Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Some East Asian Popular Song Lyrics

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

Some East Asian Popular Song Lyrics

Article excerpt

Most East Asian countries have by now been awash in Western-influenced popular music for well over three quarters of a century. In Japan, this kind of music began in 1914 with "Katyusha's Song" ("Kachusha no Uta" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] by Nakayama Shimpei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Korea, it began in 1920 with "Balsam Flower" ("Bongsonhwa" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by Hong Nanp'a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In China, it began in 1930 with "Drizzle" ("Maomao Yu" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by Li Jinhui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Vietnam, it began in 1937 with "March of the Spring Performers" ("Xuan Nghe Si Hanh Khuc") by Le Yen. For purposes of comparison, we should note here that popular music began in the United States in 1908 with "Shine on Harvest Moon," by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, a vaudeville husband and wife team. Popular music in the Philippines was going strong by the 1920s with "kundiman" love ballads, but seems to have drawn some of its first sustenance from Spanish folk and liturgical music in the late nineteenth century.

A very broad spectrum of style may be observed in these songs; some sound entirely Asian and some entirely Western, while most exemplify some kind of fusion of Asian and Western musical procedures. These songs may be said in general to show concern with nationhood, modernity, and personal identity; but at the same time they deal with a huge variety of specific themes--if one perseveres, one can find an East Asian popular song about virtually anything. There is, for example, a Filipino song about fertilized duck eggs ("balut" in Tagalog), a popular delicacy that the song conceives as a symbol of Filipino identity. There is a Cantonese song about the tropical fruit called durian or jackfruit ("liulian" in Mandarin, or "laolin" in Cantonese). There is a Vietnamese song by Pham Duy that touches on the possibility of achieving national prosperity through offshore oil drilling. And so on.

Much care is often devoted to the lyrics that go with these songs, and phrases from them become allusions in common speech. Some songs have lyrics that are shapely enough to work quite well without music, as freestanding poems. Oftentimes, too, these lyrics bear witness, in succinct form, to noteworthy social or historical phenomena. As sources of doctrine, the lyrics of popular songs in East Asia often appear to exist in competition with, or in opposition to, the doctrines enshrined in the civic religions and nationalistic codes of the countries concerned. Thus, in the 1980s it was said that "Big Deng [Deng Xiaoping] ruled by day, while little Deng [Deng Lijun] ruled by night.

This body of material, in short, awaits the attention of a collator who might use it to create a modern-day Shijing or Book of Songs. The motive would be that of the Zhou dynasty king who, according to the traditional account, ordered his officers to go into the countryside and transcribe the lyrics of the songs they heard, hoping thereby to discover the true thoughts and feelings of the people. The idea is that only words set to music reveal the true stirrings of the soul. To illustrate some of the processes at work in modern "music of the people," I propose here to introduce, with commentary, several sets of East Asian song lyrics.

Korea's first Western-influenced song was ostensibly about a flower, but the flower appears in the lyrics only in order to evoke the situation uppermost in the minds of Koreans of that era: Korea's loss of sovereignty to Japan, which had occurred eleven years earlier:

"Balsam Flower" (1921)/"Bongson Hwa" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
Translated by Jane Chang & Eric Henry


   Oh balsam standing there beneath the fence, how desolate you look! … 
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