Hidden History

China’s Most Played Piece of Music6 min read

A funeral dirge with a red history – Kevin McGeary

Music that wears its politics on its sleeve is destined to swing violently in and out of fashion. The fado, Portugal’s most famous musical form, is now tainted by its association with fascism. Richard Wagner – who in his lifetime was given his own opera house – has long suffered the stigma of his association with the Nazi Party, which was founded 37 years after his death. China’s “red songs,” works that show support for the Chinese Communist Party and its causes, appeared to be making a comeback in 2011 due to a campaign by charismatic Chongqing official Bo Xilai. A few years earlier, an American going by the stage name of Hong Laowai became a much-loved online celebrity in the People’s Republic for his renditions of patriotic Mao-era songs. In neither case was a movement sparked.

Luo Lang

Though writing music is often an attempt at achieving immortality, even the most popular music can die with the beliefs that inspired it. Songs that were staples in the 1960s, such as ‘The East is Red,’ are now seldom heard outside period dramas due to their toxic associations. But one such song that has endured in China is the funeral dirge (āiyuè 哀乐), composed in 1945 by then-25-year-old Luo Lang.

Surveys of the most popular funeral songs in the Anglophone world tend to throw up golden oldies such as ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra and ‘Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. Since Graham Chapman’s televised memorial service in 1989, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ has been widely played. Much-loved hymns such as ‘Abide with Me’ also remain popular. Though to a certain generation it is perhaps more associated with The Undertaker and World Wrestling Entertainment, Chopin’s ‘Death March’ was performed at the state funerals of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. However, in the West there is nothing quite as universally played at funerals as Luo’s dirge is in China.

Luo, a conductor in the People’s Liberation Army orchestra, died in 2015. His dirge – played solemnly at his own funeral – was also played at the funerals of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, as it is at those of ordinary Chinese every day. There are an estimated two million funerals a day in China, and by far and away the most played piece of music at these funerals is Luo Lang’s dirge. It may be the most played piece of music in modern China, and is certainly the most played and enduring piece of music written for the Communist Party cause. What’s more, Luo Lang never collected a fen in royalties, insisting that it is the people’s property.

“After witnessing the aftermath of the liberation of Zhangjiakou in 1945, he observed that many of the soldiers’ bodies were lying down as if still poised to enter battle,” his daughter Luo Jing told the Guangming Daily of the dirge’s origins. “It was then he decided to write a dirge that, as well as being somber, also had an air of defiance. He subsequently adapted a northern folk song that was originally for suona” The song is not a rabble rouser and appears to do a lot less to promote Marxist values than John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (also a staple at funerals). However, the tune and its author’s red credentials are beyond reproach.

Luo Lang Tiananmen

Born Luo Nanchuan in Dehua, Fujian Province, Luo Lang followed his father to Malaya (now Malaysia) as a child before returning to Shanghai aged 13 to pursue his studies. He entered the music department of the Lu Xun Arts Academy, where he studied under some of the masters of the day such as Xian Xinghai, Xiang Yu and Li Huan. After his mother was killed by Japanese soldiers in 1938, Luo became highly politicized and went with six friends to Yan’an to join the revolution. During the war, Luo composed over 200 military anthems, including  ‘From the Militarized Zone’ (Cóng jūn qū 从军区) and  ‘Praise the Heroes’ (Yīngxióng zàn 英雄赞).

On September 30, 1949, the day before the People’s Republic was declared in Tiananmen Square, Luo Lang conducted a band of more than 40 players in the funeral dirge to honor those who had fallen in the war from which his side had just emerged victorious. Acting as composer for a military band of over 200 players, he also performed triumphant red songs including ‘The East Is Red’ and ‘Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China’ on the following day, October 1, which Luo later described as “the most unforgettable experience of my life.”

In 1956, Luo was appointed  head of the PLA’s top musical academy, training the army’s most promising musicians such as French horn player Sun Dehua. “The people who he trained in the 1950s went on to keep the tradition alive,” a tearful Sun told CPC News. Though in his old age his eyesight and hearing declined, and he became more foul-tempered as the friends he had gone to Yan’an with died off, Luo kept strict the habits of his military background – bathing at exactly 9 p.m., keeping strictly regular patterns of eating and making his own way up and down several flights of stairs, according to Luo Jing.

In 2009, during the build-up to the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the 89-year-old Luo conducted an impromptu rehearsal of the Chinese National Anthem during a visit to a military camp. The national anthem, ‘March of the Volunteers,’ which is now banned at funerals (and weddings), was written by left-leaning, politically-engaged people, but not members of the PLA who dedicated their lives to its cause. If you listen to the lyrics it could just as easily have been written by supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. (Lyricist Tian Han died in prison in 1968 after being denounced as a counterrevolutionary.)

Luo Lang’s dirge is the work of a man who had a long life with the Communist Party and a relatively uncomplicated relationship with it. “He is now conducting the PLA band in the sky,” his daughter told Caijing. The tune was of course played at the funeral home on Balao Mountain in Beijing on July 17, 2015, as Luo’s loved ones said their last goodbyes. It remains to be seen whether his estate will continue to give the song away for free.

Music, unlike politics, can be simple and utopian, but is often affected by the same politics it promotes. Luo’s political convictions may have prevented him from hitting the heights of the great composers. Shostakovich, for example, reluctantly joined the Russian Communist Party toward the end of his life. His late string quartets are not heroic statements defying totalitarianism but a desperate comment on his own cowardice and opportunism. They were the works, according to Slavoj Zizek, of a broken man.

Luo Lang’s rigidity and conservatism may have held him back, but he wrote the piece that may well have brought tears to more eyes than any other in the past century. ∎

A version of this article was previously published on KevinMcGeary.com in June 2018. Header:  People’s Liberation Army military band (Wikimedia Commons).