In Retrospect - Origin of Chinese New Year music.


Did you know that the popular Chinese New Year song, “Gong Xi, Gong Xi” was not originally written for the festivity? With a history of over five thousand years old, this ubiquitous household favourite actually has a background far richer (and darker) than one might expect from a Chinese New Year jingle. 

Composed in 1945 by Chen Gexin, “Gong Xi Gong Xi”, which means “congratulations”, was in fact written to celebrate the defeat of Japan and the liberation of China at the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Chen hailed from Shanghai, a cosmopolitan port city that became a popular place of safety and refuge for Jews who were escaping from Nazi persecution in the 1930s, many of whom were musicians and composers. Wolfgang Fraenkel, a German Jewish composer, was one of these refugees. During his time in China, he became a mentor to several Chinese musicians, thus leaving the mark of Jewish influence on the music of Chinese composers, including Chen. It’s hence no surprise or coincidence that “Gong Xi Gong Xi” is reminiscent of Jewish music, and bears musical as well as lyrical resemblance in particular to the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah”. Check it out in this video below!

Apart from sharing the same tonality (both songs are in a minor key), similar chord progression and melody, the lyrics of both songs are in essence a celebratory proclamation of victory, joy, and freedom from war and captivity, mirrored with the beginning of spring.

After the war ended, Chinese refugees who moved to other parts of Southeast Asia took “Gong Xi Gong Xi” along with them. This begs the question - how does a song celebrating the liberation of China become associated with the Lunar New Year? Aside from the theme of victory and the arrival of spring, the song’s titular greeting, “Gong Xi Gong Xi”, a common new year salutation, led to its adoption as a song for the Spring Festival, also known as Chinese New Year. Today, Chen’s “Gong Xi Gong Xi” has become an integral part of the Lunar New Year’s musical repertoire, but most listeners are unaware of its World War II origins and hidden meaning, as well as the rich Chinese cultural traditions from which the song stems.

The earliest known period in which music culture was developed in China can be traced to more than 8000 years ago. Archaeological evidence resulting from excavations in Jiahu Village in Wuyang Country, Henan shows bone flutes that can be dated to over 8000 years old. A separate set of clay music instruments, known as the Xun, was found in the Hemudu sites in Zhejiang and Banpo in Xi’an, thought to be over 6000 years old. 

However, it was not until the period of the Zhou Dynasty where a formal system of court and ceremonial music, known as “yayue”, was developed. In ancient China, the word “yue”  refers not only to music but also to other art forms such as dance, poetry and rituals. The music in Zhou Dynasty reflects the binary universal order of yin and yang and also the cosmological manifestation of the sound of nature. “Correct” music according to this concept would involve instruments correlating to the five elements of nature which is thought to bring harmony to nature. Later philosophers such as Confucius took varying approaches to music. According to Confucius, a correct form of music is important for the cultivation and refinement of the individual. In contrast, Mozi, another prolific philosopher condemned against making music. In Against Music, Mozi writes that music is an extravagance and indulgence that serves no useful purpose and may be harmful. 

From the formation of the Republic of China onwards, Chinese musicians took a bigger interest in Western music, resulting in birth of Chinese popular music, which takes on theories and influences from Western music. Today, modern Chinese music are leaned in the favour of rock music, in regions such as Beijing and Shanghai. 

Chinese culture places an important emphasis on honouring traditions and going back to one’s roots; it seems only apt in this festive period to revisit the rich cultural tradition from we get to enjoy our favourite vibrant Chinese New Year tunes. Do you perceive the lyrics of “Gong Xi Gong Xi” in a new light now that you are cognizant of the history that underlies it? What is your favourite Chinese New Year Song? Leave us a comment and let us know!

In the meantime, whist you enjoy your favourite Chinese New Year goodies and snacks, don’t forget to Play on and Tinkle Away!!