Anti-Colonial “Marching” in the Bushes: Song of the Guerrillas (1939)

The Oratorio-Cantata-Masque “East is Red”, first staged in 1964 to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, inaugurates or perhaps caps the early PRC attraction to the “album” framework for the celebration of major historical events… Or perhaps grab bag is more suiting. Mainly reflecting a desire to sound and look cosmopolitan, songs and dances were gathered up and recorded on short order with little concern for their history or national/ethnic origins.

The 1939 Song of the Guerrillas is however a con-fusion with a deeper meaning. It ostensibly portrays in song and ballet dance the Eighth Route Army’s mastery of guerrilla warfare as a resistance weapon – a claim true enough in the coastal hills and valleys of the Qinling chain spanning S. Shanxi, Henan, and inland parts of Shandong.

But the music itself is not reflective of guerrilla style; historically it is quite COLONIAL (suppressive) in origin. It is, first of all, a rather gallant march in 2/4 time. But of course military march-stepping is the dance of show, display, regimental pride, a mimesis of inflexible obedience to implied command. Spit and polish, elaborate “parade” costume, and perfectly coordinated left-right derivative or reinforcive of the tight-order drill-with-muskets that was the essence of European footsoldiering from the late 17th century. And, of course, in the colonies it was an instrument of psycho-coercion, reminding subject persons of the power of imperial discipline, the product and pride of an imperial order not to be challenged and certainly not replicable. In (colonial) China this would have been the music to which British (or more often subaltern) soldiers and police stepped out on holidays (something lampooned in the opening sequence of Malu Tianshi.

The “Song of the Guerrillas” was written by a Franco-Russian trained conservatory composer, He Lüting 贺绿汀 (I903-1999) no doubt for self-inspiring choral singing in army camps, but seems never to have “performed” as a march – for guerrilla war relied in a sense on anarchy and discoordination – and the last thing Zhu De and com. would have wished to inspire in those times would have been an enthusiasm for stand-and-fire combat.

So why was the march/song written, most strangely of all to grenadier-guard goosestep/parade music?

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