1The Red culture campaign (June 2008 – March 2012) carried out in the municipality of Chongqing, China was a government-led mass cultural mobilization featuring four elements : “Singing Red, Reading Classics, Telling Stories, and Spreading Mottos” (唱读讲传). It was part of a broader series of economic, social and cultural policies advanced by then Party Secretary of Chongqing, who was widely speculated to have higher political ambitions. Among the wide variety of Red-themed activities, “singing Red” – including singing competitions organized by all levels of the Chongqing government, regular Red-themed singing and dancing performances in public squares, TV programs featuring Red songs produced by the Chongqing satellite TV channel, etc. —was the most eye-catching part of the cultural campaign (Mei, 2013 ; 2016a ; 2016b ; 2018).
2For as long as the Communist Party of China (CPC) has existed, art has been utilized as a political and symbolic tool for orchestrating ideology campaigns and transmitting revolutionary and cultural ideals. A wide variety of art forms, such as singing, dancing, and story-telling have been employed by the CPC as useful methods to construct its own narrative of history, as well as portrayals of the socialist ideals (Huang, 2005). For example, in the 1920s, “revolutionary songs” started to emerge as an educational tool in China’s revolution. These songs were mostly adapted from the melodies of folk songs, repackaged with themes of anti-imperialism and patriotism, and performed in a Western style of mass choral singing (Steen, 2013). The collusion between music and politics, of course, is not a unique tool of the CPC. Music has always been deemed as a powerful instrument for arousing emotions, thus an essential tool for mass mobilization and political propaganda (Street, 2003). For example, in the United Kingdom, the popular song of “God save the King” was used as state propaganda to consolidate the monarchic power (Colley, 1992). Voice of America, an influential broadcasting channel created and supervised by the CIA, used folk songs as a means for disseminating “American values” during the Cold War (Saunders, 2000).
3Chongqing’s Red culture campaign, as a governmentled mass mobilization, certainly reflected the CPC’s strategy of using Red songs to construct and disseminate the mainstream culture. The Red songs popularized by the program evoked a number of principles and dichotomized value judgments in narrating the meaning of its existence. The Red culture campaign praised the CPC’s glorious revolutionary past, and criticized the spiritual emptiness and vulgar culture of the present. During the enemy evasion in WWII, it was songs such as “March the Army” (《义勇军进行曲》) and “Defend the Yellow River” (《 保卫黄河》) that mobilized tens of thousands of people to defend the nation. However, a crisis of the soul emerged during the startling economic development of the past decades. Spiritual emptiness haunted people who were now enjoying a much higher living standard than in the past. Therefore, the public were encouraged to sing songs that would inspire them to live a righteous and worthy life.
Was it just propaganda ?
4Since its inception, “singing Red” had been highly controversial for its ideological conservatism. Critics of Chongqing’s Red culture campaign accused it of constituting a return to the Maoist mass campaigns such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), characterized by attempts to manipulate the public opinion and foster personal cult. Few, however, asked whether the people who actually participated in the campaign experienced it in the same way as the political commentators imagined. Reception theorists have long criticized theoretical approaches that subordinate the audience to messages of the media, and victimize them as passive receivers of propaganda (Fiske, 1988). It is important to see artistic production, including music, to be “interactional creations”. That is, an art production may not generate the same response from the audience as the artist intends (Denzin, 1970).
5In light of an interactive and empowerment approach to music reception, we refrain from focusing merely on the text of the Red songs promoted by the official program, but examine how people actually interpreted them. Moreover, “the audience” should not be seen as a singular entity, but contains different fractions. In the case of the Red songs, different generations of participants made use of, and categorized music differently. I use the concept of “affective alliance” to explain this bifurcation of reception. The analysis is based on fieldwork carried out in Chongqing between September 2011 and June 2013. Seventy-four interviews were conducted with local participants of the campaign.
How different generations interpreted the Red songs
Participants of the campaign
6The participants in the Red culture campaign belonged to different generations. The categorization of the generations was based on the historical periods which corresponded to the interviewees’ formative years. Existing literature has identified four distinctive historical periods that constitute the formative experience of today’s Chinese people. They are “the Great Leap Forward”(1958-1960), “the Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), the beginning of the economic reform in 1978, and “the societal transition” since 1992 (Bonnin, 2006). In this paper, I focus on two specific generations, i.e. the Cultural Revolution generation (those born roughly between mid-1940s to mid-1950s, and were likely to have retired when interviewed for this project), and the young generation (typically born at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, and were enrolled in college when interviewed for this project).
Interpreting the notion of Red
7“Red” songs used to refer to propaganda songs that praised revolutions led by the CPC in China. Since the 1990s, the CPC has repackaged the revolutionary propaganda songs into Red songs as part of the mainstream culture (Steen, 2013). The notion of Red was given a new interpretation to be more inclusive. In the Red culture campaign in Chongqing, the official definition of Red songs included songs from all periods of the CPC’s history. “Red” referred not only to yesterday’s revolutionary martyrs but also celebrated today’s good life and denoted a positive outlook about the future. Therefore, songs produced in the formative years of the People’s Republic, such as “Ode to the Motherland” (《歌唱祖国》), and songs that paid tribute to the Reform era, such as “The Story of Spring” (《春天的故事》), were all counted as Red songs. What was interesting about “singing Red” in Chongqing was that even “La Marseillaise” and “Edelweiss” were defined as Red songs, for “they symbolize positive values”, according to Chongqing’s Minister of the Propaganda Department.
8The participants interviewed for this project, however, offered an interpretation of “Red” that differed from the official narrative. Most noticeably, the Red songs were not defined against “decadent” or “backward” culture, but conceptualized as opposed to “artistic songs” by both two generations. Red songs were understood to be concerned with “serious matters”, such as the revolutionary wars, the nation, and the Party. They were political in nature, and normally “did not concern love or friendship”. The artistic songs, on the other hand, were primarily about expressing private feelings. They were considered apolitical, and embraced anything that was beautiful. The Red songs were believed to be less sophisticated than the artistic songs. One’s voice needed to be loud, strong and sturdy when singing Red songs. To sing artistic songs, however, a higher level of singing technique was required. “There are many layers. An artistic song is rich, and it is totally different from singing Red songs. It is such a great pleasure,” explained one retiree who belonged to a community chorus. Students who had been professionally coached in singing echoed this appreciation for artistic songs : “I definitely prefer artistic songs… They require more techniques and musical literacy. Revolutionary songs are too simple. It is like chanting slogans. There are so few techniques required.”
Evaluations of singing Red
9Whilst the two generations of participants shared similar interpretations of the concept of Red (but different from the official narrative), they nevertheless held quite divergent opinions towards the program in general.
10The Culture Revolution generation made up the most active group of participants in singing Red. They sang Red songs in community-organized activities, or voluntarily in public parks. Despite the sporadic complaints about being physically drained by some of the performance assignments, this generation framed their experience with the Red culture campaign rather positively. They believed that singing was hugely beneficial to health, and the Red culture campaign had helped to change the outlook of their life. They experienced it as an opportunity to fulfill their interest in singing and dancing, a path taking them back to their nostalgic youth, and a chance to reclaim an honorable identity for their generation. One participant commented : “It is particularly appealing to people like us, retired people who love singing. It makes us feel fulfilled. I almost forget my age when singing.”
11In contrary to the retirees’ overwhelmingly positive framing of their experience of the Red culture campaign, the youth generation framed their experience mainly negative. They commented that participating in Red-themed activities was generally a waste of time, and the Red songs were detached from their true interests. Those students who were obliged to participate regularly in the campaign resented the fact that it was particularly time-consuming. At the height of the campaign, rehearsals were often held daily, during which performance obligations were assigned at short notice. Because many of the performances clustered around the examination period, many students, busy rotating around Redthemed shows, did not have time to revise for their exams, or even had to miss them. Moreover, singing Red was not “cool” enough. It was almost scandalous for young people to love singing Red songs. One student, who was humming the tune of a Red song that she had been practicing, was laughed at by her roommates in her dormitory. “They think I am nuts, to sing these songs outside of the rehearsals”.
Affective alliance : explaining the difference
12Why did the two generations bifurcate at their evaluations of singing Red ? I use the notion of “affect alliance” to shed light on this difference. “Affect alliance” is a notion used by Lawrence Grossberg to describe the “empowering effects” of music (in his case “rock and roll”) on audience. An “affect alliance” is an assemblage of “material practices and events, cultural forms and social experiences” that can be used by the audience to create and structure sites of pleasure outside of the hegemony (Grossberg, 1984 ; Wolfe and Haefner, 2008). Of the various hypotheses raised by Grossberg regarding “affective alliance”, I focus in this paper on two that help explain the generational differences in music reception. First, temporality is key to understanding the emotional context of a particular music genre. Second, the power of music does not originate from what its texts say, but how it is used to organize desires and pleasures (Grossberg, 1984). I argue that the Cultural Revolution generation was able to take advantage of an “affect alliance” during the Red culture campaign. This is why they enjoyed singing Red more than the youth generation, and evaluated it more positively.
Generational difference : nostalgia
13Grossberg argues that the emergence and popularity of rock and roll is contextualized by the fact that a whole generation growing up in the post-WWII American society (Grossberg, 1984). Similarly, the popularity of Red songs among the elder generation was critically conditioned by their past experiences of “living under the Red flag”. Some liked the songs simply because singing Red reminded them of the days when they were still young. One interviewee movingly recollected how he joined the Communist Party’s army when he was only 15 years old, how he learned the first song of his life – “The East is Red” (《东方红》) – in the army, and how he was singing the Red songs in the trenches of Korean War in 1952. One interviewee explained why he liked the Red songs : “My generation still feels for these songs. My blood rises and I feel excited. It reminds me of my childhood.” Nostalgic sentiments were particularly acute for the social group of former “educated youth,” who were sent from urban areas to the countryside during the Educated Youth movements from the 1950s to 1970s (Bonnin, 2006). The often-dramatic circumstances they had to face during these movements left a critical mark on their memories of the past. It was thus a particularly emotion-laden experience for them to review the most popular songs of their youthful years.
Empowering effect of the Red songs
14As Grossberg rightly points out, the power of music resides not merely in its ideological message, but mainly in its ability to draw boundaries that facilitate affective investments in specific kinds of pleasures and desires (Grossberg, 1984). In the case of singing Red songs, the Cultural Revolution generation liked the songs not necessarily because they identified with the ideological messages carried by the lyrics of the songs, but because the Red songs gave them symbolic power that enabled them to celebrate their social identity. Some of them had the chance to perform at high-class venues, such as the Chongqing Theatre and the People’s Hall of Chongqing. At times their performance was broadcasted on Chongqing’s satellite TV channel. Most of them felt very excited, proud and honoured. They felt properly recognized and respected by the larger society. As researchers have pointed out (Ouyang, 2004 ; Yang, 2003), the rekindling of nostalgic memories often signal discontent with the culture of the present. Many retirees involved in the Red culture campaign felt aggrieved that the culture and values of the past were being abandoned. Thus, they were particularly excited about the fact that their culture and values, having been deemed outdated for a long time, were now being “rectified”. “When the campaign started, I was thrilled ! I thought – it’s finally the time – the time for us to show the young people what good songs are like,” recollected one interviewee.
The youth generation in comparison
15The young people, however, were largely unfamiliar with the history embedded in the Red songs, thus feeling rather blasé towards this particular genre of music. To them, there were countless options for entertainment in which they were genuinely interested. Unsurprisingly, the young people liked pop music, blockbuster films, and spending time with their friends in karaoke lounges. In this sense, it was simply a generational difference. Unlike the retirees, who tended to intertwine their framing of the Red culture campaign with their personal memories of the past, the generation of young people were unable to emotionally connect to the music. Thus, the Red songs were more likely to have a personal appeal to the elder generation than the younger ones, even if both of the generation disliked the political allegiance of the campaign. Because of their detachment from the campaign, the youth generation were not able to form an “affective alliance” as the elder generation did. Although they did also use the music to draw boundaries between them and the others (mainly the older generation), they did not use it to organize possible sites of pleasures, thus did not experience empowerment by this particular genre of music.
16In this paper, I analyze why different generations of participants experienced and evaluated the Red Culture campaign rather differently from the official narrative, as well as among themselves. I argue that the elder generation was able to take advantage of an “affective alliance” regarding the Red songs because of the commonly shared life experiences of this particular generation, as well as the fact that they were using the music to draw boundaries that helped them create sites for pleasure and desires. By contrary, the youth generation had life experiences that were detached from the revolutionary culture, thus felt blasé towards the Red songs. As a result, they did not experience an “affective alliance” during the campaign as the elders did.
The empirical data used in this paper has appeared in different forms in my other works, Mei 2013, 2016a, 2016b, 2018. However, I use a different analytic framework to organize and interpret the data in the current contribution.