Thursday, February 02, 2017

From Mandopop

Over the last month, I’ve been busy making videos for Newsbud, the indie news outfit run by Sibel Edmonds.  Don’t be a free media leech! Go to, view my stuff, retweet it, and pay a few bucks and become a member!

My most recent Newsbud video keyed off the CCTV New Year’s Gala to make some points about CCP ideology and strategy.  Watch it!  Don’t make me ask again!

As a reward for watching the video and reading this post, at the end I explain the mysterious reference to “the dragon”.*

The gala’s musical numbers are BigBIGBIG! With the exception of the feed from the Shanghai satellite which, quite frankly, was kinda lame.  The centerpiece attraction for the Shanghai number was a reprise of the Ringling Brothers warhorse EIGHT MOTORCYCLISTS IN THE GLOBE OF DEATH!!   

On the other hand, now that Ringling—a destination for dozens of Chinese acts over the decades—has shut down, I hope circus performers, not just Chinese but also foreigners—like the Ukrainian contortionist who popped up in the last hour of the telecast—will find rewarding employment at the Chinese New Year’s gala.

But I wondered if Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai gang wasn’t interested in putting its shoulder to the wheel bigly for Xi Jinping’s propaganda/softpower jamboree.

No such reticence at the satellite venue at Liangshan, in Sichuan,  home of the PRC launch site at Xichang where those Chinese rockets go up and sometimes, unfortunately come down, with horrific consequences.  (Interestingly, now the PRC considers Hainan secure enough to move its main geosynchronous launch operations down there and Xichang is shifting into a backup role).

I must say I had my kneesocks knocked off by this number.  You might want to put this on the big screen TV and crank it.  Full screen on the PC at the very least.  Or, if you're watching on a phone, put your eye real close, I guess.

Quite a few interesting matters illustrated by this video other than its over-the-top awesomeness.

First off, it showcases nationalities, specifically the Yi nationality of the Liangshan Autonomous Prefecture.  As I point out in the video, a theme of the gala was the synergies between national harmony, strength, and prosperity, not a terribly unwelcome message as the United States descends into rancor and polarization that brings to mind the Cultural Revolution.  As I see it, the message of the gala was that the best future for minorities lies in whole-hearted integration with big/strong/rich Mother China, and Hong Kong and Macau and Taiwan should weigh the advantages pursuing that same path instead of independence/autonomy/impotent resentful grumbling/whatnot. 

Second, the singer, Jike Junyi.  She’s ethnic Yi from Liangshan.  It was not just a question of local girl makes good and gets to perform in a titanic musical spectacle in her home town that gets beamed to a global audience of close to one billion.

She’s a major pop star in China, not just because she has a good set of pipes, but she’s being groomed for the cross-cultural icon/diva role by China’s Mandopop industry.  

I will confess, I didn’t know Mandopop was a thing until I started reading up on Jike Junyi, but apparently the corporate and cultural powers that be have decided that the PRC cannot rely on South Korean boybands and potentially subversive Hong Kong Cantopop to besot the nation’s youth.  

By now there is a well-oiled international machine the devoted to the discovery, grooming, and promotion of global pop stars, exemplified by South Korea’s SM Entertainment musical agency (and profiled in John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine).  In female diva-dom, the process is well represented by Rihanna, who couldn’t sing very well but blew them away at her audition with her devastatingly chic turnout (which she had spent half the night agonizing over) and regal demeanor.

Jike Junyi’s breakthrough moment came on The Voice of China, which is basically The Voice in China, a competitive audience-vote-driven talent show.

The song that won the audience’s heart was Jike Junyi’s rendition of a plaintive Yi folksong paired with…paired with…well, I’ll just show you:

Jike Junyi didn’t win the overall competition, placing third, but she did establish a strong, winning presence and a good look that, I’m guessing, like Rihanna’s, could serve as raw material for the diva machine.  Interestingly, she wasn’t even the only Yi singer in the competition.  Alu Azhuo, a successful Yi ethnicity singer who was more of an ingénue type, did well, but not as well as Jike Junyi.  

Maybe a bakeoff to find a minority popstar was going on, and Jike Junyi was perceived as the coolsexysassy type who could wear the diva mantle…and also, interestingly, checked the “dusky” box for, not so much for minority exoticism as her ability to bestow cool transnational/transracial cred on her largely Han audience.

She is now in the hands of TH Entertainment and has the full retinue of career managers, songwriters, producers, stylists, and whatnot tasked with giving a diva’s career escape velocity.

Much has been made of Jike Junyi’s childhood struggles with her skin color, and her subsequent decision to set aside the whiteners and celebrate her ethnic heritage. 

Her tanned skin color and passionate personality also made her a favorite of the fashion industry. She was featured on the cover of the Chinese edition of Vogue magazine soon after she won third place in The Voice of China.

Lucia Liu, one of China's most prominent fashion stylists, who is the style director of Harper's Bazaar China, has been working closely with Jike after she signed on with TH Entertainment in early 2013. Liu will also design the costumes for Jike's upcoming concert, which, as she describes, will be eye-catching and cutting-edge.

"I am quite inspired by her skin color, which balances the clothes I chose for her," says Liu, who works between Beijing and London. "We are also good friends. She really likes eating hotpot."

In one of her hits, Colorful Black, Jike sings, "I have dark skin, an intuitive soul and I stick to my color. It doesn't matter how you look at me. You will see my colorful black."

"I used to hate my skin color," giggles Jike, who, like many Chinese young women, was obsessed with white skin tone. She bought lots of whitening toners, but all failed to work.

"Now, I love my skin color because it makes me special. I guess that is my natural gift, like singing," she says.

 Her aspirations to post-racial vanguard status were announced by the adoption of an English-language handle, “Summer” and a trip to Los Angeles to record a duet paired with…paired with…well, I’ll just have to show you.

This video is, by the way, a G thing not as in G for gangsta, but G for General Audiences.  There are obviously still limits to the lengths PRC popstars will go in their quest for global R&B cred.

The next what the actual f*ck moment in Jike Junyi’s career was appearance in a Western-Chinese movie coproduction entitled Outcast in which her role was, in the immortal words of her publicity machine, “starring as the dumb wife of Hollywood star Nicolas Cage”.

Ahem.  “Mute” wife, please.  

Outcast was an early (2014) entry in the burgeoning “Western medieval warrior transplanted to China” genre (no, seriously, that’s also the premise of that The Great Wall movie with Matt Damon you’ve been seeing all the posters for).  In the movie, the bad guys cutting out the tongue of Jike Junyi’s character (mercifully a pre-existing condition, not an action beat, perhaps to spare Jike the burden of wrestling with English dialogue) serves as fuel for Cage’s intense feelings of grievance.

You can see the movie now on Netflix.  It was absolutely flayed by critics but whatever.  Mysteriously, the movie missed out on the big China payday it was undoubtedly banking on as suddenly, literally days before it was going to open in 5000 Chinese theaters, the PRC government yanked it without explanation.  Maybe the Chinese government said, What?! You put her in the movie and she’s not singing? Get outta here!  

In any case, Jike Junyi got the prize job of singing the theme song for the mainland Mandarin language release of the Disney animated feature Moana.  I feel pretty confident the Chinese government won’t yank that one.

Moving beyond Mandopop, let’s dig into that song that Jike Junyi belted out at the gala.

 It’s a fifty year old chestnut, 情深谊长,which can be translated as Deep Love and Eternal Friendship or, more simply, Friendship.  The song was popularized by the dance opera The East is Red, which presented the official history of the victory of the Chinese Communist Party to Chinese audiences, first as a song/dance/drama stage extravaganza, and then as a legendary film released in 1964.

Friendship commemorates a key episode in the Long March when Liu Bocheng, on behalf of the Communist forces, shared chicken blood in a ritual with an Yi chief to form a bond of blood brotherhood and obtain safe passage through Yi lands.  The chorus, "The Red Army are our brothers" pretty much says it all.  You can see why the song would be a slam dunk for Jike Junyi at the 2017 gala.

Here’s how the song originally appeared in the movie, as sung by Deng Yuhua (who interestingly continues the ethnic theme by being, if not Yi, Manchu):

I apologize for the quality.  Criterion ought to do a restoration/rerelease number on this one.

The East is Red is fondly remembered as a piece of idealistic kitsch from the pre-Cultural Revolution days that gave China the title song as its de facto anthem during the Mao years and provided the soundtrack for the lives of a generation of PRC citizens.  When I first came to Beijing, the PTT clock tower on Changan Jie still tolled the hours using the melody.  Ah, memories!

Unfortunately, The East is Red was also a key step in the establishment of the Mao Zedong personality cult and, when viewed in retrospect, a disturbing harbinger of the impending Cultural Revolution.

The title song, The East is Red, was written in the 1940s.  Mao loved it, for obvious reasons:

The east is red, the sun is rising.
From China comes Mao Zedong.
He strives for the people's happiness,
Hurrah, he is the people's great saviour!

And so on.  There’s a video of the movie version lower down in the post.  It looks and sounds much worse on film than it does on paper.

Greenlighting a stage extravaganza titled The East Is Red wasn’t the case of the Chinese Communist Party, by an act of unanimous acclamation, giving a grateful shout-out to the guy who kicked Chiang Kai-shek’s ass and handed China to the CCP.

In the 1950s, General Peng Dehuai had refused to permit the singing of The East is Red in the PLA as too cultish, which no doubt contributed to Mao’s feeling that Peng was “China’s Khrushchev” angling to tear down “China’s Stalin”.

So the decision to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a big big show titled The East is Red was a big political statement, more like Mao throwing down the gauntlet.

And Mao’s gauntlet-wrangler in chief was none other than Zhou Enlai.

I am deeply, heck, exclusively indebted in the following discussion to an article by Hon-Lun Yang, Unravelling The East Is Red (1964): Socialist Music and Politics in the People’s Republic of China.  The article appears in a collection Composing for the State: Music in Twentieth Century Dictatorships (Esteban Buch, Igor Contreras Zubillaga, Manuel Deniz Silva, Routledge, 2016).  Yang draws on some reminiscences by participants in the stage and film production recently published in China.

Yang traces the roots of TEIR back to North Korea.  Apparently, cast of thousands Arirang style spectaculars were already a fixture in the DPRK in 1960 (interesting point in the China/Korea cultural parity debate, no?); a Chinese Air Force general was suitably impressed by a 3000-person performance in North Korea and came back and mounted a similar effort in China, which subsequently morphed into a Party-centric (as opposed to Mao-centric) effort in Shanghai.

Zhou grabbed the Shanghai show, Under the Banner, and directed its Mao-ization as The East Is Red in a two-month crash program.

[S]everal participants claimed that Zhou’s ideological guidance was a crucial factor in the creative process, and that his instructions saved them the trouble of deciding what the ‘correct’ political stance was and what details of the history of the CCP to include.

For one thing, the Nanchang Uprising (which marked the first significant action of the PLA after the split with the KMT and whose anniversary, August 1, is commemorated as Army Day in the PRC) was downplayed since Mao wasn’t there (and Zhou Enlai was! Smart career/survival move, Zhou, to avoid upstaging Mao!); instead, Mao’s Autumn Harvest Uprising, a rather half-assed exercise that took place a few weeks later, was pumped up in the narrative.

Further, Zhou directed that major play be given to the Zunyi Conference, whose dramatic attributes were pretty limited (guys sitting around in chairs) and subject matter kind of fraught (internal Party strife) but marked the key inflection point in revolutionary history, at least for Mao, as he faced down his opponents and seized direction of the CCP.

Per Yang:

Zhou was…reported to have insisted the Zunyi Conference on stage despite the initial doubts of some members of the artistic team…In the end, the image of the conference site was projected on the screen, the meeting was represented with a dance, and its meaning explained by means of a recitation.

Zhou didn’t stop with micromanaging the scenario.  He also paid close attention to the staging, directing modifications to the auditorium to accommodate a massive 1000-voice choir, getting carpets installed on stage for the acrobats, handling personnel matters, and attending numerous rehearsals.  Zhou also was involved in meetings related to the movie version.

Zhou was apparently universally revered by the talent putting on TEIR, and Yang credits Zhou with using the show to showcase, legitimize, and thereby shield artists and artistic concepts from attack by the culture warriors constellated around Jiang Qing.  Having Western-instrument and Chinese-instrument sections in the orchestra pit is presented as an example of Zhou’s solicitude.

For posterity--and in the eyes of the Party leadership at the time--I doubt that was the message received.

Consider the reaction of Party members—many of whom felt a deep sympathy with Peng Dehuai’s criticism of Mao’s excesses, including his disastrous pursuit of the Great Leap Forward, and were finally seeing some daylight after years of struggling with the crisis Mao had dumped on them—to take their seats in the concert hall to be confronted with a 1000-person choir and musical troupe roaring out song after song in one-sided praise of Mao Zedong.  Then consider the jamboree had been personally staged by party elder and premier political weathervane Zhou Enlai to lay down the popular and cultural line concerning the unique and unassailable stature of Chairman Mao.

The Nuremberg-rallyesque overkill is well captured in the movie’s opening.  There’s a couple minutes of framing/overture, so you can pretend you’re going into the Great Hall of the People just like a citizen of Beijing in 1964 to catch this mind-blowing perf!  Be patient: the song The East Is Red starts at about the 2:15 mark and it’s worth waiting for.

Since the subtitles cut out toward the end of the song, if you're keeping score it's one verse praising the CCP, three extolling Mao, including the big finish about Chairman Mao being the people's savior that I quoted above.

Then consider passages like the dramatic narrative of the Zunyi Conference, describing how Mao took down internal doubters and enemies inside the Party:

Revolution marches on victoriously.  The red base areas flourish.  But opportunists lead the revolution down the wrong path.  Once again, the cause of the people is endangered.  In this critical moment, the Zunyi Conference, like the red sun disperses the heavy fog.  Mao Zedong, our great helmsman, puts the ship on the right course.

The Zunyi sequence comes in at the 41:00 mark.

It doesn’t get much more cult-of-personality-ish than the end of the Zunyi sequence, when the fourth wall is broken and an image of Mao on an immense red flag becomes an object of universal veneration by the actors on stage, the audience in the theater, and the viewers in the cinema.

Clever move by Wang Ping, a stage actress turned revolutionary turned one of the era’s most accomplished film directors.

And those pictures of evil landlords getting led off-stage in dunce caps for a taste of revolutionary justice…

If I was a Party member not in favor with Mao, after the Zunyi sequence I’d be, you know, packing my toothbrush…

The song The East is Red doesn’t appear too often in China today since it is an utterly unapologetic Maoist artifact.

Friendship is, by comparison, ubiquitous.  Maybe because the song—which was composed in 1962 by Zang Dongsheng for a military revue in Shandong and was pulled in during a TEIR brainstorming session wrestling with a shortage of musical material covering the Long March—celebrates the achievement of Deng Xiaoping’s close associate Liu Bocheng, and not Mao.

But also, I suspect, as Jike Junyi’s performance indicates, it’s a kick-ass song.  Deng Yuhua, who sang it in the movie, had a big hit reprising Friendship in 1995; and it’s been reworked as a highbrow chamber piece and accompaniment to modern dance.  

Even when it’s redone as the ultimate power ballad, Friendship still has echoes of the terror and wonder of the Chinese revolution when it was still just a 15-year old teenager.

*The producers didn’t think much of my proposed video cue for the sequence, which would have run out the previous number to its conclusion: a cheesy CGI dragon flying into the frame, then my oh so clever comment.  Too laggy!  Well, talent proposes, editor disposes.  That’s how it goes!


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