By Cathy Yan, Jan 22, 2011, Wall Street Journal.
Pianist Lang Lang in many ways embodies the Sino-American comity that both President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama emphasized during their summit this past week—which is no doubt why he was chosen to perform at the White House state dinner for Mr. Hu on Wednesday.
Born in China, Mr. Lang went to the U.S. as a teenager to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He is fluent in both English and Mandarin. He is probably equally adored by classical music fans in the U.S. and in China, and splits his time between the two countries.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise that he is now being praised by nationalist Internet users in China for a perceived anti-U.S. slight supposedly implied in the 28-year-old’s choice of music that night.
As part of the state dinner’s “quintessentially American” program (PDF), Mr. Lang was invited along with a number of U.S. jazz musicians in an “Evening of Jazz.” He and the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock played a four hands version of a Maurice Ravel song, exchanging hugs afterward (see video of the performance here, and on Mr. Lang’s website here). Journalist James Fallows, who was at the dinner, describes the evening here).
Then, the plot thickened—at least, that’s how some read it. After bilingual comments to the assembled VIPs in which he said it was a “great honor” to be playing, he proceeded to perform a solo piece, which he introduced as a “Chinese song called ‘My Motherland.’”
The song is not just any old song. As Chinese netizens have pointed out, “My Motherland” is the theme song for a famous anti-U.S. movie about the Korean War from 1956, titled “Battle on Shangganling Mountain.”
The song lyrics do not mention the war and are very peaceful, speaking of memories of a hometown and how “young ladies are like flowers.”
But the film depicts a particularly brutal battle between Chinese and American troops during the Korean War, or what the Chinese call “The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.” The movie also depicts Chinese troops enduring freezing weather with no food or water and American soldiers using flame throwers and laughing at burning Chinese soldiers. In retaliation, there’s a lot of killing of American troops later in the film.
Lang Lang himself appears to have been blissfully unaware of the political minefield he was stumbling into. In a blogpost on Sina.com headlined “Sharing a Day at the White House”, he describes the beauty of the song and its resonance with Chinese people. “I’m deeply honored and proud that I was able to play this song that praises the strength of China and the solidarity of the Chinese people in front of many foreign guests, especially leaders from all over the world.”
He posted a string of photos on his website of him posing with the celebrities at the dinner.
Yu Jianhong, director of the movie management department of Beijing Film Academy, says “Battle on Shangganling Mountain” is a “famous movie that deeply influenced a whole generation,” especially people born in the 1940s to 1960s (Mr. Lang was born in 1982). The song, Mr. Yu says, “transcends all historic events and times,” he says. Mr. Yu thinks that the song’s main theme is not about beating American imperialism, but rather, “about the love of the motherland and the longing of peace and a happy life.”
In any case, the irony of playing an ode from an anti-American Chinese movie at a White House event dedicated to Sino-U.S. cooperation and friendliness has set the Chinese web abuzz—and more than a few people are convinced it wasn’t an accident.
Both the Sina and Sohu news portals reposted an article that they attributed to the Beijing Evening News, with the headline: “Lang Lang Played ‘My Motherland’ at White House, Flaunting National Power.”
“Those American folks very much enjoyed it and were totally infatuated with the melody!!! The U.S. is truly stupid!!” wrote a user named You’re In My Memory on Sina’s micro-blogging site. This particular post was re-posted many times.
Some speculated whether Lang Lang knew of the significance and questioned whether it was his idea to play the song. Certainly nothing about Mr. Lang’s demeanor that night suggested that he intended to send a politically charged message, however subtle. Nor is he known to be an especially political figure. And one has to wonder whether he would really jeopardize his standing in the U.S., where he has a loyal fan base and where he lives much of the time.
Mr. Lang’s representatives could not be reached. A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing said that they were not aware of what songs Lang Lang played at the state dinner.
Regardless, Mr. Lang seems to have found himself some new fans among the patriotic set in China.
“I think Americans should also be familiar with this song, whose meaning is so notorious that you don’t even need an explanation,” wrote user Winter Frost Rain on Sina’s micro-blog. “Lang Lang is too cool.”
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