x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Red songs' revived as Chinese look back over 90 years of Communist party

In a nation much changed from the one led by Mao, the public is still listening to songs of China's revolutionary past.

Students perform for the opening ceremony of a concert of revolutionary songs in Chongqing municipality. Jason Lee / Reuters
Students perform for the opening ceremony of a concert of revolutionary songs in Chongqing municipality. Jason Lee / Reuters

BEIJING // The voices of the nine men and nine women, dressed in blue polo shirts and white trousers, carried across the park as Communist Party members and mainly elderly passers-by listened.

"The red sun is rising and there's a great man named Mao Zedong in China," the group sang. "He works hard to bring benefits and happiness to the people of China and he's the saviour of the Chinese people."

For a few moments as they listened to Ode to Chairman Mao the audience was transported back to when Mao dominated China and the Communist Party of China (CPC) in a way no one has done since.

China is the world's second-largest economy, with streets filled with locally made Audis and Mercedes, but many are looking back as the country marks the 90th anniversary of the CPC's founding tomorrow.

Bookshops have special displays with volumes about former leaders, and in the southern city of Chongqing, a high-profile and controversial initiative this year has seen members of the public encouraged to exercise their lungs by performing "red songs".

Here in the Temple of Earth Park in north-east Beijing, party members from the capital's Dongcheng district have organised the gathering, part of a fortnight-long celebration of revolutionary songs ahead of the anniversary.

After the last notes of Ode to Chairman Mao died away, a new and similarly stirring number, We Sing a Song for the Party began, followed by In the Field of Hope, a celebration of revolution and agriculture.

"We build our home beside the field of hope," chorused women in purple dresses and men in blue trousers, white shirts and purple bow ties.

"The beautiful village is beside the stream and the field of wheat and grains."

Those taking part, all party members, insisted the songs were still relevant, even though the Communist Party has jettisoned much of what Mao championed during his nearly three decades in power and has officially branded his "Cultural Revolution" a mistake.

"We should be grateful for our life and the party's hard work," said Cai Jingsong, 37, a government employee and party member, after getting her breath back following a performance.

"These are the old songs and we know the CPC has changed a lot during the 90 years, but the passion and the meaning of having faith in life are the same. We should have that hope and enthusiasm, no matter now or in the past."

The recent fervour for singing red songs reflected the desire of China's leadership to "maintain some kind of balance", said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

"These red songs, including Mao songs, certainly appeal to the conservative party elders and at the same time they appeal to the segment of the population who are not too happy with the rapid development of the market economy and who have lost out," Dr Cheng said, referring to the growing disparity of wealth that has developed in recent decades.

Parallels can be drawn, he said, with the rise in popularity of communist parties in eastern Europe in the second half of the 1990s among those disenchanted with market reforms.

The earlier decades of communist rule in China are sometimes seen, Dr Cheng said, as a time of greater stability.

"Also, there are people who have fond memories of Mao," he said. "Not so much today, but 10 or 20 years ago taxi drivers put up small Mao statues. There was almost a worshipping of these figures."

Despite the fondness for nostalgia, Chang Wenhui, a full-time Dongcheng party official, admitted newer party songs tended to be more popular.

"It's part of the party culture," he said. "We keep up with the time. China has experienced great changes. Modern songs are about the reforms and opening up."

Xuan Xiulian, 64, a retired doctor, was nonetheless enjoying the older songs as she sat in the park with her 10-month-old grandson, Zhang Jiyuan.

"I think the old songs are very inspiring. When you hear them, it makes you feel good, and many young people still sing them," she insisted.

dbardsley@thenational.ae