Death of Celebrated Conductor Yan Liangkun Marks End of Era in China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 6, June 2017

Shanghai, China. Xian Xinghai at about 23 years old in the 1920s. He composed the Yellow River Cantata, a classical work that uses a series of powerful Chinese melodies to evoke the beauty of China and the heroism of the war of resistance against Japan (1937-1945). Source: People’s Republic of China

Arthur Waldron, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania

Yan Liangkun, last of the legendary conductors of The Yellow River Cantata (1939) the powerful classic composed by Xian Xinghai in wartime, is dead. With him dies a precious and authentic Chinese revolutionary tradition, that of those who once truly believed. Our house echoed with the music all morning. It filled with tears the eyes of me, a simple white boy from the Boston suburbs, still unable to distinguish the five grains, and prompting all sorts of reflections.

We are drawing very near to the end of an era, when people are still alive who remember the radiant vision of the New China that would arise, somehow from the good land and rivers themselves, of war ravaged China (Rana Mitter tells us 20 million dead). In their imaginations that vision still lives, under the layers of tragedy, personal suffering and disappointment, as what guided them and consumed their spirits when they were young and has never died.  Somehow we must capture this, for these were sincere people, whose love of country was simple and absolutely authentic (though few ever carried a gun: that was for the lower orders).

This idealism may be hijacked. Earlier this year Xiaowei and I attended a gala performance in Philadelphia, paid for by a People’s Republic of China (PRC) cutout I suspect, and not the good merchants of Chinatown. The emcee was an Australian of Chinese ancestry, now gainfully employed in his new country helping Chinese arrivals (I am not sure how much they need, especially from him). He was also a poet, with long messy hair, who recited his oeuvre for us. All in Chinese: a typical line is, “When I see all these awful blonde people, with their blue eyes and white skin, I feel disgust. There wells up in me a pride in my black hair and Asian eyes . . . “, etc., etc. I don’t believe it occurred to him that the two or three vile foreigners who turned up, at least one of whom had bashed his brains to learn Chinese, might clearly understand his free versifying — and conceivably take offense, for this was racism tout pur. Racists are everywhere including here, but it dismays me that the Australians should be employing such a person to promote good relations! He somehow found these sentiments inside the music and lyrics of the Yellow River Cantata (1939). How I don’t know.

Yan Liangkun (1923-2017), celebrated conductor and last of the great masters of the Yellow River cantata. Source: Baidu

The revolutionary candle, lit back then, is guttering very low and will soon be a small column of smoke, never to be reignited (though China can be great again). Communism was simply a terrible mistake. Before his tragic death Dick Solomon told me that every Chinese who could had now decided to leave. Everything I know from real estate to applications to American prep schools confirms this. I figure ten million will arrive here in ten years. Gertrude Stein said America was “the first of the new kind of country.” I understand her vision which gives me joy.  This process of becoming, though, is bound yet again to bring friction, though in the end it will make it America more so.

One jarring fact, however, disturbs this optimistic vision. Yesterday I found the first really detailed account yet of the 洛川會議 Lochuan Conference , which began 20 August 1927, held in the next county down from Yanan but little discussed. All of Mao’s colleagues, from Zhou Enlai to Peng Dehuai favored immediate expansion of their army to thirty divisions, full integration with the national army chain of command, and war à l’outrance against the Japanese invaders. After four days of what must have been intense argument Mao told his army: No, you cannot fight the Japanese directly, You can only fight 麻雀戰 “sparrow/guerilla war” and then only in high and remote places. And so they did: my classified 內部 1984 textbook for the psychological warfare college of the PLA lists all the battles. Three volumes on the civil war, one volume for everything before, with the Hundred Regiments, the only real one (1940) left out because General Peng Dehuai had not yet been rehabilitated.

Moscow and Beijing coordinated a rather simple plan (we are simple people) aimed at us, that succeeded in convincing effectively everyone down to Professor Joe Esherick at University of California, San Diego — and I think he knows better now, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were the real fighters. Statements were coordinated. Averell Harriman richer than God but an idiot (or as we would say, a “Wise Man”) lapped up the carefully prepared margarine communist remarks from Stalin. Diplomat in China John Stewart Service wrote the same from halfway around the world. FDR could have cared less.

I think much of PRC politics up to the 1970s goes back to these wartime disputes. Everyone knew Mao was a slacker, more interested in defeating the Kuomintang of China (KMT) than the Empire of Japan. That simple and clarifying truth could not be spoken. Political alignments followed, with the true roots deeply concealed. Hatred of traitors and hypocrites is particularly passionate and does not diffuse with time.

A 95 year old friend was in the CCP entertainment corps — a bombshell she was back then and a real torch singer. At Hankou she and her pretty girls and boys sang and danced and entertained those who were about to die. When the Japanese appeared they withdrew! I still love her, confused as she is (now a Buddhist).

More on Mao’s outright treachery will soon go to press. The point is that these people were manipulated and misled by Mao, who had different plans. I hope a way can be found to keep intact the true meaning of this (real) music. This is a day to reflect solemnly on a noble dream that became a nightmare, not for the first or the last time.

Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (1989), The Modernization of Inner Asia (1991), From War to Nationalism: China’s Turning Point, 1924-1925 (1995), and (with Daniel Moran) The People in Arms: Military Myth and National Mobilization since the French Revolution (2003). JPR Status: Opinion.