Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

China's national anthem got a boost from a US star

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-07-05 10:05

The tale of how March of the Volunteers became China's national anthem is one for the Robin Hood's barn file. Writer David Bandurski has done a nice job of laying it out for Quartz recently. What's interesting is that embedded in the piece's odyssey is a strong connection with the US.

The music came first, in 1935. Chinese composer Nie Er writes "a lively march" (Marcia Vivace) in the key of G major and, like all marches, in 2/4 time. (The composer drowned to death in Japan's Sagami Bay the same year.)

The march became the soundtrack for a film titled Children of Troubled Times produced by Shanghai's Diantong Film Company, telling the story of young people leaving behind their lives of leisure and volunteering to fight the invading Japanese. They sing Nie Er's melody, with words supplied by Communist Party member, poet and screenwriter Tian Han:

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!

With our fresh blood, let us build a new Great Wall

March on! March on!

In 1935, France's Pathe Records produced a record of the song for gramophone and it was sold in department stores. Within a year, it was being played all over China. A Shanghai activist named Liu Liangmo, who worked for the YMCA, promoted singing the song - and others - to stir up nationalistic sentiment.

In 1939, Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens gave the song a cameo in his gut-wrenching chronicle of China's suffering under Japanese aggression, The 400 Million (which is viewable on youtube, but be forewarned).

Liu Liangmo left China for the US in 1940 on a personal mission to raise America's awareness of what the Japanese were doing in his homeland and how they were trying to fight back.

Ten years later, he would write for New York's China Daily News, a Chinese-language publication, recalling how he arrived in the US having few connections but with many Chinese songs of resistance under his arm to introduce to the US, when he got a big break, in the person of singing and movie star Paul Robeson:

"whose fame had reached me even when I was in China, and whose sonorous voice I had already heard on the silver screen and on gramophone records," he wrote. "I thought if only I could get Robeson to sing the songs of resistance, there could be nothing better."

Liu had a friend who knew Robeson and a phone call led to a meeting.

"You just came from China?" Robeson said in his celebrated deep basso profondo voice. "Wonderful! Wonderful!"

Liu told the 6-foot-3 African-American avid civil rights activist about the songs of resistance. Robeson asked him to sing some of them, then asked him to repeat March of the Volunteers.

Weeks later giving a concert in an open air amphitheater in West Harlem, Robeson held up his hand asking for silence.

"Tonight, I want to sing a song for the heroic Chinese people in battle," he said. "The title of the song is Chee Lai." And he proceeded to sing March of the Volunteers in flawless Mandarin.

Robeson recorded the song with a youth chorus Liu had put together from New York's laundry workers, and revenue from sales of the gramophone recording went to the war effort in China.

The song gained star power and, as Bandurski reports, Robeson had become what one scholar called "an astonishingly powerful spokesman for the Chinese resistance against Japanese aggression".

Three years later, during World War II, a lieutenant colonel filmmaker in the US Army propaganda department named Frank Capra used the march for his film The Battle of China, the sixth in his Why We Fight series.

In September 1949, the Political Consultative Conference advisory body decided that until "the formal designation of a national anthem of the People's Republic of China, the national anthem will be March of the Volunteers".

Noting Paul Robeson's passing in 1976, the People's Daily ran a tribute, saying: "In the period of the Chinese people's war of resistance, he sang 'March of the Volunteers' in the Chinese tongue and supported the war of the Chinese people against the Japanese, becoming a true friend to the people of our nation."

In March 2004, the Chinese constitution was amended to include March of the Volunteers as its official anthem.

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