Mao Songs


“Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese Communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao only once — in a chapter on etiquette…
Students now study Mao — still officially revered as the founding father of modern China but no longer regularly promoted as an influence on policy — only in junior high. In the senior high school text, he is mentioned only fleetingly as part of a lesson on the custom of lowering flags to half-staff at state funerals, like Mao’s in 1976”.
“Where’s Mao? Chinese Revise History Books”, Joseph Kahn, New York Times, September 1, 2006

June–July 2005: thirty-five Beijing musicians are invited to sing a selection from Mao Zedong’s Long March poems. Allowed minimal preparation, they sing the poem in any musical idiom they wish. Each performance is videotaped. The poems used for this project (Huichang, Loushan Pass, Three Short Poems, The Long March, Mount Liupan, and Snow) were written between 1934-36, predating the foundation of the Communist State.

The invited performers represent a wide range of musicians. They include traditional musicians from Tiantan and Jingshan Parks, pop and karaoke singers from the bars in Hou Hai, street musicians from Dongzhimen, Xidan and Dongsishitiao subways, and rock and roll vocalists from clubs like Yu Gong Yi Shan and Nameless Highland. Where possible, the performers are filmed on location.

The high visibility of Beijing music communities makes their utopian impulse apparent. All musical performance brings about a momentary utopian experience. To experience music is to glimpse a better world. In their informal collectives musicians design temporary models of utopian communities and, long after these groups have dissolved, their music provides evidence of what might have been possible.

Mao Songs joins a contemporary utopian project with a historical one. Describing an intense immersion in nature, Mao issues a revolutionary call as if linking this enjoyment of the landscape with its defense. In Mao’s productionist poems the combination of revolutionary demands with an insistence on the value of sensory pleasures recalls other Socialist literature, Surrealist writing in particular. The Surrealists reveal the city as the marvelous nature that social revolution will make accessible to others. Mao’s poems suggest that the transformation of the individual through experience of nature has to be part of the larger revolutionary program of social reorganisation. In this sense he is proposing a utopian project that remains part of the content of his grand social engineering failures like The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution, which bind successful social transformation to the idea that inherent values lie in rural life.