Published in The LA Review of Books’ China Channel

My review of “The Invisible Valley”, a novel by Su Wei translated by Austin Woerner, has been published by The LA Review of Books China Channel

In a 1983 lecture at the National Word Festival in Canberra, fantasy author Alan Garner explained the importance of childhood in making someone a writer1. He recalled his own early years in England during World War II, living life on a mythic plane of absolute good against absolute evil, with survival feeling like a daily struggle. Garner claimed that this seeped into the psyches of his generation and subsequently, its writers’ work, which was profound where the literature of later generations, he argued, was trivial and effete by comparison.

At the Macao Literary Festival in 2018, translator Austin Woerner – whom I first met at a literary translation boot camp in Huangshan in 2014 – explained that his early ambition was to be a novelist, but his comfortable, suburban, American upbringing was not great fodder. Fortunately, for lovers of genre-bending, constantly surprising, and occasionally-hilarious fiction, when studying Chinese at Yale, he met Professor Su Wei.

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The Forgotten Story of … China’s Saddest and Most Played Piece of Music

This article was originally published on The Nanfang on May 12, 2016

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.

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.

Luo Lang
Luo Lang

Luo Lang, the man who conducted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) orchestra as they played that song and other triumphant anthems in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949, died earlier this month. His best known composition is the dirge that was played at the funerals of Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and those of ordinary Chinese every day. All things considered it is almost certainly the most played and enduring piece of music written for the Communist Party cause.

The dirge

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 (WWE), 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 the dirge 《哀乐》 composed in 1945 by the 25 year-old Luo Lang.

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. 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. 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 suono horn,” his daughter Luo Jing told CPC News.

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 dirge to honour those who had fallen in the war from which his side had just emerged victorious.

Is it really a red song?

It 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 song and its author’s red credentials are beyond reproach.

Born Luo Nanchuan in Dehua, Fujian Province, he 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 《从军区》 (From the Militarised Zone) and 《英雄赞》 (Praise the Heroes).

Acting as composer of a military band of over 200 players as they performed triumphant red songs including “The East Is Red” and “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China” on October 1, 1949 was later described by Luo as “the most unforgettable experience of my life.”

Luo Lang Tiananmen
Luo Lang on Tiananmen Square October 1, 1949

In 1956 Luo was appointed as head of the People’s Liberation Army’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 went 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, an 89 year-old Luo conducted an impromptu rehearsal of the Chinese National Anthem during a visit to a military camp.  The anthem, “March of the Volunteers”, which is now banned at funerals, 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.

The 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.

A musical soldier

The dirge was of course played at the funeral home on Balao Mountain in Beijing on July 17 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. His political convictions may have prevented Luo Jing 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.

In “The Lives of the Great Composers,” Harold Schoenberg compares Haydn to Mozart. Haydn was, according to Schonberg “a very nice man to know,” who never acted in ways that were petty such as worrying about younger, better-looking composers stealing his thunder.

Mozart, by contrast, was “the more dangerous, repressed, rebellious man.” Schoenberg suggests this might be the reason why Mozart ultimately hit greater heights.

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.

The Forgotten Story of … Shenzhen’s Disappearing Coastline

This article was first published on The Nanfang on June 18, 2014

Shenzhen’s Dameisha Beach briefly became world famous this month when images of the mountains of litter left by revelers were published in international newspapers. This problem is not new. Last year, one local businessman complained that the beach was so filthy he couldn’t bring his foreign clients there.

Newsworthy as this is, thoughtless individuals throwing litter is far from the biggest threat to Shenzhen’s coastline. Moreover, once-pristine beaches are not the only thing about Shenzhen’s coastline worth preserving.

Dameisha during Dragon Boat Festival, when 362 tons of garbage was discarded on the beach, image via The Daily Mail

A brief look at some of the things that have happened along this coastline involving both human and non-human life shows that it is as evocative and historic as any other. These stories include a 40-day siege by Japanese pirates, mainlanders swimming to Hong Kong to escape Maoist China, the diverse marine life that hindered some of them, and the corporate interests that are destroying this marine life and the coastline itself.

Human stories

Dapeng Fortress in Longgang District, which was built in 1394 to protect the local area from pirates, is one of Shenzhen’s best known historic sites. In 1571, the fortress withstood a more than 40-day siege by Japanese pirates who were armed with ladders.

In the twentieth century, nearby Dapeng Bay was one of several main areas from which mainlanders risked their lives to flee to Hong Kong. Believe it or not, these escapees are among the major reasons why Shenzhen has gone from being a cluster of fishing villages to a metropolis in the space of 30 years.

Mok, 67, told the South China Morning Post last year that, as the son of a former Kuomintang official, he had few prospects in Cultural Revolution-era Guangdong. In 1971, he trained and practiced swimming for months while studying maps and the edibility of particular wild plants while planning his escape. He couldn’t carry maps on his person for fear of arousing suspicion.

Four “freedom swimmers” are led away by police for questioning at Tai Po Kau, Hong Kong in May 1971, image via South China Morning Post

At his first attempt, he and his friends nearly drowned while being captured by border guards. He was taken to various detention centres and beaten before being publicly paraded and sent back to the factory where he worked. The following year he tried again and succeeded. Mok was reluctant to reveal his real name to the paper because he and his family still have business interests in mainland China.

Shenzhen official Wang Shuo wrote in 2011 that an estimated 606,000 people illegally escaped to Hong Kong between 1956 and 1980, more than half of such cases coming in the 1970s. Chen Bingan, author of “The Exodus to Hong Kong” puts the estimate at 2 million, easily outnumbering East Germans who scaled the Berlin Wall or North Koreans who swam across the Yalu River.

The shortest and most popular route to swim was from Shekou to Yuen Long, but this was heavily guarded by People’s Liberation Army soldiers. So high was the casualty rate on this route that it was a paid job during that period to help officials collect and bury the bodies of those shot or drowned on the way.

Dapeng Bay was less well guarded but may have been an even more dangerous place to attempt to swim from. In October 1970, 300 mainlanders sneaked into the colony, 280 of whom had swum from this area. During this period, marine patrol police around Sai Kung regularly found the mutilated bodies of attempted escapees who had been attacked by sharks.

In spite of this, the following year saw a huge surge in “freedom swimmers” according to a contemporary report. In the first eight months of 1971, 2,500 of them were arrested in Hong Kong, a near three-fold increase from the previous year. An estimated 12,500 made it to safety during the same period.

In August 1971, Typhoon Rose caused guards patrolling the border to be diverted to clear up the mess, causing yet another increase. According to “The Great Exodus to Hong Kong,” the peak years for these escapes were 1957, 1962, 1972 and 1979.

These escapees may have been illegal immigrants, but their cheap labor was welcome in Hong Kong. Chen Bingan insists that they played a huge part in Hong Kong achieving its “Pearl of the Orient” economic status, though neither the Communist Party nor the Hong Kong government is keen to commemorate them. Some escapees became Hong Kong residents and the knowledge and skills they acquired were a direct influence on Deng Xiaoping choosing Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone.

Tan Jialuo, a Cultural Revolution expert formerly of Guangzhou Teachers’ College, thinks this is one of the few examples of ordinary citizens changing Communist Party policy. “It had an important role in the initiation of reform…they effectively helped promote social progress,” Tan said.

Non-human stories

Escapees swimming through Dapeng Bay in those days are said to have had their bodies and limbs scraped by jagged oyster beds. This is a problem they may not have faced in more recent years. Human activity has severely depleted Shenzhen’s marine life and ravaged much of the land along the coast during the Reform and Opening Up period. The famed Shajing oysters, for example, are now gone from the bay.

Chief among this activity is land reclamation, that is the conversion of water surfaces into land for human use. Shenzhen Bay shrank by 25 square kilometers (27% of its total area) between 1997 and 2009. This caused the nearby mangrove forests to be halved from 140 hectares to 70 hectares and reduced the number of migratory birds that spend winter in Shenzhen. The bay could be lost completely in 170 years as sediments grow at a rate of 1.9 cm a year, according to Roger Lin of Shenzhen Daily.

Pollution has also done enormous damage to Shenzhen’s marine life and coastline. In 2011, nearly half of Shenzhen’s coastal waters were found to be severely polluted. Nine sewage pipes were discharging inorganic nitrogen and phosphates into the South China Sea. Professor Xu Hong of Shenzhen University blamed illicit dumping and poor oversight. The situation improved ahead of the Universiade but the bad old days swiftly returned.

The water off eastern Shenzhen where the more popular beaches are located was found to be cleaner and most areas where seafood is farmed were found to be safe, but much marine life and natural beauty has been lost. In the early 1980s, there were vast corals, starfish and shoals of long-gone fish species in Shenzhen’s Meisha area. Due to the city’s “development,” sightseers are now more likely to see tons of floating garbage than coral.

Coral in Dapeng, via

Plantlife near the coast has also suffered. Chen Cui of Shenzhen’s Green Management Department of Shenzhen Afforestation Committee, who is also known as “The Housekeeper of Shenzhen’s Ancient Trees”, uses great expertise and passion to help protect Shenzhen’s oldest plant life. However, Shenzhen has in recent years failed to preserve the centuries-old trees and pristine villages in Baguang on the northwestern tip of the Dapeng Peninsula.

The struggle to preserve it

In March 2013, an environmental protection group was established to remove 4.5 tons of floating garbage from the ocean off Meisha. It attracted 162 members in a successful first five months before turning its attention to seabed maintenance.

Protecting coral has become a policy in Dapeng. An article published November last year in Southern Metropolis Daily, a paper that has historically been far from a mouthpiece, predicted the recovery of the bay’s corals.

Divers are initiating a comprehensive coral planting campaign. Salinity and water quality are relatively stable and it has a natural barrier so is a good place to grow coral, according to Zhou Xuejia, professor of marine biology.

However, Shenzhen’s coastline is under threat from something more powerful than the cluster of groups and organisations that have taken it upon themselves to protect it – corporate profit. China’s oil and gas behemoth PetroChina announced a plan to reclaim 39.7 hectares of land from the sea off Dapeng Peninsula for the construction of a natural gas depot and wharf.

This will further threaten Shenzhen’s eco-system and decrease the number of places in the city where residents can be by the sea. No less importantly, it will mean Shenzhen loses remnants of its past.

The city needs a power supply and cash needs to be generated, but a balance also needs to be struck if Shenzhen is to develop its own distinct identity. Novelist Italo Calvino once said that a person’s memory must be strong enough to enable them to remain the same person but weak enough to enable them to keep moving forward. The same applies to a city.