Mark Levine’s Songs of China

Telling Stories through Songs

To begin with, it was not Mark’s intention to tell his China stories through songs. However, whenever he reflected on an experience he’d had or his feelings about people, places or events in China, he would find himself picking up his guitar and playing. All of a sudden an almost chemical reaction would take place. He found that his Chinese stories triggered an unexpected harmony with simple American folk melodies. “After that, I consciously decided to put the two together. If I had thought about it first, it might never have happened, but it just came kind of naturally.”

“People pay attention to me for different reasons: sometimes because of the music, sometimes because of the lyrics. For those who do not speak English and can’t understand the lyrics, they feel my love for China through my songs. The love and respect for China coming from the voice and guitar of a foreigner helps Chinese people appreciate their own country.”

Explaining how his performing Chinese songs might serve to attract non-Chinese to the music, he says, “If I sing a Chinese folk song, I play it on guitar and although I am singing it in Chinese, I have changed the phrasing and musical arrangement. This makes it more familiar to Western ears. The song can then spark their interest in Chinese songs and whet their appetites, even creating an interest to go back and find out more about where this came from.”

Mark has traveled across more than half of the country. On the road, in addition to singing, he has a bigger interest in learning about Chinese culture, as well as communicating with people he encounters. All his songs help to introduce beautiful Chinese scenery to foreigners.

Mark is eager to spread Chinese culture and convey an image of China not regularly seen in Western media. For instance, he wrote songs about Three-Character Classic, a Chinese classic text dating back to the 13th century, Chinese calligraphy and China’s long and rich history.

“I want to introduce and promote China to the world. China makes me feel invigorated and hopeful. She has a long history and splendid culture; she has beautiful and glorious scenery and most importantly, she has a strong and determined people who work hard to overcome any barriers to their collective progress. My songs tell you stories that have never been told before.”

I Think, Therefore, I Sing

When he was still teaching in Huai’an, Mark gave students in his writing class the assignment of an essay called “What I Have Lived For,” in the spirit of the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell. “All of my students knew of this essay before they took my class so it seemed appropriate to get them to write something reflecting on their own values and priorities.”

Among the 75 students in his two writing classes, two referred to the gap between the city and the countryside and said that they would commit their lives to narrowing this gap. A third student stated that she would work to improve the well-being of people with disabilities. It was the response of the other 72 students that concerned him and that ultimately contributed to his decision to remain in China past his one year planned visit. These remaining students all said that the focus of their lives was to have a good life for themselves and their families.

“That was it. They made no reference to anyone else. I understand their desire for their families to be OK, but somehow, more than 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, so many young people had forgotten or never learned the most important legacy of the PRC’s founders, that it is not ‘me’ or ‘you’ that I must be concerned about but ‘us’, beginning with those of us who are at the bottom because when those at the bottom are OK, the rest of us will do fine as well.”

Mark feels it is his responsibility to pay close attention to people’s livelihoods and reflect on social problems in reality.

“I have heard many Chinese people express the belief that everyone in the United States is rich, but that is far from the truth. Poverty has always existed in the U.S. and over the past 40 years it has gotten worse. As a volunteer organizer on behalf of low-income workers, my primary responsibility was to recruit and train more volunteers from all segments of American society to join the efforts in pursuit of lasting solutions to the problems of the poor.”

Having lived and worked in many of the poorest communities in the United States, Mark knew the conditions first hand and invested nearly three decades in the fight on behalf of the unemployed and the working poor. His familiarity with sociological theory taught him the importance of practice; he left the academic world of theories in pursuit of practice. “I understood the need to do something about these problems and believed that this could best be done out in the community rather than in the confines of a university.”

Mark’s first train trip in China was from southern Hubei Province to the city of Guangzhou during the Spring Festival in 2009. It was an unforgettable experience. He could only buy a ticket for a hard seat on this 24-hour trip because, he later found, scalpers had bought up scores of train tickets during this special period to sell on for a fat profit, and as a result had hindered many other people’s chances of getting home for holidays. This experience inspired his song The Scalper Man, a phenomenon he associates with China’s urbanization and social transformation.

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