The Film

The following discussion of The East is Red is excerpted from
Pianos and Politics in China , Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music
by Richard Curt Kraus

( Audio clips of The East is Red are available in the Media Library.)

"The East Is Red": A Change of Anthems
The Cultural Revolution in music did not begin abruptly with some arbitrary political event, such as Beijing University's posters of May 1966. The explosion, when it came, reflected tensions that had long been building within musical circles. The musical fanfare which opened the Cultural Revolution, however, was certainly "The East Is Red," an old revolutionary song which became the movement's anthem. This stirring hymn was the title piece of a musical extravaganza for the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic on October 1, 1964. The East Is Red told the history of China's revolution in song and dance, drawing upon mass song classics and vigorous dancing to spread Mao's message that the lessons of past struggle were relevant to China's continuing problems (73). The song, written in 1942, was based on a northern Shaanxi folk song by a poor peasant named Li Youyuan (1903-1955). It was popular at Yan'an, but had been sung less frequently after Liberation, probably in deference to Party leaders who might object to its words:

The East is red, the sun has risen . China has produced Mao Zedong!
He works for the people's happiness, he is the people's savior.

The song's zealous words and stately melody were the perfect musical accompaniment to the new Mao cult (74).

In fact, China was soon to need a new national anthem. Nie Er's sturdy "March of the Volunteers" had done good service since 1949, but the politics of the Cultural Revolution rendered it unsuitable. Its words had been written by Tian Han, the former patron of Nie and Xian Xinghai, who had become a leading cultural administrator in the People's Republic. When he was swept from power early in the movement, "The East is Red" became China's unofficial anthem. Meetings opened with solemn unison singing of this paean to Mao. The clock of Shanghai's former customs house was adjusted so that "The East Is Red" sang forth in place of the Westminster chimes left behind by the British (75). The Central People's Broadcasting Station began its day with "'The East Is Red," played on a set of bells cast over two thousand years ago in the Warring States period. And when the Chinese sent their first satellite into space in 1970, it broadcast "The East Is Red," washing an entire planet in the purifying sounds of heightened revolutionary consciousness.


73. See Dongfang Hong Gequji ["The East is Red" Song Collection], (Hong Kong: Sanlien Shudian, 1965).

74. See Cai Cai, "Shengge 'Dongfang Hong' de bimo guansi" [A War of Words Over the Hymn, "The East is Red"], Dongxiang [The Trend], 28 (January 1981), 29; Wei Hsia-an, "The Most Powerful Song", Chinese Literature 1 (1970): 108-13; Zhongguo Minjian Wenyi Yanjiuhui, ed., "Zhongguo Chuliaoge Mao Zedong: ["China Produced a Mao Zedong"] (Beijing: Renmin Wenyi Chubanshe, 1951], 2: Jiang Qihua and Xiao Xinghua, "Renmin geshou Li Youyuan he 'Dongfang Hong' de yansheng" [The People's Songsmith Li Youyuan and the Birth of "The East is Red"], Renmin Yinyue 1 (1978): 34-35.

75. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , s.v. "Chimes": Yue Sheng, "Bian Zhong" [ Bian Bells], Beijing Dagong Bao (12 March 1964).

Pianos and Politics in China
Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Richard Curt Kraus
(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1989), pp. 119-120
© 1989 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Reproduced with permission of the publisher

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