A Voice That Inspired China
Bookworms young and old at the bookstore Soong Ching Ling meets Paul Robeson's son in Beijing in 1980.
PAUL Robeson, one of the great personalities of the 20th century, marks his 110th anniversary this year. In commemorative events held in Beijing to celebrate the great freedom fighter's memory, people have been paying tribute not only to the extraordinary singer, actor and human rights campaigner, but also to a man who early on expressed his solidarity with the struggles of the Chinese people. It is a testament to the power of Robeson's personal charisma, as much as to his voice, that one of the most popular songs in China has for many years been Ol' Man River.
Although Robeson never visited China, the Chinese people embraced him as a faithful and supportive friend from the moment he sang March of Volunteers for an audience of 7,000 at an open concert in New York City in 1940. That year saw fierce battles raging in China against invading Japanese armies, which had already occupied North and East China, and were rapidly advancing inland.
"I want to finish this concert with a Chinese song, March On, a song for the struggling Chinese people," Robeson said. He sang it twice, coming back on stage for encores to stormy applause. It was the first time that patriotic song had been sung in a foreign country, and Americans went wild for it, recalled Liu Liangmo, an activist then living in the United States. In fact, it was he who taught Robeson the Chinese lyrics. Leaving the concert, people boisterously sang "March on, march on, and on!"
In the spring of 1941, Robeson recorded March of Volunteers, or March On, as he called it. He sang it in Chinese, with a chorus comprised of Chinese workers in America. March On, which called for resistance to Japanese aggression, became an immediate hit in the United States. Powerful and moving, it quickly became part of Robeson's repertoire in his solo vocal performances, and he enjoyed singing it in both Chinese and English.
Having excelled in both scholastics and athletics as a youth, Robeson received a scholarship to Rutgers College, where he became an All-American football player and class valedictorian. Playing football professionally while studying law at Columbia University, Robeson also supported himself by working in the post office, singing, coaching basketball and acting.
Realizing that his prospects for a career as a lawyer would be severely restricted because of his skin color, Robeson, persuaded by his fellow Columbia student and wife Eslanda Cardozo Goode, joined the Provincetown Players, a group associated with the notable playwright Eugene O'Neill. Starring in a production of The Emperor Jones, Robeson achieved immediate critical acclaim. But what earned him an international reputation was Ol' Man River, a song in the musical drama Showboat first performed on the London stage. Audiences all over the world were instantly struck and forever remembered his powerful, warm and melodic voice.
Singing to, and moving among, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and the working classes, Robeson began viewing himself and his art as serving the struggle for racial justice and freedom. "The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery," he said in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. "I have made my choice. I have no alternative." When he sang to members of the International Brigade on the front lines, he changed the lyrics of Ol' Man River to "we keep laughing instead of crying, we must keep fighting until we're dying."
Soong Ching Ling, a spiritual leader in wartime China, was deeply moved by the resonant, emotionally charged voice of March On when she listened to the disc in 1941. "From songs immensely popular among the people, China has found a new strength against the invaders," she wrote in the disc jacket. "The voice speaks for the peoples of all nations. It has become a bond uniting all people struggling for freedom."
Below, Robeson wrote: "Sung by millions of Chinese, it is an unofficial national anthem. It stands, I was told, for a spirit of fighting against mighty power." March On, as he predicted, was chosen to be the national anthem of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
Although they never met in person, Soong and Robeson regarded each other as trusted friends. In 1941, Robeson was invited to take up a post as honorary director of the China Defense League (the CDL, renamed the China Welfare Institute in 1945) set up by Soong. Other foreign honorary directors included American writer Edgar Snow and Jawaharlal Nehru of India.
They shared much in common, said He Dazhang, vice director of the Research Center of the China Soong Ching Ling Foundation. They were both filled with a profound sense of social responsibility and dedication to the world's most vulnerable human beings. Despite the fierce obstructionism of their opponents, they steadfastly held their ground in solidarity with the people, fighting tirelessly for human justice and world peace.