Every once in a while, perhaps for surprise effect, I remind a Chinese friend or colleague that an ancient or modern Chinese cultural icon may in fact have been a foreigner or under foreign influence. Perhaps the most renowned traditional cultural figure that might claim foreign roots is Li Po (Li Bai 李白 ), one of China’s greatest poets, who was likely borne in Central Asia. Another, more recent cultural figure was Eileen Chang, who became a US citizen in 1960 and was among the most accomplished of modern Chinese novelists. Ang Lee directed Eileen Chang’s “Lust, Caution,” in 2007 and went on to win another Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for this movie. His first Golden Lion was for Brokeback Mountain.
Another type of cultural dissemination occurs when songs cross borders and take on a life of their own.
As we near Valentine’s Day, it might be worth reflecting on Frankie Lane’s song “Rose, Rose I Love You”, which was drawn from the popular 1940’s Chinese song of the same name: 玫瑰玫瑰我愛你, sung by the 1940’s pop star Yao Li 姚莉 (Miss Hue Lee). There are many clips of these songs available on line. You can look for the 1940 Chinese original Columbia recording, or the 1951 Frankie Lane Columbia recording. The lyrics are predictably somewhat different, and I personally find Miss Hue Lee’s lilting and vulnerable voice more endearing that Frankie Lane’s reinterpretation of the song to describe a foreign protagonist abandoning a Malayan Chinese. Although Chinese music has been deeply influenced by foreign music in recent decades in fact, as one Chinese commentator notes, one of the earliest examples of a hit in both the US and China was this song. In fact, Frankie Lane’s version apparently helped propel Hue Lee’s Chinese original to a number 3 position in the United States on Billboard’s top pop songs for a period of time.
Sometimes songs also take on a life of their own for both their cultural and political resonance. John Denver’s Country Roads certainly has that legacy, as it was played by the late singer for Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter at a celebration to honor the normalization of relations. Cory Doctorow explains the importance of the song at some length in a blog posting “China’s love affair with ‘Take Me Home Country Roads’”. I suspect that almost anybody who travels to China often enough will have heard the song many times.
Wikipedia tracks several versions of “Rose” over the decades beginning in its first appearance in a pre-revolutionary Chinese film. John Denver’s song seems to be most popular in China in its English version, although the song is known in Chinese as: 《乡村路带我回家>. As of January 26, 2015, there were seventy four hits for Country Roads on Baidu. It would be interesting to know if the rightsholders of “Country Roads” collect anything in royalties from Chinese sources, including ring tones, and if the rightsholders of “Rose” were able to collect from the use of their compositions by Frankie Lane, Petula Clark and other singers back in the 1950’s, at a very difficult time in US-China relations and in China’s IP development. I hope some of the artists benefitted.
By the way, Yao Li enjoys a particularly active life in music. Her last recording was made in 2011, at nearly 90 years old, and she also enjoyed a career for a time in Hong Kong with EMI Music.