Hidden History

The Playwright Purged after Writing China’s National Anthem6 min read

Jeremiah Jenne on Tian Han’s literary rise and fall

A few meters into one of the less attractive hutongs of Beijing – down the lane from a cheap neighborhood bathhouse, and a boutique coffee shop featuring cold-pressed cruelty-free beans – is a squat grey courtyard that was once home to playwright and author Tian Han (1898-1968), who penned the lyrics to the Chinese national anthem.

A native of Hunan and the scion of an elite family struggling to maintain appearances in a time of declining empire, Tian Han became one of the most influential writers of the post-imperial, Republican era. His work combined a life-long love of Chinese opera with a passion for film and new forms of theatrical expression aroused during a sojourn as a student in Japan between 1916 and 1922. By the 1930s, already an established author known for his radical politics and semi-secretly a member of the Chinese Communist Party, Tian Han tried his hand at writing screenplays.

“Anthems are part of state pageantry but are outside the immediate control of the state”

Children of Troubled Times (风云儿女), released in 1935, was the story of two men and their neighbor, a young woman struggling to make it as a performer. It featured a strong pro-socialist, anti-imperialist message, and ended in a political awakening for the protagonists and a climactic scene where they unite with the masses to pledge self-sacrifice in service of the nation. That scene was scored with a rousing little patriotic number, lyrics also written by Tian Han and set to music by a young composer Nie Er, which begins, in English translation:

“Arise, ye who shall not be slaves
With our own flesh and blood, we shall build a new Great Wall…”

The song became a popular anthem for the Chinese resistance during World War II and the Japanese occupation of China between 1937 and 1945. It was used in propaganda films and documentaries produced in China and abroad. The American singer and civil rights pioneer Paul Robeson even included an iconic rendition of the song in his performances.

Fast forward to 1949. As the Communist Party prepared to announce the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Party leaders announced an open competition for the national flag, national emblem, and national anthem. On September 27, 1949, a committee chose Tian Han and Nie Er’s March of the Volunteers from over 600 other entries and nominated the song as the provisional anthem of the People’s Republic of China.

Nie Er had died young, soon after the song was finished, but for Tian Han’s efforts, the State Council rewarded the writer with the squat, grey courtyard which still remains today, and Tian Han moved in with his family in 1953. March of the Volunteers remained provisional until December 4, 1982, when the National People’s Congress officially adopted it as the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. In 2004, the anthem was enshrined in the constitution.

Anthems are tricky things. They are part of state pageantry but are also played ceremonially in public settings, such as sporting events, which are outside the immediate control of the state. Over the past few years, stadiums in Hong Kong – just like in the United States – have turned into civic battlegrounds as dissenting voices have used the playing of anthems as an opportunity for protest.

Last October 1, a new law went into effect banning the use of the anthem at funerals or other private events in China and making it a crime to desecrate the song – a loose definition which includes a requirement to “stand and sing the anthem in a dignified manner.” Under the statute, mocking the anthem carries the same penalty as desecrating China’s national flag. A month later, in November, Party leaders decided 15 days in detention weren’t enough of a desecration deterrent and upped the penalty to three years for violations against the anthem.

The law was passed in no small measure in response to the bumptious folks in Hong Kong who had taken to booing the March of the Volunteers prior to football matches. These boo birds have been out in force at Hong Kong sporting matches since 2014 when violent demonstrations erupted over the Chinese government’s refusal to allow Hong Kong residents to directly elect their leaders. So far, the law seems to have done little to compel angry Hong Kong sports fans to show their patriotic enthusiasm when the Chinese anthem plays.

It is unlikely that the Chinese leaders – who perhaps share more in common in terms of their politics and leadership style with NFL team owners than either group might be willing to admit – will be looking to publicly compromise with Hong Kong dissenters anytime soon. Like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping has made legal protection of national symbols – flags, anthems, even historical figures – part of his administration’s public persona. But there was a time when those who contributed to the revolution could have benefited from a bit more protection.

“The man who wrote the national anthem was neither sufficiently cultural nor revolutionary enough to survive the opening salvos of the Cultural Revolution.”

Outside Tian Han’s house in Beijing is a small plaque which commemorates the site as the former home of the man who wrote March of the Volunteers. It does not mention what happened there in the summer of 1966. Tian Han continued to write even after his lyrics became the new anthem, but some of his plays ran afoul of the allies of Mao Zedong. Like other writers and intellectuals of his generation, Tian Han became caught up in the Cultural Revolution. In 1966 gangs of thugs burst through the door of his courtyard on this now quiet Beijing hutong and dragged Tian Han away. After two years  of torture and mistreatment, Tian Han died in prison in 1968.

Despite the Chinese government’s recent histrionic concern for the protection of national symbols, heroes and martyrs, it is worth remembering that Tian Han – the man who wrote the national anthem, who served time in the 1930s for his ties to the Communist Party, and who wrote many of 20th century China’s greatest plays and dramas – was neither sufficiently cultural nor revolutionary enough to survive the opening salvos of the Cultural Revolution.

That story is not part of the official narrative of why the dignity of March of the Volunteers is worth preserving. And the debate over laws and punishments designed to protect it threatens to drown out an equally, if not more important discussion, about why some people are booing the anthem in the first place. In the United States as well, the signal-to-noise ratio over who kneels and who stands during the playing of the national anthem serves as a distraction to the real issues of racial inequality that inspired Colin Kaepernick and others to begin their act of protest in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s always tough for authoritarian leaders (or the authoritarian-curious) to maturely respond to expressions of dissent. It is also common for leaders to drape themselves in flags and anthems before lashing out at dissenting voices. When that happens, the symbolic power of those national symbols becomes a litmus test of a person’s patriotism. Leaders worry that desecration will lead to desacralization, and desacralization to protest.

But what is desecration? It’s something I wonder whenever I pass by the gates of the squat grey Beijing courtyard through which Tian Han was dragged away, never to return. ∎

Header image: Youtube.