Qian Renkang and School Songs (Xuetang Yuege)

The music historian Qian Renkang (b.1914) is one of the most respected musicologists around in mainland China. He celebrated his 90th birthday in 2004.

In 2001 Qian published an illuminating and detailed study on the origins of school song called Xuetang yuege kaoyuan (An Investigation Into the Origins of School Songs, Shanghai yinyue chubanshe). It remains an invaluable text for anyone interested in the history and evolution of popular songs in China in the early twentieth century.

In late nineteenth century China, reformers emphasized the political and social relevance of culture that could promote various goals and reform China through the creation of a modern culture. Fiction, drama, poetry and songs provided a template for diagnosing the ills of the Qing dynasty, offering disparate solutions to 'save the nation' as foreign powers were ready to 'carve up China like a melon' and the empire appeared to move ever closer to extinction.

School songs (xuetang yuege) became an important vehicle to express a number of national concerns at the time from resisting foreign aggression, reforming society to issues of morality and women’s rights. School song anthologies and translations of Western music published in China at the turn of the twentieth century, were, in many cases, direct borrowings from Japanese translations of Western music theory and history. Many overseas Chinese students received elementary music training in Japan and returned to China with a number of songs that had been incorporated into the Japanese education system in the wake of the Meiji Restoration. These songs were in turn introduced into the modern Chinese school curriculum at the beginning of the twentieth century.

School songwriters drew upon a vast number of musical sources. These included popular tunes from Germany, America, Italy and Britain, Christian and Buddhist hymns, and Chinese traditional folk songs and instrumental tunes.

Tunes could be borrowed and introduced into the repertory at any time. Tunes could also be used again and again by setting them to different texts, known as tianci (lit: 'to fill in words or text'), a compositional process that has a long history in China. Qian writes that school song songwriters did not compose these songs 'to seek fame or fortune' (p. 6), but as a vehicle to promote social and political ideals that would catapult China into a modern nation. Over time, some tunes proved more popular than others. Sakura, God Save the King and La Marseillaise, for example, never gained wide currency, but Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star appeared in at least ten school song anthologies between 1905-1939 (p. 169) and Old Lang Syne, a tune still widely used in school songbooks in China today, appeared in some sixteen school song compilations between 1905-1935 (p. 189).

Many school song songwriters aligned themselves with one another in writing simple, comprehensible didactic texts in the vernacular and setting them to suitably soul-stirring melodies. However, the choice of text was anything but prescribed. Li Shutong (1880-1942), one of the most well-known school song songwriters of the time not only chose to write in the vernacular, but also wrote classical verses imbued with historical allusions and themes. Li’s Mourning our Ancestral Land (1905) for example, demonstrated that a classical verse rich in historical references could serve as a medium for expressing modern ideas.

Qian’s book eloquently illustrates that with these school songs–both original compositions and texts set to pre-existing melodies–the modern genre of Chinese popular song appeared. In many respects, school songs were the harbinger of songs of the masses and revolutionary songs.

I'll be writing a lot more on school songs in future posts.

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