White House Says Chinese Folk Song Played During State Dinner Was Not An Insult; Experts Divided

Jan 24, 2011 6:23pm

Ivories that were tickled last Wednesday night at the White House are, to some conservative media, no laughing matter.

At the White House State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, pianist Lang Lang played, among other ditties, the song “My Motherland.”

My Motherland was written for the 1956 Chinese war film “Battle on Shangganling Mountain,” about the Korean War, in which the People’s Republic of China soldiers are the heroes and the bad guys are Americans.  

The U.S. lost this fight, known here as the Battle of Triangle Hill.

Though there was no lyrical accompaniment when Lang Lang performed the song last week, one lyric translates as “When friends are here, there is fine wine /But if the wolves (or jackals) come /What greets it is the hunting rifle.”

A writer for the conservative website Human Events says: “Playing this song at a White House state dinner is the rough equivalent of an American president providing music from Rambo II during a state visit to Vietnam.”

And conservative U.S. media are joined in their interpretation of the music selection by their Communist Chinese equivalents.

“Chinese web users are acclaiming pianist Lang Lang's choice of tune for a White House state dinner given in honour of President Hu Jintao – a patriotic theme song from an anti-US war film,” writes China One News, quoting one anonymous commenter on the website sina.com writing: "It's deeply meaningful to play this in the United States, but I don't know if the Americans can understand? Ha ha."

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told ABC News that “any suggestion that this was an insult to the United States is just flat wrong.  As Lang Lang has stated before, he plays this song regularly because it is one of his favorite Chinese melodies, which is very widely known and popular in China for its melody.  Lang Lang played the song without lyrics or reference to any political themes during the entertainment portion of the State Dinner. He simply stated the song’s title and noted it was well known in China.”

Lang has issued a statement saying that he “selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody.” His goal is to “bridge cultures together through the beauty and inspiration of music.”

Asked what he thought of the controversy, Kenneth Lieberthal  – director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution and a former special assistant to President Clinton for national security affairs and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council – said “I have enough confidence to be easily able to accept Lang lang’s assertion that this is simply a favorite melody of his, that is obviously a Chinese melody, and that he used it without any thought that it might have a political resonance for some that simply never occurred to him.”

Lieberthal added that “It did occur to me that had the situation been reversed I can easily imagine many Chinese bloggers weighing in along the same way some of our more conservative media have weighed in, but frankly it’s ridiculous. If a musician had no such intent I don’t feel compelled to assign intent to him. The US is confident enough, secure enough and open enough to easily accept his assurance that he didn’t mean anything by it.”

But Nick Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, tells ABC News that the song is “classic Mao-era anti-American invective and it’s astonishing that none of the China experts on the American side called it out before it was put into the program for the banquet.”

Said Eberstadt, a senior adviser to the National Board of Asian Research and a member of the Global Leadership Council at the World Economic Forum. “we have quite a few people who are considered China hands who were at the banquet themselves and the idea that this wouldn’t have rung any alarm bells seems quite astonishing. It’s not quite as familiar to Chinese ears as ‘the Halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli’ but it’s kind of along the same lines.”

-Jake Tapper

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