Generations out of tune

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2011, 12:00am


Walk through Jingshan Park in Beijing on a Sunday morning and it is as if the Mao era never ended.

All across the park, which sits just north of the Forbidden City, informal choirs belt out red songs, the stirring tunes that celebrate the Communist Party and the revolutionary spirit, and which from 1949 to the late 1970s were the mainland's sole soundtrack.

Apart from their shared repertoire of songs, the singing groups all have one thing in common: almost every member of them is middle-aged.

Qu Ming is one of the singers. Still out of breath from leading one choir of a hundred or so people in loud, enthusiastic renditions of I am a Soldier, My Country and Come on China, the 57-year-old retired editor in a state-run publishing house says her group can perform 233 red songs. 'I've been singing these songs since I was a young girl and I still get very emotional when I hear them. It's the same for everyone in the choir. Every song has meaning for us, it's our history. For me, pop songs have a short life but these songs will live forever.'

The choirs have become part of a nationwide campaign by the Communist Party to revive red culture. Singing red songs is no longer just a nostalgia trip for mostly retired people but, in some cities, a near-compulsory expression of patriotism and loyalty to the party that spans all ages.

In Tianjin on June 19, thousands of students from primary schools to universities gathered for 'Ode to the Communist Party', a singing contest whose participants paraded in mass formations while dressed in old-style PLA uniforms and waved red stars and flags.

But even with internet censorship and the tightly controlled media shutting out dissenting voices, many people on the mainland are not in tune with the current vogue for red songs.

For some, their resurgence brings back disturbing memories of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when huge parades of red guards chanted their loyalty to Mao Zedong and the party, and millions not deemed faithful enough were 'sent down' to toil in the countryside or worse. Others question the resources being poured into the red culture revival.

He Bing , vice-president of the law school at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, said last month: 'There have been thousands of red-song concerts in Chongqing , and the money being spent on staging them and transporting people to them, as well as the loss of revenue for companies whose staff take part in them, is huge. Why not spend that money on improving social welfare?' His comments on Weibo, the mainland's version of Twitter, have since been taken down.

It was Chongqing that kick-started the red song campaign in 2008, at the behest of Bo Xilai , the city's ambitious party secretary and son of one of the party's eight immortals. Now it has spread across the country, and has helped spawn a wave of movies and TV shows that celebrate the revolutionary era.

No fewer than 28 films whose theme is the Communist Party had been made ahead of the July 1 anniversary. The highest-profile of them, Beginning of the Great Revival, released last month, features stars from both the mainland and Hong Kong, including Andy Lau Tak-wah and Chow Yun-fat, who worked for free.

Yet outside of party members and those with first-hand memories of the early days of the People's Republic, there is little real enthusiasm for the red culture revival. Young people especially seem disconnected from the red flag waving.

'I don't think people of my generation like red songs, or want to see movies about the Communist Party,' said Gu Ting, 21, a student of mass communications at Beijing's Capital University of Economics and Business.

'Our generation likes pop and rock music and Hollywood films. I think, too, that there's resistance to the old songs because people know that they are really just propaganda.'

Supporters of red culture deny that it is state-sponsored propaganda. 'Red art is real art. It's not created by the government; it was created by the people and comes out of normal life,' said Xia Xuelan, a professor of sociology at Peking University. To him, the red culture revival is a reaction against the vulgarity of modern life. 'Red art can inspire people to be more positive and noble-minded,' he said.

In Jingshan Park, there is no debate about the virtues of red songs, or the celebrations surrounding the party's 90th birthday.

'I was born in 1948, so I am a child of the new China,' said Wang Zhanqiu, a 62-year-old retired chemist and weekend crooner of the old songs. 'I feel very proud and excited about the anniversary.'

But with his generation, already into their sixties, there will probably be far fewer people prepared to say the same when the 100th anniversary rolls around.