The song that stirs a nation's patriotic soul

Lu Feiran
Most foreigners aren't familiar with China's national anthem. A Turkmenistani studying in Shanghai is trying to change that with a short documentary about the song.
Lu Feiran

If you are a young foreigner living in Shanghai and are chosen to produce a short documentary film on the theme "family, homeland and nation," what subject would you pick?

Most of the eight fledgling filmmakers chosen to participate in this year's "Looking China: Youth Film Project" selected obvious themes, like grandparents looking after grandchildren.

But Kristina Grigoryan from the Central Asian republic of Turkmenistan chose something more abstract – the story of China's national anthem.

It's a topic even many Chinese don't know much about, and it wasn't even her first choice.

"In the beginning, when 'Looking China' instructors and producers sat down with me to discuss topics, I told them I wanted to film a restaurant in Shanghai that employed seniors with slight dementia," she says. "But the restaurant declined our request, citing possible undue stress on the seniors."

Grigoryan says she fully understood the restaurant's concern and chose instead to turn her focus on the history of the national anthem, which is entitled "March of the Volunteers."

The "Looking China" project, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, invites young, amateur directors from all over the world to make short films about China.

Grigoryan's seven fellow filmmakers in this year's project, who hailed from countries such as Botswana, South Korea and the United Kingdom, chose more mainstream topics.

One interviewed a dragon boat team that has formed a close, family-like bond. Another talked to parents of autistic children. A third filmed the 85-year-old Longfeng Qipao, which involves five generations of artisans.

Grigoryan did a lot of preliminary research on the national anthem, including trips to museums and reading books.

"I think the national anthem is about not only every family, but also every person," she says. "It unites people, families and the whole country."

The song that stirs a nation's patriotic soul
Ti Gong

A screenshot from the stop-motion animation "The Song of New China," directed by an amateur filmmaker from Turkmenistan.

The national anthem was composed as a rallying cry against the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s. It was originally written for the film "Children of Troubled Times," with lyrics by poet-playwright Tian Han and music by Nie Er.

The anthem was first played as the Chinese national anthem as the World Peace Conference in Europe in April 1949. However, it wasn't formally adopted as the national anthem until 1982 and enshrined as an amendment to the nation's Constitution until 2004.

The anthem is written in vernacular rather than classic Chinese. It starts with the words "Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!" and ends with "March on! March, march on!"

The latter refrain has echoes of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise." Then again, many national anthems, including that of the United States, were written as rallying cries during times of great upheaval.

In the 1930s, China was undergoing such an upheaval. The Japanese army invaded from northeast China and spread south, eventually occupying Shanghai and committing atrocities like the Nanjing Massacre. Tales of Chinese heroism and resistance have become legends, revived this year for celebrations of the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.

Grigoryan had a voluminous amount of material to condense. In her nine-minute, stop-motion animation entitled "The Song of New China," the young director used a scrapbook with pictures and handwritten notes about the history of the anthem, with old videos inserted between scenes. The scenes in the scrapbook, including the Shanghai skyline and a theater in Huangpu District, were hand done piece by piece by Grigoryan.

"The shooting process was creative because whenever inspiration struck, I could veer from the original plan to create something new," she says.

Grigoryan adds that the most difficult part of her film was script preparation.

"The more research we did, the more interesting facts and stories we found," she says. "And we had to squeeze all that content into a short film."

The young filmmakers received assistance from two schools with ties to Shanghai University – Shanghai Vancouver Film School and School of Journalism and Communication.

"Fortunately, I had a student producer from Shanghai University helping me through the process," Grigoryan says. "She taught me a lot about Chinese history so that I had better understanding of the background of the anthem."

Spanish filmmaker and producer Odet Abadia Gomez, who oversaw the amateur directors this year, says she feels Grigoryan's film magically connects history with contemporary times.

The film includes footage of renowned African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) singing "March of the Volunteers" in Mandarin. Today, Robeson is an icon in the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.

"As foreigners, we don't learn much about China from our history textbooks," Gomez says. "I remember there was great length about World War II, but the battleground in China received only scant mention. So, I hope this film will inform people about that period of history in China, including how it influenced Westerners."

The song that stirs a nation's patriotic soul
Ti Gong

Kristina Grigoryan (right) discusses her project with Odet Abadia Gomez.

It is Gomez's second time working with "Looking China," yet the project still remains an eye-opener for her.

"One of the films this year is about seniors looking after their grandchildren and involves interviews with the old people," she says. "I feel that China has a very different family culture from the West."

She explains: "Indeed, in my own country, grandparents regard it as a burden if they have to look after their grandchildren. Yet, here in China, many seniors urge their children to have babies as soon as possible so they can assist in raising them."

Gomez has spent the better part of 10 years in Shanghai. At first, she shuttled between China and Spain, but eventually her stays in Shanghai became longer.

"Back then, about a decade ago, there was more business to be done in Shanghai than in Europe because of the financial crisis," Gomez says. "And I came to feel that Shanghai was more like a home to me."

Both Grigoryan and Gomez plan to create more works on China in the future. Grigoryan, who is majoring in journalism and communication, says she plans to travel around the country with her camera.

Meanwhile, Gomez is fascinated about Chinese history, especially its history of women.

"I made short documentary film on 'The Red Errant Knight,' the first female superhero movie in China and probably in the world, which appeared almost a century before 'Wonder Woman,'" she says. "And I would like to explore more about Chinese history in the future."

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