Only a few pieces of Chinese classical instrumental music have come close to entering the standard orchestral repertory. The 1939 “Yellow River Cantata” with lyrics by Guang Weiran set to music by Xian Xinghai, and the “Yellow River Concerto” later derived from it, is one of these.
In a welcome departure from English-language children’s books focusing on Chinese fables and holidays, Guang’s son Ange Zhang has written the story in an illustrated biography for children 10 and up.
Through photos and his own woodblock prints, Ange Zhang presents his father’s story in a vivid and compelling manner. But the story would itself be moving and informative even without the images.
Born Zhang Guangnian, but known by his pen name Guang Weiran, he was something of a prodigy, becoming a member of the Communist Party at the age of 13. Guang also became a well-known poet in his hometown, which saved him when Nationalists moved to purge Communists in 1927. The Nationalist army commander in Guang’s hometown knew his poetry and didn’t think he looked like a Communist, so left him alone. But this near-miss motivated Guang to leave for university in Wuhan, the closest large city, where he studied classical Chinese literature, theater, music, and literary criticism. He started a literary magazine and a drama club, but could not complete his final year because he didn’t have enough money for tuition.
To support himself, he taught high school, but continued to write. During the first part of the Sino-Japanese war in the mid-1930s, Guang wrote a few plays, for one which, The Girl Named A-Yin, one of his friends composed the song “Flowers of May”. The song became very popular across China. As the war spread, Guang moved to Shanghai to take refuge. In 1937, Guang met the composer Xian Xinghai and the two became fast friends. The following year, after the Nationalists and Communists had joined together to fight the Japanese, and both Guang and Xian enlisted in the military, but in creative posts. Guang was in charge of theater troupes and Xian managed singing groups.
It was during a military trip along the Yellow River that Guang became taken by the sight of a beautiful waterfall. He decided to write a series of poems about the Yellow River, one of the longest in China. He drew more inspiration from the river when his troupe crossed it on Guang’s 25th birthday on 1 November 1938.
In the wild power of the Yellow River, he saw the great courage of the Chinese people. This was what he had been looking for—his nation’s heroic spirit, great and strong!
Guang and Xian reunited in Yan’an, home to the Communist party after the Long March. Guang wrote the lyrics to Yellow River Cantata and Xian composed the music in just six days; Mao was in attendance at the premier in April 1939. The orchestra included a melange of western and Chinese instruments—violin, harmonica, guitar, erhu, sanxian, gong and bamboo flute—along with bells, cymbals, and woodblocks. The most creative instrument was a homemade huqin—a large stringed instrument played with a bow, not unlike an erhu—made out of an oil drum.
The first performance of Yellow River Cantata in Yan’an was an unprecedented success. Since then, the cantata has represented the voices of the Chinese nation. Its waves echoed across the northern and southern banks of the Yellow River, inside and outside the Great Wall, and throughout the anti-Japanese battlefields to the whole of China.
In the new Communist government, Guang Weiran held an important role as a senior official responsible for theater, arts, and literature, but during the Cultural Revolution, the lyrics of Yellow River Cantata were banned. In 1975, Guang and the cantata were reinstated. Guang lived until 2002. His ashes were scattered along the Yellow River, not far from the Gobi Desert.
Zhang mentions the revitalization of Yellow River Cantata in 1975, which coincided with the thirty-year anniversary of Xian’s death, but he doesn’t write that Xian moved to the Soviet Union in the early 1940s and succumbed to a heart attack in 1945. Apart from this omission, A Song for China is a nice story for all ages about music during a turbulent time that is rarely recounted in books for children.