Red Songs

Landgent Center

From my apartment window, the twin towers of Landgent Center look like razor blades ready to shave a beard of clouds off the sky. Just south of the World Trade Center in the Central Business District, Landgent Center is something of a landmark in Beijing. If you’re meeting someone in or taking a taxi to Shuangjing, it’s the universal reference point. The Landgent company (乐成lèchéng in Chinese, which can mean “happy success”) owns several properties on the surrounding blocks. There are multiple apartment complexes with names like Landgent Chateau 乐成公馆, there’s the Beijing City International School -Beijing Landgent International School in Chinese- and the Golden Heights “eldergarten” to name a few.

Evenings in the Center proper are pretty happenin’. The lights of the massive Viva mall across the street flash and mix with the smog making a purple, pink and yellow mess of the air. It’s almost impossible not to rub shoulders with the crowds. Rollerbladers, break dancers, guitar players, martial arts performers, karaoke singers and dancers all stake out their spots and do their thing, hoping for passersby to drop some cash on their way. The Center seems to check off each point in the list of what makes an Asian international financial district these days: McDonald’s, Subway, Costa Coffee, BHG, 7-11, Chinese, Japanese and Indian restaurants, Disney English and an Audi showroom next to a Bösendorfer showroom.

But, in the clang of noise pollution that is Landgent Center at night, there are no classical Viennese compositions to be heard. Instead, as you approach the front of the Bank of China, you may hear the words “the East is Red, the sun rises. From China arises Mao Zedong. Hurrah! He is the people’s great savior!”

It’s The Voice of Harmony Wind Instrument Music Group, and they sing Red Songs.

The East Is RedHere is the last stronghold of Party fervor in a den of real estate development and commercialism! This is the Yan’an of Landgent Center!

Er, well, not really. I met Mr. Zhang when I went to talk to them one night as they were warming up in their usual spot. The few members who had already shown up were wearing identical US Army uniforms and standing in front of a poster of hand written lyrics to “The East is Red,” riffing away on their saxophones. Some people walking through the square were gathering around. Some were waiting to sing in the cold wind, some were just looking to see what was going on. He was a little busy setting up, so he invited me to come see them practice a few days later in the outskirts of Beijing.

***

Across the street from the Tiger Regiment of the Beijing Garrison headquarters, past a wall with the words “说普通话 – Speak Mandarin” painted on them, and a few more twists and turns we walked up to a small Party-provided community center. As we approached, I felt the rumble of a bass drum and tuba and the buzz of saxophones. The Voice of Harmony was already into their practice session. We slipped in and took a seat at the back while they practiced “Liangzhu.” Four faces gazed out from posters on the wall; Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao.

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Mr. Zhang noticed us and came to the back to talk. He told us the man in the front conducting everyone was Teacher Sun 孙老师, a former People’s Liberation Army official. Teacher Sun was in the midst of summoning sound from the group, making gestures like he was pulling the deepest notes out of everyone.

Mr. Zhang told me I could go take pictures from wherever I liked. While I was doing so, Teacher Sun noticed and said, “shall we take a break? The Americans are here!” Everyone turned their head to me and I managed a smile and wave. He came over and firmly shook my hand “ni hao, ni hao, ni hao!” 

Not quite revolutionarily, the group simply started as something fun to do;

Mr. Zhang: The members here all have had different jobs in society, such as ex-servicemen, government functionaries, teachers, doctors and common workers. Most of them have retired and have a lot of spare time. They get together for fun though they are a bit old. They don’t do this for any special return. They all buy the instruments themselves. All the sheet music of this group is handwritten by Teacher Sun.

Teacher Sun: We have all kinds of instruments. Different instruments have different pitches such as low-pitch, mid-pitch and high pitch. I have to orchestrate for every instrument based on their different characters.

Mr Zhang: The biggest difference between us and other orchestras is that we have 3-4 parts at least. Other orchestras in Beijing that you meet in the parks only have one part, in which all the members play the same thing together. The guy who plays electric guitar in our group is famous in this area. The reason he joined us is that we have these different parts for the different instruments to play. We are more like a real orchestra than the non professionals. 

“Do you just play traditional songs or do you also play original pieces?”

Teacher Sun: Yeah we play traditional pieces. The one you just heard is “Liangzhu.” Later we’ll play a piece that I composed myself.

“What are your songs about?”

Teacher Sun: I’ve only created one piece of music so far. The reason I created this song is because the group’s average age is 60 years old. They have retired and have nothing to do, so they come here to play music together. When they were younger, they all loved music but because of work they had no time to develop their interest in it. They had no chance to join a professional orchestra. So we get together, and I wrote a song for them. It’s called “Dream” 梦. For our music dream. We’ll play it later, you’ll enjoy it.

Song laoshi and MaoTeacher Sun. 孙老师.

“In Shuangjing I always see the group playing Red Songs. Is that the group’s favorite kind of music to play? Do you play it because it’s what you know from childhood or because you like the spirit and message of those songs?”

Teacher Sun: It’s normal to play these songs. We grew up in this country learning Mao Zedong Thought 毛泽东思想. Our predecessors and the Red Army liberated China. This group consists of men around the age of 60, they have a deep impression of the old traditions, so they like to sing, dance and play this music.

Mao and Sax player

People of that age surely spent more than a few school days doing nothing but learning songs of the Revolution. But the ideology no longer seems to play a big factor in their performance. Today, these songs are to them something like what the TV shows and pop songs of your childhood are to you. A marker of a time period. A background for memories and nostalgia.

“Do you ever enter competitions or do events? Or do you prefer to play openly in the street?”

Teacher Sun: We haven’t entered any competitions but we have many opportunities to do events and put on shows. For example during community activities on May 1st (May Day/International Worker’s Day), August 1st (BaYi, or “eight one” for Aug. 1 is the date of the founding of the PLA) and October 1st (China’s national holiday). Sometimes people invite us to perform.

“Do any other group members write music?”

Teacher Sun: The two guys who play guitar also write music. If you like music you can play with us! 

“I don’t know the songs!”

Teacher Sun: That’s ok, we can practice some foreign songs you are familiar with, like “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music.” 

“That reminds me, I’ve seen a foreigner playing in your orchestra before in Shuangjing. Who is he and do you have other foreigners in the group?”

Mr. Zhang: I met him in Ritan Park. He found us by chance and also wanted to interview us for a magazine in the US. 

“开始吧?” -Shall we start?- said Teacher Sun. “Let’s play ‘Dream'” he said. It was a mellow, thoughtful and, well, dreamy piece. “非常好!” – Very good! Teacher Sun gave everyone a thumbs up. “They haven’t played that in months. But they played it very well just now.” As they were playing, one of the women in the group got up and began dancing around the room. She was doing “新疆舞” – a Xinjiang style dance that she made herself.

Dancer with Hu and Jiang

“Ok, what else do you want to play?” “Let’s play something from the Soviet Union!” someone shouted. Teacher Sun pointed over at me, “no, the Soviets and Americans don’t have good relations.” Everyone laughed. We chatted with the clarinet player during another break.

“July 2011. Landgent Square Red Song Choir.
                            I am happy. I offer my participation.”

VOH banner

“How long have you been in this group?”

About half a year.

“How did you hear about it?”

A friend told me to come here.

“Have you always played music?”

I play the clarinet now. When I was young, I really liked music. I often joined activities held by my workplace. At that time, I mostly played accordion. Now that I’m retired, I want to develop my interests more, to play music freely and happily, so I took up clarinet.

“What do you think of Teacher Sun’s music and teaching style?”

I respect and admire Teacher Sun. He is a real music lover, but it’s not his profession. In order to make the orchestra better, he wrote the sheet music and orchestrates the instruments himself. The members’ skill levels are all different, so during practice, he takes time to develop those at a lower level. Sometimes he teaches us music theory. He works really hard for us and we all really respect and admire him for that. We’re really happy to work with him. (Earlier, Mr Zhang had recounted a story of one member who rides his bike for an hour to get to practice who showed up one winter day with a completely frozen mustache.)

“What do the songs you play mean to you?”

I like music that’s softer and better for expressing emotions. We’re all familiar with the marching songs and red songs, but we’re a little tired of those now. Many other orchestras play PLA marching anthems and red songs, so Teacher Sun chooses other kinds of songs. Softer songs. The kind of music people can enjoy and not be called to action. Those other songs can get people too agitated. 

***

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They invited me to come play in the guitar section sometime if I wanted. I found this CD in Tesco a few days later, so I guess I better get started learning some songs. (The 3 CD set is called “I Love the Motherland. I Love the Party. A gift for the Motherland’s mighty birthday.” No, it’s not that kind of party mix. The first 10 songs are the smash hits: “My Motherland,” “Bless the Motherland,” “My Chinese Heart,” “I Love You, China,” “Me and My Motherland,” “Today Is Your Birthday,” “Motherland Praise,” “Hello Motherland,” “A Kiss for the Motherland” and “Long Live the Motherland.”)

Song and ZhangTeacher Sun and Mr. Zhang.

VOHwarm upWarming up in Shuangjing.

VOH BOC warm up

Group shotThe Voice of Harmony Wind Instrument Music Group.

***

There’s a slower, longer story to this group. The Cultural Revolution is credited with the destruction of civil society in China. As recently as when yours truly was just learning how to walk, you would be very hard pressed to find any organization or association that operated out in the open in China which was not under the direct control and supervision of the CCP. Today you have no such problem. Yet, this growing civil society still moves in the shadow of the state. The Voice of Harmony group seems to embody this hybrid existence.

Using party accommodations and conducted by a PLA man and consisting of a few old soldiers, the group has its Party bona fides. But, members join and leave this group under no compulsion. It is a voluntary association organized on the basis of personal interest – the hallmark of civil society. Strange that it should come in red wrapping.

IMG_4332Betty and Mr. Zhang

My friend Betty, who came with me to help interpret, said the group members were really surprised and happy that some young people, let alone foreigners, were interested in what they were doing. Generational differences are eternal and ubiquitous and, in this the Year of our Lord 2014, the gaps between a 60 something and a 24 year old in China are probably some of the biggest to be found, given the very different Chinas they have known.

It wasn’t always like this. In the late 1800s Demetrius Charles de Kavanagh Boulger (let’s call him Chuck) wrote a history of China. Assessing the rule of a late Ming Dynasty emperor in the 1500s he wrote,

It is clear that his influence on the lot of his people and even on the course of his country’s history, was small, and such reigns as his inspire the regret expressed at there being no history of the Chinese people; but such a history is impossible.

It might be more instructive to trace the growth of thought among the masses, or to indicate the progress of civil and political freedom; yet, not only do the materials not exist for such a task, but those we posses all tend to show that there has been no growth to describe, no progress to be indicated, during these comparatively recent centuries. It is the peculiar and distinguishing characteristic of Chinese history that the people and their institutions have remained practically unchanged and the same from a very early period. 

Progress. We’ve finally got it in China after all these centuries. Western historians like Chuck now have those materials with which to measure progress in the Middle Kingdom. As a Westerner myself, Occidental is a better word, I too value “the progress of civil and political freedom.” But I believe history repeats itself, or it at least rhymes, and whatever progress is made in history is the exception. Back to Chuck,

Even the introduction of a foreign element has not tended to disturb the established order of things. The supreme ruler possesses the same attributes and discharges the same functions; the governing classes are chosen in the same manner; the people are bound in the same state of servitude, and enjoy the same practical liberty; all is now as it was. Neither under the Tangs nor the Sungs, under the Yuens or the Mings, was there any change in the national character or in political institutions to be noted or chronicled.

The history of the empire has always been the fortunes of the dynasty, which has depended, in the first place, on the passive content of the subjects, and, in the second, on the success or failure of its external and internal wars.

This condition of things may be disappointing to those who pride themselves on tracing the origin of a constitution and the growth of civil rights, and also would have a history of China a history of the Chinese people; although the fact is undoubted that there is no history of the Chinese people apart from that of their country to be recorded. 

The national institutions and character were formed, and had attained in all essentials their present state, more than two thousand years ago, or before the destruction of all trustworthy materials for the task by the burning of the ancient literature and chronicles of China. Without them we must fain content ourselves with the history of the country and the empire. 

I like to imagine that Chuck would’ve liked to hang out with The Voice of Harmony Wind Instrument Music Group. That history of the Chinese people he looked for and never found is in that little community center; as a group of retirees blowing away at old revolutionary tunes every Tuesday morning.

Revolution is a young man’s game. It may have been the thing that China needed to drag it kicking and screaming towards progress, but those young men have grown into old men, and as the clarinet player said, we’re a bit tired of those songs now.

***

Is Chinese history still that of “the fortunes of the dynasty”? Or will there now be a “people’s history” (shudder) expressed in Chinese civil society? Have we made progress?

Betty writes,

No matter what they believe in, they are loyal to what they believe. Teacher Sun and Mr. Zhang are cute people. They have a pure feeling about music and their dream, and they are dedicated to their beliefs and dreams. As a young person, I respect them. They still have dreams and they still have the motivation to follow them though they are in their 60s.

But if I talk about dreams with some of my friends and peers, I think we have the same “无力感” – powerlessness. Dreams are a little out of our reach. The most immediate reality facing the new generation is how to get a better life, how to buy a house, how to go abroad.

If you ask me if I have beliefs, I’ll say no. If I have to say one, I’ll say “myself.” I think I’m lucky in that I at least believe in myself. Most young people don’t have their own beliefs today. Maybe our parents’ generation believed in the Communist Party and when we were kids we did, too. But now I think many young people wonder what to believe. A person who doesn’t know what to believe, doesn’t really know what he wants, is really really really poor.

From Teacher Sun’s generation, to my parents’ generation until now, each have their own characters and opinions. I believe my children’s generation will be different again, and I think they themselves will be better. No matter what happens around you, just be a better and happy you. I was born in this country. I have my own happiness and troubles living here. And I’ll make efforts to help make it better. Patience and effort. LOL.

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