You Can’t Have a Party Without Music: A Red Song Primer

“Red Songs”, nationalist anthems of the Maoist era, have exploded across China from Chongqing where their resurgence began. China Real Time Report provides a Red Songs 101 for the arguably fortunate uninitiated.

The origins of red songs are varied – adapted from old folksongs, poetry and anthems from the Sino-Japanese war. What these revolutionary ditties all have in common is they are all performed for the express purpose of endorsing the Party and encouraging Chinese nationalism ….

The messages might be simple: love Chairman Mao, love the Party, hate the Japanese. But the musical arrangements can be quite complex. The defining work of some composers’ careers would be their arrangement of a particular red song ….

The revival of the revolutionary spirit might have helped Bo [Xilai, Chongqing Party Secretary] find favor with the Party faithful, and members of an older generation nostalgic for times gone by (including, it would appear, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). But the reintroduction of red songs has not been without controversy. Top of the list for naysayers – the link between red songs and violence of the cultural revolution.

Critics have also taken aim at the shameless spirit of Party propaganda the red songs embody. One newspaper article that claimed red songs had helped heal the mentally ill (in Chinese) seemed like a step too far and excited the ire of critics. Meanwhile, photos showing representatives of China’s “big five religions” – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism – dressed in traditional garb and singing red songs have produced a flood of snorts and chuckles from online commentators. “At last it’s happened – everyone reading the same scripture,” quipped one user of the popular Sina Weibo microblogging service in a comment widely repeated throughout Chinese social media.

Bo recently tried to play down the Cultural Revolution connection, claiming that the movement was simply “aimed at energizing communities and motivating people in good faith.”

The China Real Time post features videos and translated lyrics of three “Golden Reddies”: “The East Is Red”, “Protect the Yellow River” and “Walking into a New Era”. For more musical entertainment, see a Tibetan red song and some very non-red Mongolian rap, via CDT. Alternatively, Foreign Policy has posted a gallery of Mao-era propaganda art, Chairman Mao’s Technicolor Dream World.


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