Date of this Version
July 16, 2008 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
As the clock counts down towards the opening of the Olympic Games at 8 p.m. on August 8, 2008, the Chinese government and many ordinary Chinese citizens are hoping that one particular song will make an impression on television viewers in all corners of the globe: “March of the Volunteers,” the country’s National Anthem. Not only will it play during the Opening Ceremony and the Closing Ceremony, but also every time a Chinese athlete wins a gold medal, and expectations are running high that this will happen a lot, thanks largely to the high caliber of the women competing for the PRC.
Even if international audiences grow accustomed to the sound of the tune, they are unlikely to know that the national anthem is actually a theme song of a film that antedates the founding of the PRC by a decade and a half, a film that was just as much about Chinese nationalism as it was about sentimental young lovers and their struggles in troubled times. And even within China, many people don’t know much about the two originators of the song, composer Nie Er and poet and playwright Tian Han, beyond a few recycled clichés about their dramatic lives.
Given the obsession with the supposedly auspicious number 8, Tian Han’s own biography is a very appropriate point of departure. He was born in 1898, a year famous for the “Hundred Days of Reform,” an effort at radical change stymied by conservatives within the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). And he died in 1968—not, as one might expect from the author of the lyrics to a national anthem, in the limelight, but rather in obscurity, under an assumed name, in a military hospital. So who was this man? How did he emerge as the key creator of the National Anthem of the PRC? More importantly, how did expressions of nationalism come to be so intricately connected with images of strong-willed (and bodied) women in modern China?