In its coverage of Hu Jintao's visit to Washington, the New York Times managed to find room for five sentences about the music played at the state dinner held at the White House in the Chinese president's honor. Lang Lang, one of the best known classical musicians in this country or, as the Times describes him, "a Chinese pianist who has been a sensation in music circles," first performed a duet with popular pianist Herbie Hancock. Then he was left alone to play what the Times says is "a haunting traditional Chinese melody called 'My Motherland.'"
Traditional? The song was written as the theme to the 1956 film Battle on Shangganling Mountain. The movie portrays the Korean War's Battle of Triangle Hill, in which Chinese soldiers, badly outnumbered in weaponry, held off United Nations and United States forces for over a month. The film, of course, does not treat our side kindly, and the lyrics to its theme, well known in China, include the lines "But if the wolves come / What greets them are the hunting rifles" -- which the Chinese take to be a reference to Americans.
The Times feels this anti-American melody “might seem to be a regrettable choice for a state dinner” hosted by Americans. But, the paper insists, “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.”
In fact, Lang Lang made a deliberate choice to play this piece. On his website, he writes, “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.”
That’s not what he said before he chose his words more carefully than his music. In a television interview, he states, “I thought to play ‘My Motherland’ because I think playing the tune at the White House banquet can help us, as Chinese people, feel extremely proud of ourselves and express our feelings through the song.”
I’ve never been much of a fan of Lang Lang. His over the top performances seem aimed at winning him headlines and crossover success. But his show-off style doesn’t approach the music on its own terms -- it’s all about Lang Lang. But I suppose I should be grateful for any artist who might be able to interest young people in classical music. So I’m happy for the pianist, who was born and raised in China, that he’s found success in America. He currently lives in New York City -- which allows him the sort of fame and freedom China never would.