Previously regarded as outdated entertainment, a TV singing contest featuring songs of the revolution has proved a massive hit.
East China's Jiangxi Province is a place deeply connected to the country's revolution. The Nanchang Uprising in 1927, which is regarded as the founding day for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), began in Jiangxi's capital. Also, the picturesque Jinggangshan Mountains was the Communist Party of China's first revolutionary base.
This autumn, the region once again witnessed a revolution — a TV revolution. While people are getting tired of Super Girls and Boys, Red Songs Gala (Hong Ge Hui), a contest show featuring melodies from the early 1920s and the period after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, made a big stir.
Yan Su, a 77-year-old army composer, defines Red Songs as compositions that have grown up with our country.
"They are songs melted in our blood. They are songs on 'main themes' (referring to tributes paid to the Party, army and common people)," he says.
Some Red Songs are from old "main theme" films. Their exciting lyrics and delicate melodies are still popular today and are often sung during Karaoke.
Featuring contestants like an 80-year-old man and a 9-year-old girl, the show was the top-rating program in Jiangxi on the National Day holiday. Although it finished in mid-October, it is still being talked about.
Cultural critic Deng Luping attributes the show's success to the songs' popularity.
"Old people recall their common memories, and the middle aged sing stories told by their mothers, while young people are also attracted by the show's form, which is very much like Super Girls or American Idol," he says. "At the same time, the songs themselves are of high quality. The fact they are still sung today proves they are classics."
The contest's judges are all senior singers or composers, many of whom have written and sung the songs themselves.
A mutual characteristic of these songs is that they rarely open with praise or admiration.
Liuyang River (Liuyang He), a song about Chairman Mao Zedong is a well-known example. The Hunan folk song depicts the Xiangjiang River, and then goes on to describe a nearby town, where Mao was born. The line "Mao is like the red sun in our hearts" is not sung until the last verse. (Listen to the song)
According to Yan, the Red Songs also draw young people because of the passion they inspire.
"These songs, which were composed in the red revolutionary eras, even make me, a 77-year-old man, feel excited," he says.
Yan's two grandchildren's favorite performer used to be Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou, but after seeing the show they started crooning the Red Songs too.
The grandfather sees this as representative of China's spiritual heritage being passed to a young generation.
Wan Shanhong, a prestigious opera singer, agrees.
"Singing the Red Songs not only summons old people's collective memory of days past, it also reminds young people not to forget history."
The show is awash with the "red characteristics." The regions where the contest is held are all old revolutionary bases, such as the Jianggang Mountains. In every show, there is a session where witnesses of the red era share their stories. During one of these segments, an old soldier talked about being operated on without anesthetic after a battle.
In China, Red Songs and films about the revolution were previously thought to be unpopular.
But Deng, a critic who has been in the entertainment industry for decades, says the show has proved the doubters wrong.
"Those who still doubt the popularity of Red Song gala must have not seen how hot the red tourism is in Jinggang Mountains these years," he says. "When the old and young sing these songs together, it is no longer important who will win the show. "
"The show has resonated with everyone. In this sense, the Red Songs Gala is a revolution of contestant shows."
Songs that moved a nation
Dong Fang Hong (The East is Red) (Listen to the song)
Probably the best-known Red Song. In 1943, a farmer in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province composed a song to express his admiration of Mao Zedong. The song soon became a hit among locals. Composers in Yan'an, then the headquarter of the Chinese Communist Party, made some changes to the melody and added three passages of lyrics, to shape the current East is Red. In 1966 the song was developed into a dance performance. Former premier Zhou Enlai designed the setting of the stage. Classic lines: The east is red, the sun rises. China has a Mao Zedong.
My Mother Country (Wode Zuguo) (Listen to the song)
An episode in a 1956 film about Chinese voluntary troops in the Korean War (1950-53), the song pays a tribute to the motherland. The scene in the film, which accompanied the song, featured a group of injured soldiers resting in a cave, while a female soldier sang. The soldiers all listened quietly at first, and then joined in the chorus. Each of the three passages of lyrics is describes the beautiful scenery of the motherland. The dainty female's voice and the soldiers' chorus which follows complete a moving contrast. Classic line: The big river has wide waves, wind conveys the rice's scent to both sides. This is my beautiful mother country, a place I was born and brought up.
In the Sparkling Red Star I Go to War (Hongxing Zhaowo Qu Zhandou)
(Listen to the song)
The theme song of a 1974 film called Sparkling Red Star (Shanshan De Hongxing), a coming of age movie starring boy actor Zhu Xinyun. The simple lyrics and melody of the song make it easy for both children and adults to sing. Classic line: The little bamboo raft floats on the river, while the mountains on the sides recede. The red star shines with sparkles, brightening my way to the war. One generation after another stride like the waves, following our Communist Party.
Why Are the Flowers So Red? (Hua'er Weishenme Zheyang Hong)
(Listen to the song)
This beautifully written song was featured in the spy thriller, Visitors to the Ice Mountain (Bingshanshang De Laike). Set amid the chaos of warring secret agents and bandits in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region after 1949, the 1963 film doubles as a love story between a PLA soldier and his puppy lover. The film was extremely popular, and so was the song. In 2003, singer Zheng Jun recorded a rock version. Classic line: Why are the flowers so red, as red as the burning fire? It symbolizes the pure friendship and love. Why are the flowers so fresh, so fresh that I cannot move my steps? They are watered by the blood of youth.