The Film


Original Music by Mark Pevsner

Program Notes by Mark Pevsner

The deliberate source for The Gate of Heavenly Peace's original music is the melody (and in some cases the harmony) of The East is Red, a traditional Chinese folk tune that was given a new set of lyrics extolling Mao Zedong and the Communist regime. Heard daily in contemporary China, this song is typically regarded by Chinese citizens as a propagandistic emblem of the Communist government. In fact, this song is so deeply embedded as a pro-government signifier that some members of the Chinese audience for The Gate of Heavenly Peace have experienced confusion by its very presence (especially during the end credits) in a film that so clearly criticizes the government's actions. As a help for American audience members attempting to grasp the impact of The East is Red, consider the many levels of meaning attached to The Star Spangled Banner, and then recall Jimi Hendrix's celebrated performance in 1969 at Woodstock. Using the Hendrix version in a film critical of the United States foreign policy in Vietnam would be a parallel instance of manipulating an established icon for expressive purposes.

The path to conceiving the original music to The Gate of Heavenly Peace encountered a classic problem in film scoring, namely, how to enhance a visually subtle and exceedingly layered work in a way that would not compete with or detract from the complex, tightly argued narrative. The solution required music that is simple, recognizable, emotional, and malleable, in other words, the essential qualities of an effective operatic leitmotif . The result is the music played by the French Horn during the opening and elsewhere that is associated with violence and loss of life as well as events and processes leading tragically in that direction. A breakthrough moment in working out the details of the composition was the realization that the French Horn theme can be played simultaneously with the first eight measures of The East is Red. (Only four pitch-classes occur in this segment which can be readily harmonized from the parallel minor scale.) These eight measures are used with the intention of finding within an "everyday" Chinese melody a sense of tragic sorrow. Intellectually, this is meant to reflect the film's point that there was a deep "Chinese-ness" (i.e. connection to the long history of the Chinese revolution) in the unfolding of events leading to bloodshed on the part of both students and the government. The obvious choice of instrument to extract this poignancy from The East is Red is the oboe. In the film, the most complete example of the contrapuntal combination of the horn "tragedy" theme and the oboe "poignancy" theme can be found immediately following the footage of the 1984 celebration of the anniversary of the communist revolution, after the announcer in the footage enthusiastically says "Come see Tiananmen Square in five years!"

Three additional and contrasting variations of The East is Red appear in the end credits. The first is a solo piano version played quietly and semplice as a transition from the grief connected with the death of Ding Zilin's son. Because this variation utilizes the traditional harmonization of the song, this is perhaps the song's single most provocative occurrence for listeners conditioned to hearing this music as an expression of government ubiquity and power. After the solemnity of the final scene of the film , the beginning of the end credits is an emotionally complex moment, and any shock value caused by this "pure" version of The East is Red is meant to be offset (hopefully) by a deeper, more ironic, and multifaceted understanding of the song. The next variation sets the tune as a canon between the oboe and horn, accompanied and harmonized to underscore the sheer melodic beauty. Finally, the song returns in the solo piano in a sprightly, "life goes on" version, intended to combine comic relief and hope.

The various musical treatments that occur throughout the film are designed with the intention of "reclaiming" the song's folk roots and providing the awareness that its (and China's) existence predates the Communist movement. The Gate of Heavenly Peace explores with great precision the difference between the shades of grey that occur in reality and the tendency to see events as black or white on the part of the participants. The East is Red is meant to be heard in a deeper, more radical way that reflects this insight into recent Chinese history.

Performance credits for the original music are Eric Ruske - French Horn, Barbara LaFitte - oboe, Mark Pevsner - piano, and Scott Cannizzaro - studio engineer. The recording took place at SoundTrack, Boston, Massachusetts.

See the Media Library for sound clips of the above music.

The following discussion of The East is Red is excerpted from Pianos and Politics in China by Richard Curt Kraus. Reproduced with permission.

Pianos and Politics in China
Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Richard Curt Kraus
(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1989)
pp. 119-120

"The East Is Red": A Change of Anthems

The Cultural Revolution in music did not begin abruptly with some arbitrary political event, such as Beijing University's posters of May 1966. The explosion, when it came, reflected tensions that had long been building within musical circles. The musical fanfare which opened the Cultural Revolution, however, was certainly "The East Is Red," an old revolutionary song which became the movement's anthem. This stirring hymn was the title piece of a musical extravaganza for the fifteenth anniversary of the establishment of the People's Republic on October 1, 1964. The East Is Red told the history of China's revolution in song and dance, drawing upon mass song classics and vigorous dancing to spread Mao's message that the lessons of past struggle were relevant to China's continuing problems (73). The song, written in 1942, was based on a northern Shaanxi folk song by a poor peasant named Li Youyuan (1903-1955). It was popular at Yan'an, but had been sung less frequently after Liberation, probably in deference to Party leaders who might object to its words:

The East is red, the sun has risen . China has produced Mao Zedong!
He works for the people's happiness, he is the people's savior.

The song's zealous words and stately melody were the perfect musical accompaniment to the new Mao cult (74).

In fact, China was soon to need a new national anthem. Nie Er's sturdy "March of the Volunteers" had done good service since 1949, but the politics of the Cultural Revolution rendered it unsuitable. Its words had been written by Tian Han, the former patron of Nie and Xian Xinghai, who had become a leading cultural administrator in the People's Republic. When he was swept from power early in the movement, "The East is Red" became China's unofficial anthem. Meetings opened with solemn unison singing of this paean to Mao. The clock of Shanghai's former customs house was adjusted so that "The East Is Red" sang forth in place of the Westminster chimes left behind by the British (75). The Central People's Broadcasting Station began its day with "'The East Is Red," played on a set of' bells cast over two thousand years ago in the Warring States period. And when the Chinese sent their first satellite into space in 1970, it broadcast "The East Is Red," washing an entire planet in the purifying sounds of heightened revolutionary consciousness.


73. See Dongfang Hong Gequji ["The East is Red" Song Collection], (Hong Kong: Sanlien Shudian, 1965).

74. See Cai Cai, "Shengge 'Dongfang Hong' de bimo guansi" [A War of Words Over the Hymn, "The East is Red"], Dongxiang [The Trend], 28 (January 1981), 29; Wei Hsia-an, "The Most Powerful Song", Chinese Literature 1 (1970): 108-13; Zhongguo Minjian Wenyi Yanjiuhui, ed., "Zhongguo Chuliaoge Mao Zedong: ["China Produced a Mao Zedong"] (Beijing: Renmin Wenyi Chubanshe, 1951], 2: Jiang Qihua and Xiao Xinghua, "Renmin geshou Li Youyuan he 'Dongfang Hong' de yansheng" [The People's Songsmith Li Youyuan and the Birth of "The East is Red"], Renmin Yinyue 1 (1978): 34-35.

75. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , s.v. "Chimes": Yue Sheng, "Bian Zhong" [ Bian Bells], Beijing Dagong Bao (12 March 1964).

Pianos and Politics in China
Middle-Class Ambitions and the Struggle over Western Music

Richard Curt Kraus
(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1989)
Copyright ©1989 by Oxford University Press, Inc.
Reproduced with permission of the publisher

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