Much ado over a song

Why is a song that has been considered a symbol of national pride being spoofed across China by the country's young people? Is it the lack of a sense of history or just an overwhelming confidence in their national identity?

"Yellow River Cantata" is a choral song written in 1939 during the second Sino-Japanese war. The poet himself took part in the war, and his poem, set to music, became a rallying cry for the fight against the Japanese. Mao Zedong was present when it was first performed on stage in Yan'an, the Communist Party capital at the time. The song is taught in school and many paintings have been inspired by it. Its lyrics, full of nationalistic fervour, and its martial beat easily make it one of the most popular songs.

But today, it is being performed as a spoof across the country. A hilarious video has been made, showing four college students in their dormitory nodding their heads and moving their bodies in wildly exaggerated movements as the song is played. One of them even falls off his bunk bed while shaking his body with mock fervour.

Wounded pride

The latest spoof, which has become an internet hit, was performed this year at a private firm's Chinese New Year celebration, by staff wearing caps resembling the faces of panda bears. The original lyrics, "The wind is roaring/ the horses are roaring/ the Yellow River is howling", were changed to, "Annual bonus, annual bonus, we are howling for it/ the boss has even pawned his underwear."

The first to protest were the children of the songwriter and the composer. Calling the spoof a "betrayal of history'' and asking for a ban on such "degrading mimics'', the composer's daughter said she couldn't sleep for days after seeing it. Her father, she said, had composed the song with his "blood and tears". Then, the establishment stepped in. Articles in the official China Daily berated this "spiritual pollution (and) degradation of social morality which undermines national unity and promotes historical nihilism". The ministry of culture is now investigating the case. Meanwhile, it has ordered 17 popular websites to take down such "illicit" content. A total of 3,898 video clips and 165 songs have already been taken down, indicating the extent to which the Chinese make fun of their pre-Liberation national symbols.

Many forms

There has been some support for the official line. But some have described the fuss as a manifestation of the generation gap. Let people decide whether to accept or reject these parodies, they have said. Others point out that television productions on the China-Japan war that show the Chinese tearing the Japanese apart with their bare hands are the real parodies. To their credit, the censors have issued notices against such absurd depictions.

More importantly, even some well-known middle-aged artists have found nothing wrong in such spoofs. On a television talent show in 2014, the jury laughed so hard at a slapstick performance of the "Yellow River Cantata" that one of them had to actually wipe her eyes. After the performance, a famous movie actor, director and writer on the jury, told the performers: "Patriotism takes many forms. All that matters is that you love your country in your heart."

But that is not how the government sees it. Last year, after a parody of the national anthem surfaced on the internet, mocking the national song was made an offence, punishable with 15 days' imprisonment. In 2016, an internet celebrity who made fun of a war hero was ordered by the court to publicly apologize for five consecutive days.


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