Right-Wing Media Invent Controversy Over Pianist's Performance At State Dinner

››› ››› SEAN EASTER

Right-wing media have seized on the performance of a Chinese song by pianist Lang Lang at a recent state dinner as an "anti-American" slight against the U.S. In reality, Lang said he picked the song "for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody," and one expert on Chinese culture called it "nutty" to suggest that Lang's performance was somehow "anti-American."

Lang Says Song "Was Selected For No Other Reason But For The Beauty Of Its Melody"

Lang: "I Selected This Song Because It Has Been A Favorite Of Mine Since I Was A Child." From a Wall Street Journal blog post:

Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang has responded to critics of his performance at a recent White House state dinner for President Hu Jintao and President Barack Obama.

At the event, Lang played a number that he introduced as "a Chinese song called 'My Motherland.'"

"My Motherland" is the theme song for "Battle on Shangganling Mountain," a 1956 anti-U.S. movie about the Korean War. Some listeners have interpreted the song choice as a slight against the U.S.

In a statement, Lang said "I 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."

He also said "America and China are my two homes. I am most grateful to the United States for providing me with such wonderful opportunities, both in my musical studies and for furthering my career. I couldn't be who I am today without those two countries."

Lang said that he wants to "bridge cultures together through the beauty and inspiration of music." [The Wall Street Journal, 1/24/11]

White House Says Suggestion Of Insult To U.S. Is "Flat Wrong"

White House's Vietor: "Any Suggestion That This Was An Insult To The United States Is Just Flat Wrong." From a post on Jake Tapper's Political Punch blog:

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." [Jake Tapper, ABCNews.com, 1/24/11]

Song Does Not Mention War, Lyrics "Are Very Peaceful"

China Expert: "[T]o View Lang Lang's Performance As A Kind Of Anti-American Scrawl On The Wall Of The White House Is Nutty." In an email to Media Matters, Richard Kraus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Oregon and an expert on Chinese culture, wrote:

I've not seen the film, except for a clip online. I note that it was made in 1956, three years after the Korean Armistice, a year in which China was feeling pretty self-confident -- economic reforms were going well, and the country had fought the Americans to a draw in Korea. The song itself is pure patriotic sentiment, and is not critical of the United States. The return of Chinese prisoners of war was protracted and not completed until 1958, so Korea understandably remained on people's minds.

I'm sure there are some who enjoy the irony of this music making its way to the White House, but to view Lang Lang's performance as a kind of anti-American scrawl on the wall of the White House is nutty. Lang Lang is the emblem of Chinese artistic success with Western audiences, and would be unlikely to lend his name and talent to promote obscure anti-American jibes. I suspect that some pushing this theory most enthusiastically don't believe it for a minute, but are merely trying to insert new trouble into an always difficult Sino-American relationship.

We've had cultural incidents on both sides in the past. The US provoked China by including a portrait of Douglas MacArthur (who had proposed dropping atom bombs on China) in a proposed visiting exhibition in in the 1980s, and China provoked the US by insisting that a touring ensemble in the 1970s be allowed to sing a song about liberating Taiwan. Both of these shows were halted, but they represented the politics of a very different era. The Lang Lang "incident" is not an incident unless people with more patriotism than brains choose to make it one.

WSJ post: "The Song Lyrics Do Not Mention The War And Are Very Peaceful," "Lang Lang Himself Appears To Have Been Blissfully Unaware Of The Political Minefield He Was Stumbling Into." From a January 22 post on the Journal's China Real Time Report blog:

The song is not just any old song. As Chinese netizens have pointed out, "My Motherland" is the theme song for a famous anti-U.S. movie about the Korean War from 1956, titled "Battle on Shangganling Mountain."

The song lyrics do not mention the war and are very peaceful, speaking of memories of a hometown and how "young ladies are like flowers."

But the film depicts a particularly brutal battle between Chinese and American troops during the Korean War, or what the Chinese call "The War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea." The movie also depicts Chinese troops enduring freezing weather with no food or water and American soldiers using flame throwers and laughing at burning Chinese soldiers. In retaliation, there's a lot of killing of American troops later in the film.

Lang Lang himself appears to have been blissfully unaware of the political minefield he was stumbling into. In a blogpost on Sina.com headlined "Sharing a Day at the White House", he describes the beauty of the song and its resonance with Chinese people. "I'm deeply honored and proud that I was able to play this song that praises the strength of China and the solidarity of the Chinese people in front of many foreign guests, especially leaders from all over the world." [China Real Time Report, The Wall Street Journal, 1/22/11]

NY Times: "If, In Retrospect, 'My Motherland' Might Seem To Be A Regrettable Choice For A State Dinner, It Clearly Was Unintentional." From a January 21 article in The New York Times:

Piano Politics?

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. [The New York Times, 1/21/11]

Fallows: "A Barbed Message, Beneath All The Happy Talk? That Seems Far Fetched." The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote in a blog post:

One other note: apparently a minor flap in the Chinese-nationalist blogosphere because the "Chinese song" that Lang Lang played after his duet with Herbie Hancock, as the only non-jazz element in the concert, is known in China from a famous Korean War-era movie about a battle between Chinese soldiers and UN/American troops. A barbed message, beneath all the happy talk? That seems far fetched. I think the New York Times explanation is more plausible: a perhaps inartful but not devious/ hostile choice of song. (As if "Over There" had been played as an American song for a visiting German dignitary -- or if "Lili Marlene" were played in Germany. Or even "Yankee Doodle Dandy" during a US visit by the Queen.) By chance, my wife and I had talked with Lang Lang for quite a long while before his performance. Trained in Philadelphia, based mainly in New York, with as devoted an audience in the U.S. as anywhere, manifestly excited about the whole event and his chance to play with Hancock, he seems an unlikely vehicle for a slyly angry nationalist message, via a movie from his grandparents' time. [James Fallows, The Atlantic, 1/23/11]

Right-Wing Media Outraged Over Perceived "Anti-American" Slight

Beck: "I'd Rather Have A Puppy And A Pencil As The Office Of Protocol Than Whoever's Running It Right Now." From Glenn Beck's radio show:

BECK: Do you think maybe a human being with an ounce of curiosity or skill, that maybe -- you know what? Maybe -- here's what it is.

Maybe, just like the guy who's now running our manufacturing division who, you know, his only experience was he slept in a parking lot of a GM plant at one point -- maybe we've got some 17-year-old kid who only lined the bird cage of their mom's bird cage when she was 7 with something that may have been Dear Abby, or her stupid sister that had all the stupid rules that you're supposed to have, and that's her qualifications for protocol. I'm not sure, but I'd rather have a puppy and a pencil as the Office of Protocol than whoever's running it right now.

They didn't say, "Hey, what are the words of that song?" [Premiere Radio Networks, Glenn Beck, 1/24/11]

Fox's Megyn Kelly: Lang Said "He Chose The Song To Show The World That China Is A Power To Be Reckoned With." From America Live:

KELLY: New information today on China's musical insult to America. Chinese pianist Lang Lang defending his performance during last week's state dinner at the White House. See, he played a propaganda song about communist soldiers defeating America during the Korean War, a favorite anti-American propaganda tune for decades.

Lang knew exactly what he was playing, telling a Chinese TV network that he chose the song to show the world that China is a power to be reckoned with.

The White House, declining to comment on the musical selection. [America Live, Fox News, 1/24/11]

Hoft: "They're Playing Red Chinese Commie Songs At State Dinners In The White House." From a post by Jim Hoft on the Gateway Pundit blog, headlined "Unbelievable... Pianist Plays Anti-American Pro-Commie Song at Obama White House State Dinner (Video)":

Unbelievable. Obama's been in office for only 2 years and already they're playing Red Chinese commie songs at State Dinners in the White House.
How's that for hope and change?

[Video]

The US was humiliated in eyes of Chinese by a song used to inspire anti-Americanism.

[...]

Here is the pro-commie song from the movie "Battle Triangle Hill."

This song was played for Obama and Hu Jintao at the White House State Dinner. [Gateway Pundit, 1/23/2011]

Malkin Blogger Calls Performance "Chinese Propaganda In The White House." From a post by Doug Powers on MichelleMalkin.com:

The invitations to Wednesday's White House state dinner for China promised a "quintessentially American" evening:

[Image]

It turns out there was a slight exception to that, however.

[...]

"Quintessentially American" if you're in Berkeley, maybe.

Imagine the Chinese government anger if an American performer, wittingly or unwittingly, played the theme song from The Gate of Heavenly Peace at a state dinner hosted by China. The US State Department would have been apologizing like John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda within minutes. [MichelleMalkin.com, 1/23/2011]

Nordlinger: Lang "Played A Famous Anti-American Propaganda Song." From a post by Jay Nordlinger on the National Review Online blog The Corner:

What did he play? Most notably and significantly, he played a famous anti-American propaganda song. Famous in China, that is. Wei Jingsheng, the great Chinese democracy leader, exiled in the United States since 1997, wrote a letter to Congress and Secretary of State Clinton. He said, "I listened to that music with a big shock." Wei explained that the song, "My Country," or "My Motherland," comes from "the best-known Communist propaganda movie about the Korean War," depicting the Chinese army's fight with the Americans. The movie is called The Battle of Triangle Hill. Wei said that the movie is as well-known in China as Gone with the Wind is here.

[...]

Well, nice going, Lang Lang. In and around every dictatorship, there are official artists. The Nazis had them, the Soviets had them -- all the worst have them. Lang Lang has chosen to be an official artist. Of course, the bad old USA has helped him a lot. He came here to complete his musical education. He studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Gary Graffman. He has had the countless benefits of living and working in a free society. What a contrast with Lang Lang's fellow Chinese who languish in laogai, that country's gulag.

This is one pianist who stands with the persecutors, not with the persecuted. Wei Jingsheng, Gao Zhisheng -- those are great Chinese, the pride of the nation. Lang Lang, and Hu Jintao, for that matter, are very different Chinese.

Obama's hosting of Hu, and what amounts to a celebration of that dictatorship, has been a disaster, from nearly every point of view. George W. Bush did not grant Hu a state visit. Hu settled for a more modest visit -- the kind the head of a police state should settle for, in a liberal democracy. Bush gave him a polite lunch and sent him on his way. Obama created the opportunity for a great CCP propaganda victory. The dictatorship is delighted, and the prisoners, dissidents, and democrats feel something else.

Nice going, Obama. Real nice. Is it 2012 yet? [Jay Nordlinger, The Corner, National Review Online, 1/24/11]

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