The Internets are a-flurry with compilations of the best songs of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Which makes a China expat wonder, “Did they ever get around to vetting the best Chinese songs of the 20th century?” If so, no doubt proceedings collapsed under factional violence between the pop-besotted Mice Love Rice and hard-liner East is Red factions.
Now, if it comes to ranking great 20th Chinese song-sters, there can be only one, and that one is Wang Luobin. Wang who? Again, if we’re ranking song-writers, those devoted to expression rather than cultivating star-power or rallying the collective, Wang’s the man. He was China’s Bob Dylan, in terms of both folky genius and personal grooming. Dylan, however, never did time for being a rabble-rousing hippie, and Wang Luobin still gets pilloried for the artistic license that made his counterpart millions.
Like Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and other greats who made music before video killed the radio star, Wang Luobin helped himself to the rich veins of music gold hidden in the poor, earthy reaches of his homeland. Pity, then, that Wang Luobin suffers a tarnished legacy for polishing and popularizing the Chinese folk songs he loved so much. It’s a shame, considering Wang never came close to making a pile from his recordings, and had it been left up to the nomads and villagers he learned from, greater China would never have enjoyed classics such as Dudaer and Maria, Uncover Your Veil, I Will Wait for You Till Tomorrow, and The Crescent Moon Climbs.
Moreover, Wang was always up front about his sources. He candidly admitted, “I attribute the wide-spread distribution of my songs to their intrinsic appeal. Many overseas Chinese and Taiwan and Hong Kong people discover their love and memory of their homeland in my songs. In Singapore, an elderly lady, after attending a concert of my works, gave me a necklace she had crafted. The pendant is inscribed with the words ‘Conveyer of Songs’. I have never regarded myself as a famous composer of lyrics. ‘Conveyer of Songs’ suits me best.”
That’s the kind of ego-free musical process that makes for a long career. At eighty, Wang was cooking up his 500- year plan. “I don’t intend to live for 500 years. But if I can ward off death, I will dedicate more and better songs to be sung for five centuries,” Wang vowed. A few years later, Wang reprised sixteen Xinjiang folk songs for release on a major Chinese record label, considering them superior to his former tunes. This kind of dedication gave Wang a down to earth cool Jay Chou will never capture, no matter how many hours he spends puckering in the mirror each day.
A word on Wang Luobin’s musical integrity. When his meager star finally rose in the 1980s, friends and family took his departure from Urumqi to more limelit climes as a given. Wang himself was in his seventies, and songs about love of anything other than mother China were finally squeaking by the censors. Quoth Wang, “My melodies stem from Xinjiang. They have helped me survive difficult times and I cannot pull myself away.”
Difficult times, indeed. Only difficult times aplenty build the kind of character to deliberately get off the train to celebrity-land. As a cocky young music scholarship prodigy in the early ‘30s, Wang dreamed of playing Rachmaninov to packed Paris recital halls, and his teacher encouraged Wang’s dream of going abroad. But in those troubled times, many Chinese dreamed of eating once a day, thus little surprise that financial duress forced Wang to drop out of Beijing Normal U.
They say when one door closes, another opens, and Wang’s disappointment did lead him to China’s Northwest, where he eventually found his life’s purpose. But official paranoia led to what even his Baidu biography claims was a B.S. charge. He was locked up in 1960, a door that didn’t open again until 1975, when Wang was sixty two. Six years later, the government formally declared his sentencing a “mistake” in compensation.
The last thing Wang Luobin would want people to remember him as is another unjustly jailed artist, however. One of his favorite anecdotes sets the background for In a Far Away Land, arguably his most popular song. In 1939, he joined film pioneer Zheng Junli at Qinghai Lake, where Wang was to play a bit part with a local Tibetan shepherdess named Dolma. They spent days together, riding horses through the rich pastureland that rings the vast lake. Once, playfully, he lashed the flanks of Dolma’s horse, causing the beast to rear and nearly throw her. Nonplussed, she gave Wang a switch to the ear as soon as his guard was down.
After the filming, Zheng and Wang rode off on their horses, Dolma accompanying them to the rise of a bounding hill, where she bid them farewell. Naturally, Wang couldn’t make it another quarter mile without turning back for a last glimpse of the beautiful Dolma. The sight of her, still watching, the memory of her violent caress, and perhaps lack of proper food or sleep, led to one of those epiphanic moments in which a classic work of art is born.
In a far away fairy land,
there is a fairy girl.
Everybody who passes by her tent
will go back and linger there.
She turns pink-cheeked with her smile
like a glorious sun,
and her eyes, charming and pretty
like a moon shining at midnight.
I would give up all my property,
just to go graze with her.
to see her smiling face
and her golden dress of lace.
I’d become a tiny lamb
running by her side,
letting her swing her whip
flicking tenderly on my body.
Sure, it loses something in the translation, but In a Faraway Place, eventually won the National Special Gold Disc Award, and was later taught at the Paris Conservatory, fulfilling Wang’s childhood dream by proxy. UNESCO gave Wang an award for outstanding contributions to the exchange of western and eastern cultures. He died of tuberculosis in 1996, a legacy of 700 songs to his credit.
Download some Wang Luobin songs here.