Friday Song: ‘The Sea, My Hometown’ — a song of home, a song of loss

Society & Culture

From its very debut in 1982, “The Sea, My Hometown” (大海啊故乡) felt like a lament, spun with the last golden threads of an era’s zeitgeist, powerless to stem the oncoming tide of change.

In December 1978, China implemented its economic reforms that supercharged the air and warped the ground. Change was the constant in those years, coming fast like a wave, both terrifying and inspiring. It instilled awe and dread in all who experienced it.

They’re all in this song, if you listen closely: hope, sadness, vigor, weariness. The voice, though childlike, is of one who has grown up too fast, orphaned, marooned from history, who must find her own way in an altered world. What can she do but try to recall those words her mother once said?

Sea oh sea, just like my mother said
Traveling to the ends of the earth, she is always by my side

The sea, of course, taking the simplest and most literal interpretation, is China, i.e., the motherland, both pushing the singer to look beyond the horizon and asking her to remember her upbringing.

But isn’t it also obvious, the conflict herein? The clash of idealism and yearning, the blurring of want and need, the contradictory impulses of individual ambition and collective responsibility. The singer is pining for the morality and simplicity of a bygone era while actively rejecting it; she is mourning what she has yet to lose, but what will be — painfully and irrevocably — lost over and over again with every new skyscraper and demolished lane house and evicted tenant. The people sensed it in 1982, how quickly everything they had toiled for during the revolution — camaraderie, kinship, honor, an austere utopia — and everything they had sacrificed would be forgotten. New narratives would emerge, people would get too busy, life too fast, the waves carrying us too far. Listeners today might not admit it, but the last two lines of “The Sea, My Hometown” — even in 1982 — already constituted a fitting elegy:

Sea oh sea, the sea, my hometown
My hometown, my hometown


The Sea, My Hometown 大海啊故乡

海边出生 海里成长
大海 啊大海 是我生活的地方
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁

大海啊故乡 大海啊故乡
我的故乡 我的故乡

When I was little, my mother would tell me
The sea is my hometown
Born by the sea, grown up in the sea
Sea oh sea, it’s where I live
The sea wind blows, the waves surge, following me wherever I go
Sea oh sea, just like my mother said
Traveling to the ends of the earth, she is always by my side

Sea oh sea, the sea, my hometown
My hometown, my hometown

(“The Sea, My Hometown” was written by Wang Liping 王立平 for the movie The Sea is Calling 大海在呼唤, which you can actually watch here in its entirety — though for our purposes, start at the 48:45 mark to see this song in action. It was first performed by Zhu Mingying 朱明瑛 of the Dongfang Song and Dance Troupe 东方歌舞团; here she is with a live rendition.)

Friday Song is SupChina’s weekly sign-off. Let us know what you thought of the week that was in the comments below, or email Enjoy the holidays, everyone, whether home is where you’re at or half a world away.