[CIVIL RIGHTS] Paul Robeson and Soong Ching Ling
- Paul Robeson:
A Voice That Inspired China
Pic - 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.
Although half a world away in the United States, Robeson kept a close eye on the plight of China, a land he had never seen. He performed at a benefit concert in Philadelphia to raise funds for the CDL. On hearing that the ruling Kuomintang had enacted a blockade against the Chinese Communist Party, he strongly denounced the move. "The three-year blockade against the Chinese guerilla forces must be lifted," he said in a meeting in New York City in 1944. "The entire might and strength of China's 400 million must be united."
On October 1, 1949, Robeson greeted the founding of the People's Republic of China with enthusiasm. He was one of the first to telegraph Chairman Mao Zedong to congratulate him, then walked through the streets with his comrades and friends, hand in hand and singing loudly, "March on, march on, and on!"
He told the Chinese deputy in Prague it was imperative he go to China the following year. But in 1950, the American government revoked his passport, claiming that Robeson's overseas trips were not in the interest of the U.S. government. His open attachment to the Communist countries isolated Robeson from Cold War America. He was blacklisted by concert managers; his annual income went from more than US $150,000 to $6,000; his phone was tapped and his mail opened.
"If only my heart could become a bird," he said sadly in 1952 on being told that he had been elected a vice president of the Liaison Committee for Asia and the Pacific, a Beijing-based branch of the World Peace Council. "I could fly freely, fly to China."
In spite of the unending and hysterical McCarthyist harassment he was forced to endure, he steadfastly refused to provide the names of American Communists, or to answer before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) whether he was, or had ever been, a party member, a question that he viewed as a violation of his Constitutional rights. "You are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves," he defiantly proclaimed.
After eight years of struggle, Robeson received his documents back and returned to the concert stage in 1957. "You are one of the cradles of human civilization, and one of the greatest countries now and in the future," he wrote in A Letter to the Chinese People in 1958. "I eagerly wish to step on this land and pay tribute to you. I hope that day will come soon."
But his health began to fail as a consequence of the long-term depression he was battling, a symptom of his isolation from friends and audiences. He died before ever setting foot in a land he considered a spiritual home. Robeson's wish to visit China was eventually fulfilled by his only son in 1980, four years after Robeson had passed away.
"The Chinese people have a special connection to your family," Soong Ching Ling told Paul Robeson Jr. in Beijing. "Many cherish your father's memory, including me."
The 110th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson celebrated in Soong Ching Ling's Former Residence
Chen Rinong, editor-in-chief of China Today, felt very excited after the commemoration, and that night he immediately wrote in his BLOG "Today, on the lawn of the former residence of Soong Ching Ling, not only his friend representatives but also Chinese and overseas guests recalled and gave speeches about Paul Robeson; several artists gave wonderful and passionate performances. These indicate people's deep feelings for him and the friendship between Chinese and foreigners." The next day, Chen Rinong wrote a letter to China Soong Ching Ling Foundation Research Center, "Thanks for your invitation. I had participated in a very significant commemorative activity. You have done a good job, which is worthy of reporting. I have suggested reporting this event in the Chinese version and English version of China Today."
April 9, 2008 was the 110th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson. In order to recall the old friend who had ever firmly supported the anti-aggression war of the Chinese people with his own voice and action, some Chinese and overseas gathered together in the former residence of Soong Ching Ling to pay tribute to Paul Robeson.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was a famous American black singer, a civil right campaign leader and a firm world peace defense fighter. During the anti-Japanese war, invited by Soong Ching Ling, he assumed the office of an honorary member of the China Defense League, actively participated in the money raising performances for China Defense League and spared no effort to support the anti-Japanese war of the Chinese people. In America, he sang March of the Volunteers in English and made a record called Chee Lai (Chinese for "Arise"), which made this song that symbolized the spirit of the Chinese people influential in the world. When the People's Republic of China was founded, he and his friends went into the street to sing Arise in Chinese to celebrate this big event. In 1958, when the Chinese people celebrated his 60th birthday, in his letter to the Chinese people, he wrote "Thank all the Chinese people for their contribution to socialism and their defense of world peace". He had hoped to visit China. Due to various reasons, by January 1976 when he passed away, Robeson had not realized his wish to visit China. May 1980, his son, Paul Robeson Jr. and his wife visited China, and Soong Ching Ling met them with hospitality at her residence in Beijing. The Chinese people will never forget Paul Robeson and his songs, which are sung widely. At the 100th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, Forbidden City Concert Hall held a memorial concert.
This commemoration activity was organized by China Soong Ching Ling Foundation Research Center, China Society for People's Friendship Studies and co-organized by Beijing Foreign Studies University, China Daily and Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Before the activity, Soong Ching Ling Foundation Research Center did much preparation: such as sending an invitation in advance to Paul Robeson Jr. And his wife and daughter to visit Beijing and requesting him to provide some original pictures; widely collecting the publications and AV documents of Paul Robeson; tidying and concluding the literatures in relation to the friendship between Soong Ching Ling and Paul Robeson; taking related cultural relics from the former residence; setting up four temporary exhibition booths to exhibit these precious documents; and producing CDs with the songs of Paul Robeson and presenting them to the guests for memory.
On the activity day, He Dazhang, Executive Vice Director of China Soong Ching Ling Foundation Research Center, Chen Xiuxia, Vice Chair of China Society for People's Friendship Studies, Gao Zhendong, Secretary General of China Society for People's Friendship Studies, Chen Lin, professor of Beijing University of Foreign Studies, old friends of Soong Ching Ling and related person, Su Fei, Nakamura Kyoko, Li Mei, Huang Huanbi, Han Chun, Zhang Yan, Chen Yiwen, foreign friends Pat Adler, Michael Crook, Vice Chairman International Committee for the promotion of Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, and Chinese and overseas experts, media journalists etc, totaling more than 80 people attended the activity. In addition, Cao Houkang, section chief of China Welfare Institute Science and Education Section, came especially to Beijing from Shanghai and participated in this activity on behalf of China Welfare Institute.
Paul Robeson Jr., although unable to attend the activity himself, sent a letter from New York. In the letter, he wrote "My wife Marilyn, my daughter Susan and I deeply appreciate your invitation to the Tribute honoring the 110th Anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth on April 9. My father, one of the greatest performing artists of the twentieth century, became both a Black symbol of the international peace movement and a staunch fighter for Black freedom in the United States. A firm and dear friend to the Chinese people during your epic struggles against imperialism, he courageously opposed fascism and colonialism. It is fitting that this tribute from the people of China marks the 110th Anniversary of Paul Robeson's birth."
First, the guests watched the documentary Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist in the south building. Then they gathered on the lawn in front of Soong Ching Ling's residence before a huge picture of Paul Robeson to pay tribute to the great man. The weather was gorgeous and the atmosphere was cheerful . The tribute was presided over by He Dazhang and American guest Marni Rosner. He Dazhang, Chen Xiuxia, Vice Chair of China Society for People's Friendship Studies, Chen Lin, professor of Beijing University of Foreign Studies and others gave speeches at the meeting and commemorated Paul Robeson from different angles.
Vice director He recalled the friendship between Soong Ching Ling and Paul Robeson. In his speech, he said, "Although Soong Ching Ling and Paul Robeson had never met each other, they had many qualities in common. They had the same social idealism; they were leaders of international peace campaigns and had the same "inborn strength"; they both had a strong sense of social responsibility and cared for all people in the world; they worked hard at the same time to link the Chinese people and the American people. Today, when paying tribute to Paul Robeson, we would tell this great singer that we never forget, and will never forget, those who have struggled for the happiness of human beings. We will not let fascism revive and the history turn back. We will struggle to build up a harmonious world!"
Vice Director Chen Xiuxia recalled the past when she met Paul Robeson in America; Professor Chen Lin recalled several speeches made by Paul Robeson about China; Wang Xuexin, member of the board of China Society for People's Friendship Studies and National Grade I movie director, narrated the friendship between Paul Robeson and Chinese artists. Between speeches, the gathering heard beautiful renditions of Paul Robeson favorites such as Ol' Man River performed by men's chorus Voice of Science Glee Club of the China Association for Science and Technology, the famous saxophone player Fan Shengqi, the famous singer Li Guangxi, bass singer of China Conservatory, Wu Tianqiu, national Grade 1 actor Du Shengxian - in chorus, saxophone and solo etc, sang the songs of Paul Robeson Wu Tianqiu vividly narrated his feeling upon meeting Paul Robeson in Vienna the first time. Finally, all Chinese and overseas participants sang in chorus an old favorite song of Paul Robeson, Joe Hill.
Media such as People's Daily, Guangming Daily, China Today, China Daily, China.Com.Cn, Voice of Arts of China National Radio, International Online etc interviewed the participants and reporting the event.
The participants were so enthralled that the activity ended one hour later than had been planned. After the activity, people did not leave immediately, and staff cheerfully delayed closing the residence.