Want us to respect national anthems? Give us better songs!

Yonden Lhatoo is willing to toe the line when it comes to showing respect in public for national anthems, but asks why they have to be so warlike instead of relevant and likeable

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 11:04pm

Sorry if it sounds sacrilegious in these rather sensitive times, increasingly ruled by gratuitous patriotism, but if we must make such a big deal about national anthems, can we at least update and improve them?

Hong Kong is on the verge of adopting China’s new law making it a crime to disrespect the national anthem, and it’s causing a conniption here.

The city’s guardians of democracy are worried the impending legislation will be used to draconian effect, while Beijing loyalists can’t wait for it to be applied to independence advocates and rowdy fans who boo the anthem at soccer games.

Well, if we must conform to state-mandated constraints in considering certain songs to be sacred, how about making them a little more likeable to start with?

Explainer: how do countries around the world foster respect for their national anthem?

I get the whole thing about the revolutionary roots of March of the Volunteers, exclamation marks and all, but it would be nice if our schoolkids don’t sound like they’re going to war every morning to demonstrate their allegiance to the motherland:

With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall!

We are many but our hearts beat as one!

Selflessly braving the enemy’s gunfire!

March on! March on! March on!”

Hongkongers are not much into walking, let alone marching – they’ll line up for the lift to take them to the first floor rather than hoof it up a single flight of stairs – and I just don’t see them shedding blood to build any wall, even if it means shutting out their pesky mainland compatriots.

The original lyrics were first written for a propaganda film by playwright Tian Han on the back of a cigarette packet while in prison for political activism in 1935. He was jailed again during the Cultural Revolution and died behind bars in 1968, but his song lives on to haunt Hongkongers.

If it’s any comfort to China, patriotic Americans are all worked up about their national anthem too, led by US President Donald Trump who has clashed with protesting black athletes taking a knee instead of standing up for The Star-Spangled Banner.

They may want to keep in mind that its sacred strains are borrowed from a bawdy 18th century English drinking song that Congress resisted endorsing for more than 100 years.

It’s also notoriously difficult to sing, a musical booby trap even for professional singers, as evidenced by some stunningly awful performances at major public events in the US.

Britain’s God Save the Queen could use an upgrade as well, starting with making it about the country rather than a titular monarch of diminishing relevance. And what’s with lines like “And like a torrent rush/Rebellious Scots to crush”?

I like how Australians find their anthem so insipid and uninspiring, they would rather salute Waltzing Matilda, the ubiquitous folk song about a sheep rustler who drowns himself rather than be captured by police. They should totally make it their anthem; it’s so ... Australian.

Some will still boo national anthem after Hong Kong passes local law against it, political heavyweight Maria Tam says

Have you noticed that every country talks about peace, but national anthems are all about “don’t mess with us or else”?

Vietnam is still sticking it to America: “The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes”; Algeria’s resentment runs deep: “When we spoke, none listened to us, so we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm/And the sound of machine guns as our melody”; and Israel’s enemies had better not unleash “the volcano of my vendetta”.

Watch: five reasons China’s national anthem is the saddest ever

Oh, for a genuinely beautiful national anthem. I have one in mind, and it’s not even a song:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth ... Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.”

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post