How pianist Lang Lang stirred up trouble for US and China at a White House State dinner

To Lang Lang it was a beautiful melody. To US conservatives and Chinese nationalists his musical selection conveyed a slight snub – underscoring how sensitive relations between the US and China are.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
During a State visit at the White House in Washington, Wed., Jan. 19, for President Obama and China's President Hu Jintao, Musician Herbie Hancock performs at the piano.
Andrew Medichini/AP
Chinese pianist Lang Lang talks to a child as he meets fans, in Rome, Oct. 25, 2010. Lang Lang performed with Herbie Hancock at the White House State diner for President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao Jan.19.

You know what they say about the political spectrum not being linear, but circular, with the extremes meeting up?

We have a perfect example of that this week in US-China relations. Conservative commentators in the US and the most rabid nationalists in China share the view that Chinese pianist Lang Lang dissed America with a piano piece he played at the state dinner President Obama hosted for President Hu Jintao last Wednesday.

Lang Lang himself and everybody else seem to think the idea is nuts.

After playing a duet with Herbie Hancock at the dinner, the exuberant 20-something Chinese pianist – one of the world’s classical music sensations – played a piece called “My Motherland,” a melodious patriotic Chinese song that most people here know and love. (See the Youtube of the performance here)

What fewer people know – especially people of Lang Lang’s generation – is that the song comes from a 1956 film about the Korean War, sung by a female soldier. The lyrics mostly evoke nostalgic memories of home, although at one point they describe enemies as “jackals” (or “wolves,” depending on how you translate an ambiguous Chinese phrase.)

Since America was China’s enemy in the Korean War and the film portrayed Americans as enemies, some nationalist bloggers in China saw Lang Lang’s choice of music as a sly dig at America, delivering a deliberate if subtle message. Some US commentators such as Glenn Beck took up the cry.

It is not clear why Lang Lang, who was educated in the United States, lives there half the time, and enjoys star status among his American fans, would spit in the face of his White House hosts. James Fallows, a writer for The Atlantic who sat next to and talked with Lang Lang during the dinner, says he finds it “really hard to believe there was any hidden-dart message in this music.”

The pianist himself has insisted that he chose the piece because he loves the tune. “I only know this piece because it is a beautiful melody,” he told NPR this week. “Once … people use it as a political issue, that makes me really sad.”

On his Chinese blog he said the song shows “China’s strength and Chinese peoples’ unity,” which he was proud to display to the White House guests.

Whether Lang Lang cleared his repertoire with anyone other than the White House protocol staff is not known. There have been dark suggestions that Chinese officials made the choice for him but there is no evidence for that.

Whether he should have known the back story of the tune is another question. It is well loved in China, but it is not associated in most young people's minds with the film it comes from, nor with any feeling stronger than nostalgic and somewhat sappy patriotism.

President Hu’s visit was intended to calm the choppy waters that have recently bedeviled US-China relations. The Lang Lang imbroglio, however artificial and baseless, is another indicator of how sensitive those relations are.

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