January 23, 2011
Lang Lang the pianist says he chose it. Chairman Hu Jintao recognized it as soon as he heard it. Patriotic Chinese Internet users were delighted as soon as they saw the videos online. Early morning TV viewers in China knew it would be played an hour or two beforehand. At the White House State dinner on Jan. 19, about six minutes into his set, Lang Lang began tapping out a famous anti-American propaganda melody from the Korean War: the theme song to the movie “Battle on Shangganling Mountain.”
The film depicts a group of “People’s Volunteer Army” soldiers who are first hemmed in at Shanganling (or Triangle Hill) and then, when reinforcements arrive, take up their rifles and counterattack the U.S. military “jackals.”
The movie and the tune are widely known among Chinese, and the song has been a leading piece of anti-American propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for decades. CCP propaganda has always referred to the Korean War as the “movement to resist America and help [North] Korea.” The message of the propaganda is that the United States is an enemy—in fighting in the Korean War the United States’ real goal was said to be to invade and conquer China. The victory at Triangle Hill was promoted as a victory over imperialists.
The song Lang Lang played describes how beautiful China is and then near the end has this verse, “When friends are here, there is fine wine /But if the jackal comes /What greets it is the hunting rifle.” The “jackal” in the song is the United States.
The name of the song is “My Motherland,” originally titled “Big River.” In an interview broadcast on Phoenix TV, the first thing Lang Lang is quoted as saying is that he chose the piece.
He then said, “I thought to play ‘My Motherland’ because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song. I think it’s especially good. Also, I like the tune in and of itself, every time I hear it I feel extremely moved.”
He expressed this idea more frankly in a later blog post, writing: “Playing this song praising China to heads of state from around the world seems to tell them that our China is formidable, that our Chinese people are united; I feel deeply honored and proud.”
Known in Advance
Whether Lang Lang’s decision to play “My Motherland” was entirely his own is impossible to confirm. That his choice was known in advance to CCP officials is very likely.
Cheng Xiaonong is a former assistant to former CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. He now lives in New Jersey and is a commentator on Chinese politics.
Cheng said that “The White House had to report in advance to the Chinese delegation and so the Chinese delegation would have certainly known Lang Lang’s program.”
Cheng believes, however, that the Chinese delegation would see no reason to suggest a change in the program. “The program is not against the interests of China. In fact, it is the opposite.”
In addition to the Chinese delegation likely knowing of the program in advance, CCP officials connected to Phoenix TV would also have known.
Phoenix TV is based in Hong Kong and its signal may be seen throughout China by satellite. Its interview with Lang Lang was broadcast at 7 a.m. Beijing time on Jan. 20, which is 6 p.m. D.C. time on Jan. 19—shortly before the state dinner. The interview was not live—it was filmed on another day in advance of the broadcast.
Phoenix TV, nominally independent, is known to have very close ties to the CCP. The scholar Anne-Marie Brady, whose research focuses on China’s media and propaganda, has said that Phoenix TV is more loyal to the Chinese regime than the official state-run media.
At a minimum, the staff at Phoenix TV knew in advance that Lang Lang planned to play the song. Given the close ties between the network and the CCP and the sensitivity of anything broadcast about Hu’s state visit, CCP officials not knowing this in advance would be unusual.
“My Motherland” having been played at the White House will be seen as a propaganda triumph in China.
“In the eyes of all Chinese, this will not be seen as anything other than a big insult to the U.S.,” says Yang Jingduan, a Chinese psychiatrist now living in Philadelphia who had in China been a doctor in the Chinese military. “It’s like insulting you in your face and you don’t know it, it’s humiliating.”
Yang sees Lang Lang choosing this tune as an expression of the deeply anti-American propaganda that is constant in China.
“This deeply anti-American chauvinism has been fanned by the CCP for years; Lang Lang is expressing the feelings of this generation of angry young people,” Yang said.
A well-known example of such feelings was seen on Sept. 11, 2001, when Chinese chat rooms were filled with young people celebrating this act of terror as an American defeat.
Excited at this coup, patriotic Chinese have been circulating the clip for the last several days. One netizen wrote “the right place, right time, right song!”
The phrase “right place, right time, right song” echoes Chinese propaganda and is a declaration of victory over the United States. Chinese have been taught that the United States lost the Korean War. A U.S. general is quoted in the propaganda as describing the Korean War as being “the wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place with the wrong enemy,” which is taken as an admission of defeat. In fact, the quote is from Gen. Omar N. Bradley testifying to Congress as to why the United States should not extend the Korean War into China.
Another Chinese commenting on a forum responded to the Lang Lang performance by writing, “Defeat America, defeat Obama” (writing Obama’s name with the wrong first character, one meaning “sunken” or “dented.”)
Others wrote comments like: “omg!”; “Didn’t they know?”; “Where was the U.S. foreign affairs?” and “Very good. My impression of Lang Lang has really changed.”
More moderate Chinese have expressed disappointment at the attitudes of their countrymen.
A sinovision blog quotes “Professor A” saying : “Everyone knows this Shangganling is from a ‘Resist America, Support Korea’ film, and I think Lang Lang would know that too. If he knew the song’s background and still chose to play it, then you can guess his motivation, or intellectual capacity. If he didn’t know, then mainland China’s education system is in more of a mess than I thought…
“Suppose for a moment that Obama was invited to a banquet in China, and he invited an American artist who had performed in China for many years to play an American war song against China, what kind of reaction do you think the Chinese government and people would have? … I think the American government still doesn’t know the background of this song—if they knew, wouldn’t they be offended?”
Humiliating the US
Whether Chinese officials intended Lang Lang to play this piece, its performance at the White House fits a general pattern of Chinese propaganda attacking the United States. Subtle details are seized on and used to humiliate the United States before the Chinese people.
When Nixon visited China, a photo was taken of him getting off the plane to greet Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Nixon has a big smile and extends his hand out to Zhou. Zhou stands with a rigid face and holds his hand close to his body.
The photo was widely used in all of the Chinese media to help support the idea that Nixon’s visit was a victory for China. Chinese schoolchildren were told, “See how long Nixon’s arm is stretched out? That shows the United States is reaching out to us.”
When President Obama visited China in November 2009, he toured the Imperial Palace. Obama exited through the Shen Wu Men, which may be translated as Gate of Divine Prowess. CCTV reported that he exited through the Shun Zhen Men, which may be translated as “Gate of Obedience and Purity.”
In fact, the Gate of Divine Prowess is the outer gate and everyone must exit through it. However, Chinese media would not accord President Obama the honor of going through the “Gate of Divine Prowess.”
Neither the White House nor the Chinese Embassy responded to phone calls requesting comment on this story.