“Do you know how many bends are on the Yellow River?” belts the singer above, in Shaanxi dialect, to begin the folk tune “99 Bends in the Yellow River” (天下黄河九十九道湾 tiānxià huánghé jiǔshíjiǔ dào wān). Listening, it’s easy to imagine he’s reaching deep into both heart and history to find those notes, washed up on the shores of the Yellow River itself. Is a reply ever necessary?
This song, allegedly first sang by Li Siming 李思命 around 1923 or so, is about a helmsman navigating the bends of the Yellow River. In another version, passed down from the 1940s, the song takes the form of a call-and-response, in which the helmsman asks “how many” while a young woman replies “99” — 99 bends on the Yellow River, 99 boats, 99 oars…
But there’s another story, one complicated by politics, making this song a timely choice for this weekend.
As detailed in this Hong Kong Free Press article (titled “The Last Gunshot: The musical legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre,” and worth checking out in its entirety), “99 Bends in the Yellow River” was used as the theme song for a six-part documentary series called River Elegy, which originally aired on CCTV in 1988. “River” here, as the Yellow River has for time immemorial, symbolizes Chinese civilization. A show about the decay of the Chinese people, in 1988, is risky; in 1989, it was impossible. As HKPF explains:
After the massacre, River Elegy was banned, and its two producers became targets of the government crackdown; 99 Bends of the Yellow River is the only segment of the documentary that remains unscathed, and it is now an eerie reminder of the philosophical movement — if there ever was a coherent one — that underpinned the student demonstrations of 1989.
That “philosophical movement” of the student protesters was built on a fierce, idealistic belief that the Chinese people could save themselves, that something better lurked around the bend, an answer that might be heard if only the question was shouted loud enough. Maybe you can hear it, if you listened hard enough to the singer’s pining for a reply, and the vastness of that pining, wide as the river. Pretend you didn’t know, around the bend, guns awaited.
Nǐ xiǎodé, tiānxià huánghé jǐ shí jǐ dào wān āi?
Do you know how many bends are on the Yellow River?
Jǐ shí jǐ dào wān shàng yǒu jǐ shí jǐ zhī chuán āi?
On the many bends of the Yellow River, do you know how many boats?
Jǐ shí jǐ zhī chuánshàng yǒu jǐ shí jǐ gēn gān āi?
On the many boats, do you know how many oars?
Jǐ shí jǐ gè shāogōng yō hē lái bǎ chuán er bān?
Oh you boatsman, hey, come and move the boats?
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 email@example.com.