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Black King of Songs | Aeon

Paul Robeson in 1960, London, England. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton/Getty

Paul Robeson in 1960, London, England. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton/Getty

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Black King of Songs

His communism brought the great American singer Paul Robeson trouble in the US, but helped make him a hero in China

by Gao Yunxiang + BIO

Paul Robeson in 1960, London, England. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton/Getty

Several times in recent years, Chinese broadcasters have aired shows that feature Paul Robeson (1898-1976), one of the most popular African American singers and actors of his era and a well-known civil rights activist. China National Radio and various channels of the widely influential China Central TV showcased Robeson on programmes in 2009, 2012 and 2021 narrating China’s resistance to foreign military aggressions. This is a remarkable amount of coverage in Chinese media for an American who died decades ago. Though not widely known in the United States, the relationship between Robeson and China continues to resonate in China today. It’s part of the history that connects Black internationalism with the experiences of Chinese and Chinese American people. Robeson was one of the most important figures in an alliance between Maoist China and politically radical African Americans.

The Chinese love for Robeson derives most of all from his role in globalising the future national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. In November 1940, in New York City, Robeson received a phone call from the Chinese writer and philosopher Lin Yutang. Lin asked Robeson to meet a recent arrival from China: Liu Liangmo, a prolific journalist, talented musician and Christian activist. Within half an hour, Robeson was in Lin’s apartment for the meeting. In his numerous articles published in Chinese-language periodicals, Liu recalled Robeson ‘beaming over me with his friendly smile and his giant hands firmly holding mine’. The two became fast friends.

Robeson enquired about the mass singing movement that Liu had initiated in China. Liu told him about the new genre of Chinese fighting and folk songs he had helped to invent for war mobilisation, singing some examples. Robeson’s favourite was the signature piece ‘Chee Lai!’ or ‘March of the Volunteers’ because, as he explained, its lyric ‘Arise, Ye who refuse to be bond slaves!’ expressed the determination of the world’s oppressed, in their struggle for liberation. Listening intently to Liu’s rendition of the song, Robeson wrote down some notes, and left with a copy of the lyrics. On a starry night weeks later, Liu attended an outdoor Robeson concert at Lewisohn Stadium on the campus of the City College of New York. Robeson sang many Black spirituals and songs of national battles against fascism; then he announced: ‘I am going to sing a Chinese fighting song tonight in honour of the Chinese people, and that song is “Chee Lai!”’ Robeson, Liu recalled, sang in perfect Chinese.

Cover of the album Chee Lai! recorded by Paul Robeson, Liu Liangmo and the Chinese People’s Chorus for Keynote Records in 1941

In November 1941, Robeson, Liu and the Chinese People’s Chorus – which Liu had organised among members of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, a labour union, in New York City’s Chinatown – recorded an album with Keynote Records entitled Chee Lai! Songs of New China. Liu’s liner notes for the album tell that he saw the collaboration as ‘a strong token of solidarity between the Chinese and the Negro People’. Robeson’s notes read:

Chee Lai! (Arise!) is on the lips of millions of Chinese today, a sort of unofficial anthem, I am told, typifying the unconquerable spirit of this people. It is a pleasure and a privilege to sing both this song of modern composition and the old folk songs to which a nation in struggle has put new words.
Paul Robeson with Liu Liangmo and other Chinese guests at the Stars for China war-relief benefit at Philadelphia in 1941

Madame Sun Yat-sen, the Leftist sister of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, China’s contemporary first lady, praised Robeson as ‘the voice of the people of all lands’ and ‘our own Liu Liang-mo, who has taught a nation of soldiers, guerrillas, farmers, and road builders to sing while they toil and fight.’ Madame Sun added that she hoped the album of songs ‘that blend the harmonies of East and West [would] be another bond between free peoples.’ The New York Times lauded the album as one of the year’s best, and it quickly became popular around the world.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, Robeson reprised ‘Chee Lai!’ at his numerous concerts in North America and Europe, and the song became part of Western life. Hollywood filmmakers adopted ‘Chee Lai!’ as the theme song of the MGM film Dragon Seed (1944), starring Katharine Hepburn and derived from the Nobel laureate Pearl S Buck’s bestselling novel about China’s war of resistance against Japan. The US Army Air Force Orchestra played the tune at the start and end of a film produced by the US state department, Why We Fight: The Battle of China (1944), directed by Frank Capra.

The ‘Black King of Songs’ Paul Robeson, the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong and the ‘King of Beijing Opera’ Mei Lanfang in London in 1935. Courtesy the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library, JWJ MSS 76

Robeson and Liu’s collaborations were part of Robeson’s alliances with sojourning Leftist Chinese artists. Among those Robeson befriended were Buck, the novelist and gatekeeper of China matters in the US; Anna May Wong, a renowned Chinese American actress; Madame Sun Yat-sen; and Mei Lanfang, China’s most prominent opera singer. The man the Chinese state media would call the ‘Black King of Songs’ and Mei – the ‘King of Peking Opera’ – had met in London in 1935. Mei arrived there in May, after a successful three weeks of appearances in Moscow and Leningrad with Hu Die (Butterfly Wu) – voted China’s ‘Movie Queen’ by fans in 1933. Robeson was in London acting in Stevedore (1934), a play about Black-white labour unity that had been produced in New York City.

Now established as a fearless and reliable friend of China, Robeson became political poison in the US

Robeson’s adoption of the song ‘Chee Lai!’ into his repertoire led to a closer relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Republic of China. In 1949, following their victory over the Nationalists, the victorious CCP made ‘Chee Lai!’ China’s national anthem. On 1 October, celebrating the announcement of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Robeson sang ‘Chee Lai!’ on the streets of Harlem. He telegrammed Mao Zedong to congratulate the new regime: ‘We celebrate the birth of the People’s Republic of China, because it is a great force in the struggles for world peace and human freedom.’ The People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, the mouthpieces of the CCP, published Robeson’s telegram. Now established as a fearless and reliable friend of China, Robeson became political poison in the US.

On 20 April 1949, Robeson had told the World Congress of Partisans of Peace in Paris that it was ‘unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union.’ Jackie Robinson, the African American baseball star whom Robeson had helped integrate into the game, condemned Robeson’s statement. But the African American intellectual and civil rights activist W E B Du Bois stood firmly by Robeson, as he recalled in his Autobiography (1968):

Robeson said that his people wanted Peace and ‘would never fight the Soviet Union.’ I joined with the thousands in wild acclaim.
This, for America, was his crime. He might hate anybody. He might join in murder around the world. But for him to declare that he loved the Soviet Union and would not join in war against it – that was the highest crime that the United States recognised … Yet has Paul Robeson kept his soul and stood his ground. Still he loves and honours the Soviet Union. Still he has hope for America. Still he asserts his faith in God.

The People’s Daily condemned Robinson and defended Robeson. It reported Robeson’s speech, highlighting the standing ovation the star received from the 2,000 attendees including the Nobel Laureate and nuclear scientist Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Pablo Picasso, a friend of Robeson’s.

Robeson’s ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union attracted protests in the US. In August 1949, during the Peekskill riots in New York state, Right-wing mobs attacked a public concert where Robeson was due to sing. Soon, the US State Department cancelled Robeson’s passport, stalling his career. Meanwhile, following its rough birth amid the intensifying Cold War tensions, the nascent PRC confronted a superpower with nuclear weapons in the Korean War.

In his writings and speeches and in Chinese state media, Robeson and the PRC lent each other unyielding support. Robeson announced that the communist regimes’ mutual support would be the ‘great truth’ in their shared journey to freedom. Thus, it was only logical for the Chinese volunteers to come to ‘the aid of the heroic Korean people,’ Robeson insisted. He firmly believed that China’s involvement in the Korean War was essential to defend hard-earned ‘freedom, dignity, and security’ on behalf of millions in Asia. The People’s Daily cited a national poll in the US showing majority support for ending the Korean War immediately, and credited Robeson and Du Bois with influencing this trend in public opinion.

As news of the Peekskill riots rolled around the world, the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the China National Association of Musicians issued a joint public letter to console Robeson and express ‘our extraordinary wrath and firm protest against the crimes of American fascist bandits attacking the concerts of “the Black King of Songs”.’ The letter read: ‘We send our brotherly consolation to Robeson from the East afar, and warmly welcome him to liberated China.’

The narrative on ‘the Black King of Songs’ in China changed, from exoticised entertainer to heroic role model

Throughout the 1950s, the PRC promoted Robeson as a heroic revolutionary model to inspire the socialist citizens of China. Robeson shared this high standing with a few other foreigners, including the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie; the Vietnamese Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh; the legendary Canadian doctor Norman Bethune; and Lu Xun, the father of China’s modern literature. Robeson was the only Black person accorded such a high honour, and this fact revolutionised the image of Black people in China and became a milestone in Sino-African relations.

Robeson enabled the CCP to make a contrast with US democracy’s system of Jim Crow racism that kept millions of Black Americans living under apartheid. Encouraged to accept Robeson as a heroic revolutionary model, the masses in PRC were bombarded with publicity materials about him. Robeson was reintroduced as ‘the Black King of Songs’ who ‘embodied the perfect marriage between art and politics’ for the oppressed masses in the world. His old friend Liu Liangmo wrote an article called ‘Paul Robeson: The People’s Singer’ that circulated across China and American Chinatowns in 1949 and 1950. After a decade promoting the causes of China to African Americans in the US, Liu had just returned to China to serve as a high-level cultural official. He pioneered hailing Black American greatness to the Chinese people. His article on Robeson, composed months before the establishment of the PRC, changed the mainstream narrative on ‘the Black King of Songs’ within China, from exoticised entertainer to a heroic role model. Following Liu’s piece, Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World (1946) – Shirley Graham Du Bois’s biography of Robeson – was translated into Chinese. To instil long-lasting messages, some Chinese publications in 1949 targeted children with cartoon series. Collections of Robeson’s songs, called ‘Black spirituals’ with lyrics in both English and Chinese and simplified musical notes, became accessible to the general public.

A page from the children’s biographical cartoon series ‘Today’s Hero: Black Singer Robeson’. The caption on the top left reads: ‘He gets along very well with Chinese friends in the United States.’ Robeson says: ‘I salute the democratic revolution in China.’ Xin ertong banyuekan 23, 2 (1949): 44

In the mid-20th century, Robeson grew into an icon of internationalism and socialist values. Chinese writers acclaimed the physical features of ‘the Black King of Songs’, highlighting his skin colour in discussions of his art and politics. The People’s Daily exclaimed: ‘As long as we have Robeson, Black music’s contribution to world culture is self-explanatory.’ In the same newspaper, the editor Yuan Shuipai’s poetry narrating the Peekskill riots said: ‘Robeson’s dark face shines, and Robeson’s songs ring.’ That title of the biography Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World highlights his internationalism. Covers of all the publications on Robeson were dominated by a dark background indicating his race, into which his face blurred, with Chinese characters in blood red symbolising his Leftism.

The cover of the Chinese translation of Paul Robeson’s self-published memoir Here I Stand (1958)

Film also contributed to Robeson’s popularity as a hero in China. During the Republic of China period (1912-49), representation of Black people was dominated by stereotypical ‘primitive’ athletic and musical personas, and commercialised exoticism. The mainstream media rarely covered Black celebrities but they did feature Robeson. His best-known film, The Emperor Jones (1933), was screened in Shanghai’s theatres. Invoking the tragic Chinese historical hero Xiang Yu, the film was translated as End of the King. The Shanghai Daily, perhaps the most popular contemporary periodical, ran an advertisement promoting the film as a ‘Lifetime Masterpiece by Paul Robeson’. The ad featured a couplet summarising Xiang Yu’s defeat.

An advertisement for the film The Emperor Jones (1933) invoking the memory of the tragic Chinese historical hero Xiang Yu. Shenbao, 25 March 1934

PRC filmmakers also participated in the transcontinental collaboration of the noted Joris Ivens documentary The Song of the Rivers (1954). Portraying Robeson as the symbol of global proletarian solidarity, the film illustrates the shared destinies and hopes of workers by the Volga, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Yangtze, the Amazon and the Ganges rivers. The Shanghai Film Studio immediately translated it into Chinese. While the new regime generally rejected Hollywood and European films, a British film starring Robeson – The Proud Valley (1940), about an American seaman who joins a mining community in South Wales, sharing their passions and struggles – was brought to Chinese audiences around 1956, and was well received. Featuring a still from the movie, in 1959 the People’s Daily reported that Chinese audiences celebrated Robeson’s 61st birthday with a viewing.

The Proud Valley featured the muscular and bare-chested Robeson as a miner struggling in a labour dispute, and provided China’s socialist citizens with a model of masculinity. The ‘naked manhood of Paul Robeson’, of which ‘some white folk are frightened,’ as W E B Du Bois had previously noted, was not new in China. Nie Er, the talented composer of ‘Chee Lai!’, had impersonated a Black miner in the film The Glory of Motherhood (1933), sometimes translated as The Light of Maternal Instinct. Nie proudly distributed to friends autographed stills of himself, half-naked and painted dark, imitating Robeson.

Robeson had sung ‘Chee Lai!’ to narrate the people’s suffering and struggle in the dark ‘old China’

The PRC also used Robeson’s athletic body to highlight the distinction between ‘abnormal’ and corrupt commercialised professional sports – in both capitalist countries and the colonial treaty ports of the ‘old China’ – and socialist sports for the wellbeing of the citizenry and the nation. Chinese media justified Robeson’s brief career as a professional athlete as a necessity for a good family man who was ‘pressured by heavier obligations after his marriage’. And it applauded him for comprehending that the capitalist owners ran their stadiums and teams like stores, exploiting athletes and putting their lives at risk for profits. His biographers noted that US businessmen attempted to lure Robeson into highly racialised and controversial professional boxing by promising him the title ‘King of Boxing’ and great wealth, but Robeson flatly refused.

In 1958, the US Supreme Court ruled that the State Department lacked the authority to deny passports to citizens who refused to sign the affidavit that they were not communists. Robeson immediately secured a new passport. China’s state media celebrated his new freedom to travel as a triumph of justice, peace and democracy. Between 1958 and 1960, the People’s Daily followed Robeson’s whereabouts, lauding his ongoing affection toward China. It reported that the singer paid tribute to the supportive Chinese people by reprising Chinese folk songs, including the classic ‘Over That Faraway Place’, adapted from a Kazakh folk tune, at his Carnegie Hall concert and the British Peace Council gathering in London in 1958. The paper celebrated that Robeson ‘sang for the new China’s 10th birthday’ at a concert in 1959 organised by the Sino-British Friendship Association at the Princes Theatre in London. The People’s Daily also commented that, while Robeson had sung ‘Chee Lai!’ to narrate the people’s suffering and struggle in the dark ‘old China’, he performed romantic folk songs such as ‘Over That Faraway Place’ to reflect the optimism and happiness in the new China. In 1960, Robeson and his wife joined 9,000 people attending the first Chinese Film Festival in London organised by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Robeson commented that, unlike US films, Chinese cinema reflected the feeling of the people.

US officials made sure that Robeson’s passport was ‘not valid for travel to or in communist controlled portions of China[,] Korea [and] Viet-Nam[,] or to or in areas of Albania [and] Hungary.’ So the People’s Daily presented his reunion with Chinese delegates in London to offer a rosy picture of socialist development while the Great Leap Forward unfolded. This radical campaign, which aimed to catch up and surpass industrialisation in Great Britain and the US and to build socialism ‘better, faster, and cheaper’, led to great famine for 20-30 million people.

Robeson already had expansive ideological and artistic visions before he first encountered Leftist Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. Yet, those contacts powerfully shaped his philosophical, political and personal perceptions of life and the future. China became a joyful extension of his Left-wing views. Robeson had predicted that the communist victory in 1949 made China the model for millions to beat colonialism. He romantically imagined that the coloured world could view the rising China as a ‘new star of the East … pointing the way out from imperialist enslavement to independence and equality. China has shown the way.’

The Leftist legacy of portraying African American figures as the true revolutionaries led the People’s Republic of China to embrace Robeson as a hero and a role model. Robeson’s public support justified the CCP’s involvement in the Korean War and later facilitated its new diplomatic defenders and tactics. As the PRC contested Soviet dominance of world communism and aspired to leadership of the Third World that bound the destinies of China with former agricultural colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Robeson’s giant global stature bridged China’s alliance with Africa. Yet, following the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, PRC state media and publishers fell silent on Robeson. His 70th birthday in 1968 slipped by without notice in China, although his previous birthdays were celebrated as state events. Robeson’s position advocating peaceful coexistence for countries with different systems, highly applauded by the PRC during the Korean War, now fell on the wrong side of tensions between the Soviet Union and China.

In 1976, with the end of the radical Maoist years, Robeson remerged as a hero, and he remains popular in China today. Even as China moves from communism to fullscale capitalism, Robeson retains a special place in the nation’s heart. Various state organs including the Soong Qingling (Madame Sun Yat-sen) Foundation, the China Society for People’s Friendship Studies, and the China Daily organised a tribute on 9 April 2008, marking Robeson’s 110th birthday. His version of ‘Chee Lai!’ was played in the Grand Hall of the People’s Congress in Beijing during Nie Er Music Week in 2009. Robeson is celebrated for globalising China’s national anthem, for his songs that set hearts stirring, for his contributions to the Chinese nation’s liberation – and to the friendship between the people of China and the United States, particularly African Americans. His classic ‘Ol’ Man River’ continues to fascinate the Chinese.

MusicNations and empiresGlobal history

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