Readers who get their news from the New York Times must be among the least informed in the world. In his Reporter’s Notebook round-up on Hu Jintao this past Friday, Times reporter Michael Wines included an item that he called “Piano Politics?” Here is the item by Wines:
One of the highlights of the state dinner was a performance by Lang Lang, a Chinese pianist who has been a sensation in music circles. Mr. Lang played a duet with the American jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, then a haunting traditional Chinese melody called “My Motherland.”
In China, it turns out, “My Motherland” is better known as the theme from the film “Battle on Shangganling Mountain,” a 1956 Chinese classic about a Korean War battle in which a vastly outnumbered band of Chinese soldiers held off American and United Nations forces for 42 days.
If, in retrospect, “My Motherland” might seem to be a regrettable choice for a state dinner, it clearly was unintentional. Mr. Lang, an American-trained pianist who divides his time between the United States and China, is an artist who melds American and Chinese cultures.
We don’t think that Wine got the “clearly unintentional” part right. Not close. His judgment is an unsupported non sequitur.
For an informed answer to the question Wines raises, see Nicholas Eberstadt’s “A state insult with Chinese characteristics.” Wines seems to suffer from the same cluelessness that Eberstadt attributes to the Obama administration. Indeed, one wonders if he borrowed his judgment from them (among the “people who were at the dinner,” in the parlance of Wine’s comments below). Eberstadt writes:
“My Motherland” is still famous in China; indeed, it is well-known to practically every Chinese adult to this very day. Unfortunately, this political anthem and its significance were evidently unknown to the many members of the administration’s China team–the secretary and deputy secretary of State, the assistant secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and the National Security Council’s top two Asia experts–who were on hand at the state dinner and heard this serenade. Clueless about the nature of the insult, they did not know to warn the president that he would embarrass himself and his country by not only sitting through the song, but by congratulating Lang Lang for it afterward.
Reader Sean O’Brien wondered how Wines was able to render his judgment that the insult was clearly unintentional. Wines’s judgment appears to have derived in large part from his “gut feeling.” Wines graciously responded to O’Brien:
I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I was in the states and in fact did reply to you, but somehow the email got trapped in my drafts mailbox and never made it.
My gut feeling here, as I wrote in my initial article and my (unsent) reply to you, is that there is a lot less here than meets the eye. From what I have read — and from Lang Lang’s own comments — this seems an unintentional snub to the United States at best; his strongest comment seems to be that he felt the song spoke to the pride of the Chinese people. A number of commenters with knowledge of this song say that it attacks the United States in roughly the same manner as Yankee Doodle attacks the United Kingdom– which is to say that a lot of the anti-American message of the tune has leached out over the years.
I understand that others have depicted this event otherwise. I don’t report matters through a political lens, and so I am afraid I don’t see any particular ideological bent to this incident, at least absent more evidence. Should it surface, I’ll certainly look at it.
People who were at the dinner told me at the time that it was inconceivable that Lang Lang meant this song as disguised insult against the Americans. That’s what I reported. Nothing i’ve seen in the press since that changes that, though, of course, if something emerges to the contrary, I’ll happily report it.
The Chinese press, by the way, has played up this brouhaha as a shining example of chronic American insecurity in the newly globalized world.
I have to say that they seem to have a point. Can a celebrity pianist really insult the entire American people? And if he can, who could possibly care?
Frankly, I think we have bigger fish to fry.
O’Brien responded at length to this message, taking educated issue with just about every element of it. Here is O’Brien on Wines’s citation of the Chinese press, and the larger point that Wines misses:
As for the Chinese press, well, I am not sure that we should be taking our cues from what members of an unfree press have to say. Just to restate, these guys played a theme song from a propaganda movie portraying Americans as the bad guys over a war that still has some pretty nasty flare-ups (i.e., the 46 dead South Korean sailors), and we’re going to worry that the government-controlled press thinks that we’re being sensitive?
As for the “bigger fish to fry,” O’Brien observes: “Can a pianist really insult the American people? Well, yes. And whether people care or not isn’t really the issue. The issue is whether he (and those who vetted it) wanted to. If China insulted the US at a state dinner, that says something about how cooperative they are going to be, etc.”
Eberstadt also explores the significance of the insult and Hu Jintao’s delight in it. Unlike Wines’s item, one can actually learn something from Eberstadt’s column. Comparing Eberstadt’s column with the item by Wines and his message justifying it, one cannot help but be struck by how poorly served Times readers are by the thin gruel it regularly serves up.
UPDATE: In a follow-up message to O’Brien, Wines reports that he sought the advice of a Chinese researcher about the song. The researcher advised Wines: “You were quite right in pointing out the song came from a famous Korean war movie. However, the song ha[s] out grown the movie. While the movie is rarely watched now, the song is still very popular in China because [of] its great melody and nice lyrics. And the song itselt has long since lost its anti-American connotation if there ever was any. It’s a regular at large event[s] and gala[s] in China….”
JOHN EARL HAYNES adds: “‘Yankee Doodle’ doesn’t attack the United Kingdom, Britain, England, or anything English. Even Wikipedia will tell one that Yankee Doodle began as a satirical English song mocking Americans as country bumpkins that was defiantly taken up by Americans in self-affirmation. Sort of the red-neck pride of its era.”