Friday Song: Chyi Yu's folk classic 'The Olive Tree,' written by San Mao - SupChina
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Friday Song: Chyi Yu’s ‘The Olive Tree,’ which channels songwriter San Mao’s spirit of freedom

A few weeks ago, I recommended Chyi Chin’s “The Outside World.” Today’s song is a 1979 hit by Chyi’s elder sister, Chyi Yu 齐豫: “The Olive Tree” (橄榄树 gǎnlǎn shù).

“The Olive Tree” was released in July 1979 on an album of the same name, and remains one of Chyi Yu’s representative works and a timeless folk classic. The song was composed by Li Tai-Hsiang 李泰祥, with lyrics written by acclaimed Taiwanese writer and traveler San Mao 三毛 Li’s vision to popularize the classic folk genre can be seen through his masterful combination of traditional instrumentation with Chyi’s gentle and limpid vocals.

Li invited San Mao to write the lyrics for “The Olive Tree,” which was originally titled “Wandering for a Little Donkey” (为了小毛驴流浪 wèile xiǎo máolǘ liúlàng). Li found the essence of the song to be strange and too Western-leaning; he later changed the title to “The Olive Tree” and removed lyrical references to donkeys and Spanish girls — elements that reflected San Mao’s memories of living in Spain and paid tribute to her husband’s hometown. Originally composed in English, the song was translated into Chinese by folksinger Yang Zujun 杨祖珺. The song conveys a romantic aimlessness and unaffected earthiness that embody both San Mao’s abiding love for freedom and Li’s attachment to the traditional folk sound. The bona fide emotions and imageries of unadorned simplicity in life are characteristic of San Mao’s other literary works. Li’s arrangements and Chyi’s vocal deliverance have brought out the beautiful, melancholic essence in San Mao’s yearning for nature.

Interestingly, “The Olive Tree” did not pass the examinations of Taiwan’s Radio and Television Administration before its release, and subsequently could not be played on TV or radio stations. The administration at the time feared that lyrics about a “faraway hometown” would provoke sensitive cross-strait relations, and that lyrics romanticizing roving would encourage teenagers to run away from home.

Below are the lyrics and English translations of “The Olive Tree”:

不要问我从哪里来 / Do not ask me where I’m from
我的故乡在远方 / My hometown is far away
为什么流浪 / Why do I wander around
流浪远方 流浪 / Wandering afar, wandering

为了天空飞翔的小鸟 / For the little birds that soar through the sky
为了山间轻流的小溪 / For the creeks that rush between the mountains
为了宽阔的草原 / For the endless grasslands
流浪远方 流浪 / Wandering afar, wandering

还有还有 / Also, also
为了梦中的橄榄树 橄榄树 / For that olive tree in my dreams, that olive tree
不要问我从哪里来 / Do not ask me where I’m from
我的故乡在远方 / My hometown is far away

为什么流浪 / Why do I wander around
为什么流浪远方 / Why do I wander to distant lands?

为了我梦中的橄榄树 / For the olive tree in my dreams
不要问我从哪里来 / Don’t ask me where I come from
我的故乡在远方 / My hometown is far away

为什么流浪 / Why do I wander around
流浪远方 流浪 / Wandering afar, wandering


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 editors@supchina.com.

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Chelsea Cheng

Chelsea Cheng was born in Zhongshan and raised in the SF Bay Area. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in English at NYU, and holds a great passion for film, literature, culture, and politics. Follow her twitter @chxsea_

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