Lang Lang Is Innocent!

Jan 30, 2011

Was the Chinese pianist insulting the Americans when he played a Korean War song at the White House? Xujun Eberlein thinks it was just political naivety.

379 Lang Lang at the White House


I haven't paid much attention to news these days, burying my head in writing. This morning, Bob, who was reading the Wall Street Journal, asked me if I knew what song Lang Lang had played at the White House's state dinner for Hu, and why it is regarded as anti-American.

Surprised, I checked it out on the Internet, in Chinese and English. I didn't for a second believe that Lang Lang had any hidden political agenda, so the extent of the Internet and media reaction perplexed me.

It is true that the song in question, "My Motherland", was the theme song of a Korean War movie, which I watched more than once as a child. The song's music is melodious and upbeat, and I still sing it occasionally with Chinese friends when we gather. When I sing it, however, I am not conscious of its origin and political connotation (like you might when singing songs such as the Internationale). The lyrics of "My Motherland" are mostly scenic descriptions, with only one line indirectly nasty ("When a friend comes, there is fine wine / When a wolf comes, a hunting gun is waiting").

I'm sure many of you often have experiences like this: a familiar melody gives you the mood to hum it regardless of its origin or the meaning of the lyrics. As such I totally believe Lang Lang's explanation: "I selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody."

If anything, this incident shows Lang Lang's innocence as an artist. He is neither cynical nor politically savvy. Apparently he did not think of the song's political origin when he chose to play it, as that is not the first concern of an artist.

This reminds me the movie "Farewell My Concubine," in which the leading role, an artist of Beijing Opera, willingly plays for a Japanese invader who loves his art. For this the artist is later deemed as a Chinese traitor and suffers gravely during the Cultural Revolution. Yet until his death he always placed his love for the art higher than politics, to quite naïve extent. This detail of the movie moved me enormously. The man's devotion to art is inseparable from his political naivety, as tragic as that is. And that's what is moving.

Those who extract political pleasure or resentment from Lang Lang's playing of "My Motherland" are savouring their own sentiment, not Lang Lang's.

Those who extract political pleasure or resentment from Lang Lang's playing of "My Motherland" are savouring their own sentiment, not Lang Lang's. That is my conclusion anyway.

Did Lang Lang make a mistake by playing that song? I don't think so. I, for one, advocate an artist to choose whatever music he loves to play.

On a related note, some Chinese netizens take a great pleasure to search for hidden political meaning everywhere. As a means of entertainment, I often find such speculations fun to hear about, for example I once blogged an instance during the Beijing Olympics, see "Hidden Code in the Opening Ceremony."

A more recent example is from the 2011 New Year Chinese movie "Let the Bullets fly," in which the 6th son of the main character, a Robinhood-like hero, dies to prove his innocence. At his funeral, the first man who mourns is his 4th blood brother. Some Chinese netizens speculate that this is the movie's hidden code for commemorating June 4th (6/4). Borrowing a Chinese cliché, this is something that "exists if you believe; doesn't exist if you don't." (信则有,不信则无)

But in most cases speculations are just that – speculations. In Lang Lang's case, there is little point for the media to take the speculation seriously, much less to blow it out of proportion.

And I second Lang Lang's call: Don't politicise art.


This post was originally published on Inside-Out China in January 2011.


See also: Lang Lang’s response on his blog.