troubled Time, which called on Chinese youth to resist the expanding Japanese presence in China.

The music was composed by Nie Er, a gifted musician who drowned later that year in Japan at the age of only 23. The lyrics were written by Tian Han in late 1934.

Tian was a member of the Communist Party and wrote the screenplay for the film. Shortly afterwards he was arrested by the Kuomintang, who were seeking to destroy the Communists, many of whom were on the Long March at the time.

The song resonated with many who heard it, and it quickly spread. 'The Chinese nation faces its greatest peril. All forcefully expend their last cries' were words that encapsulated the thoughts of many patriotic Chinese saddened at the woeful state of their country.

Paul Robeson, one of the most celebrated black American performers in the 1930s and 1940s, helped take the song global, performing it in English and Chinese in Egypt, the Soviet Union and some other European countries during the second world war.

When the People's Liberation Army had all but defeated the Kuomintang in the summer of 1949, the preparatory committee of the first Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference began working on the national anthem, flag and emblem. It received nearly 7,000 submissions but settled on March of the Volunteers as the 'acting national anthem'.

Some committee members, concerned about the lyrics, suggested that since the Communists were about to unify the country, it was not proper to sing 'the Chinese nation faces its greatest peril'. But top leaders, including Mao and Zhou Enlai, rejected the suggestion, saying the words should not be changed, as the Chinese people would continue to face many difficulties.

And how right they were. Less than two decades later, the Cultural Revolution began, and Tian found himself in trouble. He was purged from his position as leader of the country's dramatists and labelled a 'capitalist-roader', a traitor and a spy. His name was removed from the anthem's credits, along with that of the late Nie Er. Tian died in a prison-like hospital in 1968 after being tortured.

The only time the music could be played was when foreign dignitaries were visiting. For China's millions, The East is Red, a folk song emphasising the pre-eminence of Mao, became the national anthem and remained so until the 1970s. In 1978, two years after Mao's death, the People's Congress rehabilitated March of the Volunteers, albeit with altered lines.

The new lines said nothing about the war, enemies, and the 'greatest peril' faced by the nation, but focused on the future of communism and Maoism and the importance of 'raising high Mao Zedong's banner'.

The new lines never really caught on and, in 1982, when Deng Xiaoping was firmly in control, the original words were restored, along with Tian's and Nie's credits. March of the Volunteers was also officially adopted as the national anthem and, after a long wait, it was ratified in a 2004 constitutional amendment.

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