China's national anthem
by Peter Micic

Composer Nie Er

In the first of two articles celebrating October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, musicologist Peter Micic tells the story of the four-eared man who wrote the PRC's national anthem.

Do you have an ear for music?
China's national anthem

by Peter Micic

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!
With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall…

The composer Nie Er (聂耳 or 聶耳 in traditional characters, real name Nie Shouxin) is often called ‘the people’s musician.’ And indeed, when one considers the work for which he is most remembered — March of the Volunteers — it is not hard to see why. China’s national anthem was originally a song from Sons and Daughters of the Storm (Fengyun Ernü), a film made in Shanghai in 1935. The soul-stirring tune and lyrics (penned by Tian Han) were just what China needed to fight the foreign menace, especially when the Japanese took control of the city in late January 1937.

Nie Er was born on 15 February 1912 in Yuxi, Kunming, in southwest China. It was a turbulent time to be born in China, not long after the collapse of the county’s last imperial dynasty, and the dawn of a far from peaceful new republic. Nie’s father, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, died in 1916 leaving him in the care of his mother, a Dai woman, who continued the family business. Nie received his primary and secondary education in Kunming, but at sixteen, he decided to drop out of high school and join the army. His outfit was stationed in Zhengzhou, Henan province, thousands of miles from home. Nie soon realized that he was not cut out to be soldier and returned home soon after to continue his studies.

Four ears!

His musical proclivities were already noticeable as a child. Nie played a number of Chinese musical instruments and was exposed to both Chinese and Western music. Many of the popular songs of the day were Western tunes set to Chinese lyrics. The texts reflected a number of political and social concerns—fighting foreign aggression, reforming society, the status of Chinese women, and placing the county’s hope on its youth. Marches, demonstrations, boycotts all required music, especially songs, powerful tunes and texts to unite a country, or a besieged city.

Nie began to play the violin in the late 1920s and soon found that his skills were in demand by orchestras in Shanghai. At the time China’s film industry was really taking off and actors and pop singers such as Hu Die, Bai Hong, Zhou Xuan and Wang Renjiang were gracing calendar posters and advertisements for cigarettes, soap, toothpaste, medicines and other commodities. Nie never sold or endorsed a product, but he became a well-known movie star. He appeared in the 1933 movie Evening in the City (Chengshi zhiye), playing a violin under a street lamp overlooking the Shanghai Bund and sporting a toothbrush moustache. He also played a doctor in another movie that year called The Sports Empress (Tiyu Huanghou).

But the silver screen star and lady’s man was also leading another life. The social and political turmoil of his childhood and early teens led him, like countless others, to reflect critically on the future of China. In 1933 he became a Communist Party member (the Communist Party was founded in Shanghai in 1922). He was a violinist-composer-cum undercover agent for the Communists fighting against Nationalist forces. The work was dangerous and there were always potential risks of being caught. In the spring of 1935, many young Communists were arrested including Tian Han. It would only be a matter of time before Nie was nabbed as well, so an escape was planned where he would flee to Russia, via Japan and return when things had cooled down. Everything was arranged and Nie began the first leg of his escape to Japan, but things went terribly wrong shortly after he arrived. He drowned at a beach resort in Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture Japan. News of his tragic death sent seismic ripples through the music and film world back home. He was only twenty-three.

Nie’s ashes were buried on October 1 1937 in the Western Hills in Kunming. A tombstone was erected at his burial site in 1954 and the same year a tombstone was laid at the beach resort in Fujisawa only to be destroyed by a typhoon four years later.

In June 1949, a committee was formed to decide on an official national anthem for the People’s Republic of China. Among thousands of submissions received by the end of August, Nie’s March of the Volunteers received an almost unanimous vote from committee members, among them the famous Chinese painter Xu Beihong (1895-1953). The piece was chosen, albeit provisionally, as a suitable anthem on 27th September 1949 only days before Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October 1949. It has remained the country’s anthem since then.

The ‘people’s musician’ has been the subject of numerous biographies, novels as well as a movie produced in Shanghai in 1959 called Nie Er. We discover that China’s national anthem was not composed on a leisurely afternoon in Nie’s home, but in an occupied city, the composer’s life in danger, scribbling down the notes to his masterpiece in a dank attic by candlelight. What other way is there to write soul-stirring anthems? A more recent movie on the life of Nie Er and Han was made in 1999 called National Anthem directed by Wu Ziniu.

I find it interesting that Nie Er is a fitting name for a composer as his surname and name all mean ‘ear.’ Nie written in complex Chinese characters consists of three ears, two ‘ears’ supporting a solitary one. And then there stands yet another ear. That makes four ears!

There are currently 7 Comments for China's national anthem
by Peter Micic.

Comments on China's national anthem
by Peter Micic

He's name is 聶耳, not 镍耳. 镍 is the name of the metal nickel. The simplified version of 聶 is 聂.
[EDITOR'S NOTE (JDM): Fixed. Thanks.]

Another great article by the man who wears a thousand hats.

great stuff peter

The second line English translation should be "With our flesh and blood, let us build a new Great Wall."

Very good article though!

he didn't die at age 25 but 23

fix the age already!!!

Dear Peter:

Thanks for your thoughtful and informational reflections on Nie Er's contributions to the Chinese nation.

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