Red Smoke in the Yan’an Wilderness: Behind the Miracle of Nanniwan

N.B. (April 28, 2014) This essay says all I want to say, about how the 8th Route Army (in Yenan) financed itself and met its import (weapons) needs by growing and exporting opium, while ingeniously hinting that the surplus that paid for these imports was created ex nihilo by a “self-help” (zili gengsheng) campaign modelled after the Nanniwan mini-commune. But it remains inadequately edited – many paragraphs are out of order, and the flow of subjects needs one more cut and paste…. I’ve put it up even in this compromised state in the hope of getting reader feedback before the final rewrite. JP.


Protest music comes in various shapes, some not obviously protestant in character. “Nostalgia” protest is the kind of backing away that I grew up with/on: Seeger, Baez, Dylan (in part). Words come from a song reframed (or reclaimed) from folk ballad, as does the melodic outline. But there is no jolting into dissidence, or blackness, certainly not of the sort that hip-hop and rap (now the main protest vehicles) offer. There need not be blame, even: just a call for recognition of sorrow and pain wrongfully pushed aside from history. Or a hymn of faith that, read in context, decries (but only by implication) a promise of yore unfulfilled, while regathering the faith that it might yet be honored. “Walls of Redwing”, “Eleanor Rigby”. Perhaps the best single nostalgic protest song ever written has no anger at all, only sadness: “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, a song of mourning for the Tennessee hillcountry so badly smashed up during the Civil War. “We shall Overcome” exemplifies the promise unredeemed variety of nostalgic protest (nostprot) – first written as or from a gospel (“spiritual”) hymn, eventually
recalled over time and space to express a sadness over promises unfulfilled, but also becoming an oath of faith during the Civil Rights Movement: a prayer that the singing voices may yet see those promises kept.

It seemed a template that might be right for early 21st century”young” China, struggling as it is with environmental ruin and the pulverizing of older milieu and slower ways. Save that only the post-teen or “young adult” listener can recall (in retrospect) a past promise or hope (nostalgia) for any kind of Red utopia or its collapse (Land Reform, the Communes, etc.) , whereas China’s post 1990 “rock” audience is deafeningly, crudely young on stage. They cannot live without noisy light and, memory-crushing sound (in their search for oblivion), whereas as nost-prot demands, or demands to “create”. a memory “as if”.

But there IS one now very definitely nost-prot song that hit the nail on the head, and continues to. It is in counterpoint to (though it shares the name) of the N. China folksong “Nanniwan” and the music of the “Increase Production Campaign” (Dashengchan yundong) of 1942 that it highlights but rebuffs if ever so subtly, I was unaware that there was anything of this nostalgic protest genre in Chinese “pop”. But that changed when I heard Cui Jian sing Nanniwan in his own, sort’a 1960s mock-nostalgic (poker faced) way. This is a style (or least stylist) that fades quickly from the Chinese mass media, but obviously it was at one point at the razor’s edge. From the moment of its first performance or not long after, it was banned- though of course the “underground” of post-1989 guaranteed that it continued to be “heard”. The censure of course only added to the popularity (notoriety). Which is why as a cultural monument it deserves scrutiny – and of course rewards it too.

But why this song in particular offended the kulturkrats is still not clear. Is it perhaps because it decontexted? In the orthodox performance version it was paired with the sledgehammer song “Greatly Increase Production” (dashengchan), also a folk “song” nostalgic of the way rural construction gangs sang haozi as they worked, and finished with a very famous scene of a row of peasant women spinning cotton thread en masse. It was a social history of sorts, an early depiction of the Commune, producing and then celebrating. But “work” (production) is not in Cui Jian’s “remembrance” of Yenan. Nanniwan is but a short paean to flowers, the “work” element pushed away – because it was so embedded with lies?

Blogsite respondents focus on the way it seemed to desacralize a Old Red favorite, all the more infuriating since the favorite in question was enshrined in the Party Epic “East in Red”, as performed by perhaps the truest Dolly Parton of Ol Red Opry, Guo Lanying. But another response one hears is that it morally embarrassed those in power “On the Mainland” (as viewed from Taiwan). 因为大陆这边心虚啊. Made them feel guilty. Still others feel that even the reasons themselves are literally unspeakable; that we’ll never know.

One blogster registers the consensus: Ha! This is the silenced song that made (Cui) a political issue. I (We?) have no true understanding of what the problem was. But because of this background issue and because of its suppression, it has come to be a demand-performance item in every one of Cui Jian’s concerts. It reinforces my feeling that Cui Jian need feel no shame at being called “The Father of Chinese Rock”. A true artist!” 哈哈,这就是把崔健推上政治的封口浪尖的那首歌!本来对他没什么了解,不过就看了这首歌的背景还有被封杀后这首歌成为了崔健在所有演唱会上的保留曲目,让我觉得崔健不愧是中国摇滚之父!艺术家!

Not much can be intuited about the problem-aticity even by a line to line comparison of the orthodox and deviant form of the song’s delivery. The words are the same, even the tune is the same. If there is a clue it is external to the performance, it something known (suspected) by the audiences but not explicitly discussed, perhaps not even discussable for lack of materials or testimony.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s