Translation Guy Blog
The feel-good visit of Chinese President Hu Jintau to Washington last week, designed to put the best face on the troubled China-US relationship, did not leave everyone feeling so good after all. With China riding high in the public imagination, and President Obama portrayed as the guy who owes you a lot of money, plenty of critics were on the lookout for signs of Chinese arrogance.
The blogosphere on both sides of the Pacific pointed their smoking gun detectors straight at Chinese Pianist Lang Lang when he played the tune, “My Motherland” (我的祖國), a pretty and patriotic old Chinese chestnut, originally the theme song of Battle on Shangganling Mountain (上甘岭), a 1956 Korean War film classic that follows a group of Chinese People’s Volunteer Army soldiers who are holding Triangle Hill for several days against US forces. According to Wikipedia, “The battle of Shangganling has become a symbol of Chinese ‘die for the sake of motherland’ heroism, and also the symbol of fighting spirit of the Chinese military.” Here’s the original version of the song on YouTube. Sort of an odd song selection for a China state visit designed to paper over China’s differences with the Paper Tiger (纸老虎). China First types were able to read between the lines (lyrics here) on the web, and the crowing started even before the song was played.
According to Cathy Yan on her WSJ blog, ”The performance 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.
Once these comments leaked into English, American pundits gave the meme a new twist, mostly confining their charges of stupidity to a particular sub-category of Americans, namely those in the White House. Nicholas Eberstadt, over at the American Enterprise Institute, described the song as “a crude and deliberate snub,” and that clueless China experts “did not know to warn the president that he would embarrass himself and his country by not only sitting through the song, but by congratulating Lang Lang for it afterward.” Doh! So then the question became whether or not pianist Lang Lang (朗朗) and his Chinese masters (of ceremony) deliberately dissed the US to score points with China nationalists, or did they simply let the original anti-American tune slip through the cracks of historical ignorance? (Lang Lang’s performance and some deeply nasty YouTube comments here.)
So next, Ping-Pong serve to China. Lang Lang pleaded innocent, and Chinese state-controlled media argued the same. Except for the part where the wolves [Americans] are kept at bay with hunting rifles, the song is pretty standard ode to country stuff, loaded with the full production quota of great rivers, broad highways, and good-looking women. “This is the place where I grew up,” as the song says.
Since you shouldn’t believe anything you read on the Web, I talked it over with an anonymous friend and former student protestor at Tiananmen Square for her take on the tune. She first learned the song when she was six in kindergarten. She thought the “great river” flowing by was the river in front of her house, which is what the song says. “My family lives right there by the water.” And she figured that if the wolves did come, that they would be wolves, really. Kindergarteners have a way of bringing clarity to language that seems much harder for us grown-ups. Now, of course my informant has seen the battle of Battle on Shangganling Mountain many times, but has never made a connection between the wolves in the song and the Paper Tigers shelling Chinese cadres. So in the court of my personal opinion, if the glove don’t fit, you can’t convict. Lang Lang and the Chinese Ministry have clearly not violated Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
Meanwhile, back in the “home of the free and the land of the brave,” we can only hope that the Brits will be just as offended by the pre-game at the Super Bowl, when the American masses arise to sing of the “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Remember, my fellow Americans, that our anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner,” is an account of those British imperialist running dogs trying to penetrate American Homeland Security, of thee I sing. And if the song is punctuated by a low-altitude military flyover with some fireworks, that will demonstrate to those perfidious cricket-players that bark and bite are one and the same here in the USA. Of course, when these words were first written during the War of 1812, this was no joking matter. Back then, Brit-Yank relations were conducted at bayonet point, and anti-British attitudes in the US took generations and a couple of World Wars to be transformed into the current “special relationship.” The lack of shared culture and language will make a similar rapprochement for China and the US far more challenging, murderous Commie dictatorship or no.