Musical Blunder at State Dinner

A pianist plays a song referencing the Korean War at a White House feast for Chinese president Hu Jintao.

2011.01.25
langlang305.jpg Chinese pianist Lang Lang performs in Berlin, Sept. 15, 2010.
AFP

Chinese netizens have lauded the choice of an anti-American military anthem from the Korean War by top Chinese pianist Lang Lang as he entertained the Chinese and American presidents during last week's glitzy state dinner at the White House.

At the dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao hosted at the Obama White House, Lang Lang swept into the rousing solo piece "My Motherland" after playing a duet with U.S. jazz legend Herbie Hancock.

Later he wrote on his blog that playing "My Motherland" in front of so many dignitaries "seemed like I was telling them about the power of China and the unity of the Chinese."

"I felt deeply honored and proud," he said.

But not everyone present was immediately aware that the piece was also the patriotic theme tune to the anti-U.S. Chinese movie "Battle on Shanganling Mountain" about the 1950-1953 Korean War.

The association is doubly embarrassing, as it not only recalls the last time the two sides were at war, but also the close relationship between Mao Zedong's communist government and Pyongyang, which was said at the time to be "closer than lips and teeth."

China has played a sometimes difficult role in six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program in recent years, frequently called on to rein in its former comrade-in-arms, but unwilling to step up pressure on a politically unstable neighbor.

Netizens react

statedinnermusic305.jpg
Musician Herbie Hancock performs during the state dinner at the White House, Jan. 19, 2011. Credit: AFP
AFP
It is unclear whether the political dimensions of this patriotic melody crossed the mind of Lang Lang, a 28-year-old Chinese virtuoso who divides his time between China and the United States.

Online comment, on the other hand, has reveled in the satirical overtones of the piece, as well as supporting its overtly nationalistic flavor.

"It's deeply meaningful to play this in the United States, but I don't know if the Americans can understand? Ha ha," wrote one netizen, commenting on the portal sina.com.

Others commented via microblogging services, dubbing Lang Lang's performance as "rocking" and "wickedest recital ever!"

"Congratulations!" said another, in apparent irony. "On a separate issue, before picking 'My Motherland,' did you know it was the theme tune for 'Battle on Shangganling Mountain'?"

Others seemed to view the performance with no irony at all.

"You really voiced our thoughts," another wrote. "We do not want to see war, but we are really not afraid of war, and to defend our homeland, we are really not afraid of any great powers."

Breach of etiquette

U.S.-based Chinese author Dong Dingshan said it was unclear who exactly picked out the music for the night's entertainment.

"Did the Chinese government choose it, or was it Lang Lang himself?" Dong said. "I think there is a mystery here."

But he said the choice of music was in breach of diplomatic etiquette. "If you are a guest in someone's house, you should behave politely," he said.

U.S.-based political activist Zheng Cunzhu said it didn't matter whether the choice of tune for the dinner was deliberate or not.

"Either way, it was a mistake ... on such an important visit," he said. "This song was written against a historical background during which the U.S. and China fought on opposite sides in the same war."

Dong said the choice of music had sparked an angry reaction among right-wing political supporters in the United States.

"None of these people wants a friendly relationship with China," he said. "So, of course there was a public outcry among the American people."

"Small things like this can get very big in international affairs," Dong added.

Reported by Wen Jian for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Bi Zimo for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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