The March of the Volunteers, China’s national anthem, has had an erratic history. It started out as a song in a film and only picked up in popularity as a result of a singing campaign in the 1930s. But it was banned for part of the Cultural Revolution and only formally adopted as the guoge in 1982.
The anthem is soon to be protected by law and according to a draft bill published on the National People’s Congress website, the “behaviour” around singing it needs to be “standardised” in order to “safeguard national dignity”.
“By enhancing the seriousness with which we sing the song… [we will] promote the great national spirit with patriotism at its core,” the document insisted.
It is worth nothing that laws on national anthems aren’t uncommon in Asia: India’s President Narendra Modi pushed through a comparable law last year and the party of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte drafted similar legislation last week.
If adopted in its current form, the new law will make changing the lyrics of March of the Volunteers illegal, punishable by up to 15 days in detention. It also requires people to stand when the anthem is played and to look at the national flag – if one is nearby.
Strangely the law outlaws recitals of the anthem at funerals but lists seven events where it must be played, including the opening of the National People’s Congress, flag raising ceremonies and major sporting competitions.
The new rules also call for the tune and tempo of the song to be formalised – at least 10 versions of the anthem currently exist, according to Xinhua, which might go some way to explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping was subjected to a truly awful rendition in Venezuela in 2014 (see WiC248).
The song, which makes no mention of the ruling Communist Party, was provisionally selected as the national anthem in 1949, but then jettisoned in favour of the East is Red during the Cultural Revolution.
It was reinstated in 1982 after additional verses praising Mao were removed. Its young composer Nie Er, died the year he wrote it and Tian Han, who wrote the lyrics, later died in jail, having been imprisoned by Mao.
Although March of the Volunteers is loved in China, the new law has sparked some heated exchanges. One lawmaker wanted a ban on people placing their hands over their hearts when it is played, saying the gesture is “too American”. That prompted some athletes to push back on social media saying they do so because it feels patriotic and natural. “Please do not think it is about anything other than love for our nation,” wrote table tennis champion Chen Qi on weibo.
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