Lang Lang ignites White House kerfuffle

Popular Chinese pianist plays anti-US tune at White House dinner honoring President Hu Jintau. Who knew? Photo: Lang Lang website

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2011 – Media buzz has been building into a mini-brouhaha over a piece performed by Chinese pianist and international phenom Lang Lang last week at a White House dinner honoring visiting Chinese President Hu Jintau. During the January 19 event, the popular soloist performed a version of “My Motherland” – a popular anti-American tune throughout much of the People’s Republic.

”Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang gave a musical shout out to America-hating patriots in his homeland when he played at the White House state dinner last week,” huffed New York Post correspondent S. A. Miller.

Lang Lang and President Obama.

Lang Lang meets President Obama during
last week’s White House dinner.
(Photo courtesy Lang Lang’s website.)

The song in question originally appeared in the soundtrack of “The Battle of Shangganling Mountain,” a 1956 Chinese propaganda film lauding China’s alleged “triumph” over the U.S. during the Korean War. Its lyrics describe Americans as warmongering “jackals”—hardly the kind of stuff, it would seem, that’s appropriate for a state dinner.

This still-developing story might not have surfaced at all were it not for a piece penned by Matthew Robertson in the January 22 online edition of The Epoch Times. According to Robinson, the “movie and the tune are widely known among Chinese, and the song has been a leading piece of anti-American propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for decades. CCP propaganda has always referred to the Korean War as the ‘movement to resist America and help [North] Korea.’ The message of the propaganda is that the United States is an enemy—in fighting in the Korean War, the United States’ real goal was said to be to invade and conquer China. The [Chinese] victory at Triangle Hill was promoted as a victory over imperialists.”

While the story has barely been reported in the major media (the New York Times dismissed the story out of hand, while the Washington Post’s “Reliable Source” online made sport of all the flapdoodle), it’s gone viral in the blogosphere where speculation has run the gamut, depending on one’s political point of view.

Mr. Lang’s only official reaction thus far appears in a January 24 Facebook entry where he describes his short program and somewhat diplomatically defends his choice of material:

“I was deeply honored to have been invited to perform at the White House recently. The two pieces I played were, one, Maurice Ravel’s ‘Ma mere l’Oye’ (Mother Goose) for four hands, the other, a Chinese piece called ‘My Motherland.’ 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.”

“America and China are my two homes,” he continues. “I am most grateful to the United States for providing me with such wonderful opportunities, both in my musical studies and for furthering my career. I couldn’t be who I am today without those two countries.”

Neither the White House nor the Chinese government have provided further clarification of the issue as of this writing, and it’s tough to parse the situation with the available information. It is possible that Mr. Lang was sincere in his explanation. It’s also not out of the question that the Chinese government might have urged him to perform the piece. Anyone familiar with the problematic lives of Prokofiev and Shostakovich under the former Soviet Marxist dictatorship will understand the routine.

Making things more problematic, however, is the objectivity of the original reportage, which conjoins fact with what is clearly selective editorial comment. While the incident did indeed occur—a video is currently widely available online—this slant by The Epoch Times may raise at least some eyebrows.

The Epoch Times is an international paper owned by Falun Gong—a religious organization that’s opposed to the current Chinese Communist regime and is frequently and sometimes violently persecuted by the Chinese government for precisely that reason. Since neither the paper nor Beijing are likely to change their respective points of view, Lang Lang—a genial, friendly fellow by all accounts—may be the only one who’s left to pick up the pieces of this bizarre musical/diplomatic misfire.

Read more of Terry’s work at “Curtain Up!” in the Communities at the Washington Times.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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