Music as Mao’s Weapon: Remembering the Cultural Revolution

Rishabh Verma

      “While music is Universal, its meaning is not.”

             -Professor Anne Rasmussen 1


The central questions Lei brings up through this book are how and why music was weaponised and what effect it left on the memory of the individuals who experienced the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The “New Songs of the Battlefield” series, released in 1972 to commemorate Mao’s Yan’an talks, serves as the base of the book. Lei draws inferences from interviews and ethnographic surveys gathered over 18 years conducting research in the field. The book is divided into five chapters. In the first chapter, she introduces the process and methods she used, providing a brief overview of the subject and methodological framework related to the fields of ethnomusicology and related disciplines. The core of this work lies in the minds and memories of individuals who survived the Cultural Revolution. As an ethnomusicologist, she questions how songs trigger powerfully emotional memories of different times and places and what happens to the role of music in an individual’s life when it is exploited. Through various quotations and examples, she narrates the story of the connection between peasants and Mao by using local and Chinese musical aesthetics.

The second chapter thoroughly covers the role of Jiang Qing in the establishment of the cult of Mao. Lei also covers other party propaganda, such as “Read Every Day,” in which the masses had to set aside time every day to read Mao’s thoughts. She also explains the type of songs used to mobilise people and notes that the tonal quality of these songs was coarse with rigid rhythm and jumbled syntax. She further suggests that when Mao decided to use music as a weapon, the enemy was no longer an outsider; instead, the internal offenders were its main target. She adds gravity and historical correctness by citing the sources and tracing the committee members responsible for different volumes of the 1972 book in various provinces of China. In conclusion, she discusses how these developments followed the first process of transformation, which was to revolutionise. She states that Mao skillfully took advantage of this arrangement and succeeded in making his cult.

The next chapter addresses the issue of what happens when politics is connected with the everyday lives of children. Chen Jiebing is a significant figure in this chapter. Lei states how songs are part of a gradual historical process and emphasises the policies of the CCP, which banned counter-revolutionary culture and music. Heavy censorship was imposed, thus ensuring that the songs of revolution became the soundscape of those who came of age during this period. Based on her anthropological experiences, the author explains three significant types of songs used as weapons by the party: (1) politically explicit songs, (2) action songs, and (3) little songs. These songs directly engaged children in the socialist project, and they were embedded in children’s everyday activities. She also uses studies of Donna Kwon, Noriko Nanabe, Juliane Braver, and Guido Fackler to compare the situation in China to the rest of the world.

The fourth chapter, “Music and Memory,” is based on interviews with two distinguished musicians, Wang Guowei and Chen Xiaojie. The primary point Lei tries to address through this chapter is how that nostalgic feeling is carried forward by other generations and how music transcends time and space. The chapter assesses music’s capacity to trigger past events. The author states that a broader impact could be seen on the population born after 1949. She argues that music can aid in the process of memorisation as well as in the process of recollecting past events and emotions.

The concluding chapter discusses how music was used as a tool for spreading propaganda and what its impact was on Chinese society as a whole. While referring to the distinct situation of the 21st century, she elaborates that the transparent messaging system, which was an essential part of the revolutionary phase, is somewhat absent nowadays. Lei attacks the preconceived notion of music’s innocent nature, in which music gets romantic idealisation. In reality, music has a broader scope to its meanings and its associated memories. She states that music assaults the senses, but it can also provide solace in the current period as a bittersweet memory of the bygones.

The book opens a new window to events during the Mao era; it undermines our preconceived bias about the events of that phase and is full of musical pieces of the period, providing a distinct picture of the society at that time. The book has an abundance of information with very informative appendixes and notes. Lei’s approach to the fieldwork for data collection is entirely reflexive. It is an interdisciplinary work dealing with fields like anthropology, communications, comparative literature, dance, ethnomusicology, history, philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, and theatre, with music at the heart of everything. The interviews add more clarity and context to what Lei is trying to portray. The scholars trying to understand Chinese culture and East Asian Studies should go through this book, as the multidisciplinary approach of Lei would lead them to explore something new and fresh in the field.