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Watch China’s Johnny Cash Sing a Tribute to the Cultural Revolution

It’s unusual for tearful recollections of China’s painful political past to get time on the country’s tightly controlled airwaves. But in late November 2015, on a popular television show, a gray-haired man picked up a guitar and crooned about the death of his father and the dissolution of his family during the Cultural Revolution, one of the nation’s most traumatic decades. The song brought members of the audience and even one of the hosts to tears, and remained popular online throughout the following month, indicating a broad public interest in the short ballad.

The musician, Yang Le, is an obscure 58 year-old harmonicist with a gruff yet soothing voice — one user on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo pointed out a remarkable similarity to Johnny Cash. Yang played the harmonica prelude to the 1994 folk rock hit “My Old Classmate” but otherwise remained largely unknown until his November 2015 appearance on China Star, a new musical competition series similar to American Idol, in which artists are invited to perform in front of a panel of hosts. Famous rock musician Cui Jian, now a talent scout for China Star, discovered Yang’s vocal works and invited him to perform, also accompanying Yang on guitar.

The number, called “From Then Onward,” is simple and understated, telling the story of Yang’s family in short phrases with few details. A household of six, happy and hard-working, Yang the youngest child. It makes the sudden revelation of his father’s death even more jolting: “After the Cultural Revolution,” Yang sings as he strums his guitar, “there were only five left.” That period, lasting from 1966 to 1976, saw the country’s youth rise up in response to a call from party leader Mao Zedong to wipe out counter-revolutionary elements, Western influence, feudal traditions, and superstition. But China quickly descended into chaos and violence, with millions subjected to torture and public humiliation, and many died. Yang tells how his older siblings were sent “up to the mountains and down to the countryside” — a government attempt to control the chaos by sending youth to rural areas to perform manual labor, often for years at a time. Sometimesknown as China’s lost generation, these young people were deprived of both higher education and their families. Yang sings that his family was “dispersed,” not even able to see each other at yearly holidays.

Cui said in an interview that during the rehearsal, Yang had broken down in tears and had not been able to continue.

The decade left deep rifts across Chinese society and is rarely discussed in public, due both to official restrictions on speech as well as the distressing memories the Cultural Revolution conjures for the many who survived it. References to the Cultural Revolution are often limited to describing it as simply a “chaotic period” or vaguely alluding to its grossest injustices. The popular 2015 film Wolf Totem, for example, took place during the Cultural Revolution and portrayed one of its environmental policy failures, but avoided placing blame for the subsequent devastation on the Communist Party or detailing the period’s broader human costs. The potential sensitivity of the topic didn’t escape Weibo users. “Yang Le, I cried,” wrote one user on Dec. 20. “The people Cui Jian picks sure know how to test SARPPFT’s boundaries” — a reference to China’s media watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television. Yang’s song likely made the cut, even earning accolades in a November 2015 article by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, by focusing on emotion rather than details, telling a family rather than a political story, and declining to place blame.

Cui’s star power helped make the ballad an online hit. In addition to its state media coverage, the performance has been viewed 139,000 times on video site Youku and widely discussed on Weibo. One popular article on huge mobile messaging platform WeChat included the video of Yang’s act and commended China Star for allowing such an emotional recollection. “The reason that this song by Yang Le moved people so much,” stated the Dec. 17 article, “is because even though it was a personal tragedy, it is also the shared disaster of a people and a country.”

Perhaps that is why Cui took what was likely a risk in selecting Yang for the show. Cui is no stranger to music’s power; his hit “Nothing to My Name” became an anthem for the 1989 Tiananmen student protesters. After Chinese authorities brought the demonstrations to a bloody end, Cui was effectively banned from many major venues for much of the subsequent decade.According to the December 2015 People’s Daily article, Cui first heard Yang’s songs in winter 2014, and believed that the music should be shared. “I absolutely must promote him,” said Cui. “He is already 58 years old. [Otherwise] in another 20 or 30 years, this great work might pass along with him.”

Foreign Policy has translated the lyrics and embedded the video (song starts at two minutes), below.

When I was small
A family of six
Older brothers and sisters, I was the youngest
Dad was handsome and brave
Mom was young and beautiful
They worked earnestly, and were kind-hearted

After the Cultural Revolution, only five were left.
Dad suffered a wrong, he passed on first.
Mom had no choice, she married someone from a different place.
My siblings went up to the mountains and down to the countryside.

From that time on, our family was dispersed.
Brothers and sisters to the four corners of the earth.
At each holiday, we could only send distant greetings
Distant greetings
Distant greetings

Many years later, looking back again,
Brothers and sisters, no need to comfort each other
We all remember, Dad wanted us to be honest and kind
We should never change
We remember, Mom wanted us to be strong
And happy
Even today
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Strong and happy
Kind and honest
We sing Dad and Mom’s favorite song
Good and kind
Living happily

By BETHANY ALLEN-EBRAHIMIAN January 8, 2016 in Foreign Policy