Reflective Journal Week 44, 26 July – 1 Aug 2020

Movie Battle on Shangganling Mountain tells the story of a bitter victory after days of the bloody clash on Triangle Hill in the Korea War. The interlude song “A Big River” (which is also called My Motherland, but I believe this translation is a little bit aggressive) was very famous since its release in the 50s. Often being considered as a patriotic song; however, its lack of political slogans and show-off military strength is very unusual in the typical impression of communist patriotic music. 

Guo Lan Ying, singing A Big River

English lyrics found on Wikipedia 



A great river flows, its waves wide and calm

Wind blows through rice flowers, bearing fragrance to both shores

My family lives right there by the water

I am used to hearing the punters’ call

And seeing the white sails on the boats


This is the beautiful Motherland

This is the place where I grew up

On this expansive stretch of land

Everywhere there is wonderful scenery to behold



How flower-like are the young ladies

How big and determined are the hearts of the young men

In order to usher in a new era

They’ve woken the sleeping mountains

And changed the face of the river


This is the heroic Motherland

This is the place where I grew up

On this stretch of ancient land

There is youthful vigor everywhere



Great mountains, great rivers, a great land

Every road is broad and wide

If friends come, there is fine wine

But if the wolves come

Those who greet them have hunting guns


This is the mighty Motherland

This is the place where I grew up

On this stretch of warm and friendly land

There is peaceful sunshine everywhere

A Big River, Guo Lan Ying, 1956

Writer Yu Qiao was recorded “chose not to express the patriotic emotion of the song in the manner of political propaganda”. In 1956, when the song was written, the war has already past for two years. Northern-middle China was the economic and industrial centre of the nation, which also has the finest education institutions in China. Yu Qiao, received not only his higher education in Northern China but also an indigenous of that part of the nation, his origin fundamentally reflected another critical point in Chinese culture products shortly after the establishment of PRC. The song was written in a Northerner’s perspective, which had been confirmed by the author as well. “Where I from, Ji Ning, is close to the Yellow River, in the north. You will never get it ——Before that (his journey to communist occupied province Jiang Xi when he wrote another song), I have never seen Southern River. I have no idea how rice looks while growing in the water. I have farmed crops, I know about sorghum, wheat. But I was overwhelmed when I saw a boundless, green rice field. Sails on the Great River are different from the Yellow River also. The Yellow River is muddy and sloppy, but I saw the Great River clean, and sails were white.”

“..and based on my interpretation of my country, no matter where you are from, there is always a river lies at the gate; everything happens on the river connects with the fate, response to your emotions. It reminds me of the river when I think about home.”

As an inland nation whose maritime tradition was oppressed due to historical events, settling alongside the river is also a part of the tradition of the nation. It provided clean water when the pre-history civilisation bloomed in He Nan Province, and water provided convenient and efficient traffic to the capital when ancient Chinese civilisation was at its highest. The author’s utilisation of river as the symbol of the homeland was brilliant. His work received significant reputation and popularity among Chinese people despite their political difference, nationality and age. 

My grandmother hummed this song to me as she was from Northern China, and there was also a big river that lies behind her childhood cottage. There is a grand river next to the apartment I grew up as well. The song resonates childhood memory, home, and the representative landscape of my culture. These two examples are personal; however the significant status of this song indicates the typicalness of this culture. The music itself picture a serenity formed by the emptiness in between the vast boundary of a massive landscape. The big river is not the whole image. Instead, the picture consists of a panoramic view of surrounding objects which are filled by respective experiences of audiences. 

It could be argued that culture, military, politics and art were more integrated in the decade between the establishment of the People’s Republic China and the cultural revolution. Thus, A Big River is particularly peculiar at that time, served as a patriotic propose. It is also a perfect example which reflects a clever dodge of a preoccupied impression of a specific region, and a mutual understanding achieved by the awe to nature, also finding the common identity by particular depiction landscapes.

Further Reading:

Another thing.

The exhibiton at Sea is now resented to the public online by David Zwirner Gallery. The show is a collection of numberous maritome themed artworks. I am surprised to see JMW Turner and Hiroshi Sugumoto’s work are among them.

Horizon/Rain/Filthy Weather, 1998 by Tacita Dean pictured a stormy rougher water with very limited colour. The image focuses on the outrageous movement of the turbulence. A fascinating new example of mono-colour landscape painting, and the maritime theme particularly fits my project.

Lepanto I, II, III,1996 by Cy Twombly also depicts sceneries with mono colour and very simple lines. Sails were produced with snatchy strokes, leaving an almost ‘primitive’ impression of shapes and perspective. The contrast between two extreme ends of colouration tints with a fading and aging yellow, enchanted visitor with a symbolic compelixity.

Checking Twombly’s two led me to another american artist Trisha Donnelly. A very interesting article on drafted her explorations of drawing sound, wave forms and Automatism. The artist is known for combining a wide range of medias for experimenting conceptual arts over complex ideas;

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