Chinese state media People’s Daily published an op-ed on Monday condemning parodies of Yellow River Cantata (黄河大合唱 Huánghé dàhéchàng), a well-known patriotic musical narrative written by famous Chinese composer Xian Xinghai 洗星海.
“Parodying classics to amuse the masses is not passing on culture, and definitely not a re-creation of art,” the author wrote.
Yellow River Cantata was written in 1939, at a time after many Chinese cities fell to Japanese invaders. The lyrics were adapted from a patriotic poem called Yellow River, which the poet Guang Weiran 光未然 reportedly recited on a hospital bed in Xian’s presence.
Xian was so moved that he created an eight-movement cantata on the basis of Guang’s words. It premiered in Shanbei Gongxue, a school run by the Communist Party in Yan’an, in 1939.
The op-ed specifically lashes out against a recent viral video in which a group of employees in panda hats perform a version of Yellow River Cantata at their company’s New Year party. Titled “Year-end Bonus,” the parody has none of the decorum of the original.
“Annual bonus. Annual bonus. We are howling. We are howling,” the amateur choir sings in the clip, replacing the original lyrics of “The wind howls, horses neigh, the Yellow River roars! the Yellow River roars!” (from the seventh movement; 风在吼, 马在叫, 黄河在咆哮, 黄河在咆哮 fēng zài hǒu, mǎ zài jiào, huánghé zài páoxiāo, huánghé zài páoxiāo).
“Vulgar lyrics and exaggerated performance,” People’s Daily commented. “After watching the video, many viewers wanted to ‘howl’ rather than laugh, ‘How dare they ruin our classic songs!’”
Yellow River Cantata originally achieved popularity during the Second Sino-Japanese War due to its beautiful lyrics, passionate melodies, and delicate arrangements. It has been performed ever since as a serious song with historic significance.
It wasn’t until recent years that people began making parodies of it.
On a talent show in 2014, a group of comedians adapted the song into a musical skit with exaggerated physical movements and facial expressions. The performance was well received by the four judges, especially Song Dandan, a famous Chinese sitcom actress. “I like your performance very much,” Song said to the group. “We really need to (be able to) ridicule serious things. We lack this.”
In a recent interview with Beijing News, Xian Xinghai’s daughter, Xian Ni’na 冼妮娜, said she was planning to take legal action against those who offend his father’s legacy by making fun of Yellow River Cantata. She said she hopes parodies of this song would be removed from all streaming platforms.
“My father liked this song very much and took pride in it when he was alive,” she said. “In his eyes, music was a weapon to combat Japanese soldiers and notes were bullets fired at your enemies. Why would people want to parody the song? As a Chinese, we should cherish our hard-won peace and stability.”
Part of the cantata’s second movement, Ode to the Yellow River (黄河颂 Huánghé sòng):
啊,黄河! A, huánghé!
你是中华民族的摇篮! Nǐ shì zhōnghuá mínzú de yáolán!
五千年的古国文化, Wǔqiān nián de gǔguó wénhuà,
从你这发源; cóng nǐ zhè fāyuán;
多少英雄的故事, duōshǎo yīngxióng de gùshì,
在你的身边扮演! zài nǐ de shēnbiān bànyǎn!
Ah! Yellow River!
You are the cradle of the Chinese people
Five thousand years of history
was birthed from you.
The tales of countless heroes and heroines
have been enacted on your banks.
A comprehensive study of the cantata, including lyrics and a musical score, can be found in Xiangtang Hong’s dissertation Performing the Yellow River Cantata.