Tonight Mathew, I’m going to be a Chinese propaganda singer…….

I took Mandarin lessons intermittently for the duration of my stay in Shanghai.   Whilst never attaining fluency, I got to the level where I could get by.  Few locals can speak English beyond “hello” and “thank you” and a smattering of Mandarin really is quite useful, particularly in taxis, at cafes, restaurants etc.

Strangely, I’d always quite enjoyed learning Mandarin.  When I first looked in to studying the language I discovered that you needed to memorise around 2,500 hansi (Chinese characters) to be able to read a newspaper.  That sounded like hard work to me so I opted to learn Chinese through pinyin.  Pinyin is basically Chinese expressed though our own Roman alphabet.  Our alphabet versus learning thousands of characters.  It was a no brainer !

Initially the importance of the 4 tones seriously freaked me out.  A character can basically have four or even five different meanings based on the tone employed.  Various teachers got me to parrot syllables expressed with different tones for hours on end.  It was to no avail.  My children can hear and distinguish the different tones with ease.  To me however (and most adult students from the west), even after intense indoctrination by rote, those tones are invisible.  They fly under the radar.  To be honest, I severely doubt their existence !

After enduring a few lessons of tonal learning by rote, it slowly dawned on me that I could actually  get away with ignoring the tones.  Context was everything.  The person you were talking to could surely work out for themselves whether you were talking fondly of your mother (ma 1st one) or your horse (ma 3rd tone).  If they couldn’t work out whether you were talking about your mother or your horse, then why waste your time talking to the idiot anyway ?

No, I was quite happy with Mandarin.  Grammatically it appeared to be quite simple and as such, suited the likes of me.  The verb did not change for 1st, 2nd or 3rd person.  Nor did the verb change in past, present or future tense.

Consequently, the Summer of 2007 found me contentedly progressing at an unchallenging pace, under the tutelage of the very friendly Li Laoshi (pronounced low (as in cow)  sher,  meaning teacher).  The language school was conveniently for me on Hongqiao Lu, just around the corner from my compound.

I understood that the classes usually involved 3 or 4 students however my class, for some reason, consisted just of Li Laoshi and myself.  Was that because no one else progressed at quite as slow a pace as me ?  I couldn’t say.  I just know that the middle aged Li Laoshi was easy going, very friendly and totally understanding of my limitations.  If I failed to grasp something, she patiently explained and explained till I did.  Perhaps I was special needs mandarin ?  I don’t know.  All I do know was that the set up suited me just fine.

One hot Tuesday morning in late June, Li laoshi closed the text book and announced that we’d take a break there.  I was taken aback.  In the latest chapter, Mai ke had just gone to the airport to pick up an exchange student from Beijing.  There was quite a few new words that I was unfamiliar with and we always tackled the new vocabulary list at the end of the text before we took any break.  Laoshi was a creature of habit.  She never varied our routine.  I could sense something was afoot.

“Richard.  I have exciting news.  Every end of year we throw a party…”

“That sounds great Laoshi”  I interrupted…..”I love parties….”

“Well, maybe not like a western party….. We have an end of year celebration where every class puts on a performance.  They act out a short play or maybe read a poem.  I thought that maybe we could sing a song…..”

My heart sank.    “ I appreciate the thought Laoshi but I’m afraid I cannot perform in public !   I’m just far too shy.  Even at school I was too scared to stand up and talk in front of the class.  I couldn’t possibly stand up and sing in front of an audience……”

“ Oh, no need to worry.  It’s not an examination.  No one takes it seriously !  “

Oh God I thought.  She’s not giving up.  How can I get across that I’m just too gutless to do it….?  “Look Laoshi……I’m sorry but I just freeze in front of an audience.  Also, other classes have 3 or 4 people.  This class is just me on my own.  That just wouldn’t be fair…” I pathetically trailed off…. Have I no pride ?  I must sound so desperate.

Laoshi gives me a reassuring smile…”Richard, I understand your concern.  Don’t worry. You won’t be on your own.  I shall sing the song with you.   Also, these events are informal and the foreign language section of the school is small.  I’d be surprised if there was as many as 12 or 15 people in the audience…”

She’d be there with me…12 to 15 people watching at most.….no one takes it seriously.  On reflection it didn’t sound too bad.

“Ok Laoshi.  I’ll do it ….”

Laoshi told me to select a Chinese song and let her know at our next lesson.  If I couldn’t pick one myself, she’d pick one for me.

Back at the office I asked my P.A., Yanqiu (Yenchoo) if she had any suggestions.

“Why don’t you sing ‘Da Zongguo’ (Big China) ?   It was a huge hit in China just a few years back.  The words will be relatively easy to learn and every one in the audience will know it.”

She googled the song, we clicked on a link and there it was.   A very catchy tune with some great state approved lyrics.  Basically translates as follows ;

“We are all one big family called China,

We have many brothers and sisters, the scenery is great,

In the land surrounded by two dragons,

The Yangtse and the Yellow river,

We also have Everest,

The highest mountain of them all !”

Sold !  I liked the catchy tune.  I also liked the audacious claim to Everest.  Yanqiu printed out the words and I set about memorising them.  After 20 minutes or so I decided to just learn the first verse and the chorus.

I’ve always believed that if a job’s worth doing then it’s worth finding someone to do it for you.  If you can’t find such a person then you should endeavour to make the job as small as possible before doing it yourself.   Learn three verses or learn one ?  Just learn one of course !  In any case, no one takes this end of year performance seriously and with a maximum of 15 people watching why bother learning the whole song ?

The big day finally arrived and I made my way to the venue.  Having only used at most two of the outlying classrooms I was totally unfamiliar with the campus layout.  I eventually stumbled in to what looked like an auditorium.  I’d clearly got the wrong building.  It was obviously a graduation ceremony of some sort.  What seemed like maybe 200 students were chatting away, no doubt excited and proud to be receiving their hard earned degrees.

I politely asked a lady on the edge of the crowd if she could please direct me to the building where the end of year performances were taking place.

“You’re at the right place ! “    She exclaimed.

My heart froze.  I looked around in panic.  Fight or flight kicked in.  No one I knew had seen me.  Surely I could just run off.  Yes, why not ?  Then I could call Laoshi from the Starbucks round the corner and explain about the heavy cold that I’d come down with.  Blocked nose, couldn’t sleep all night.  Doctor tells me to stay in bed.  Shame about the performance but what can can you do  ?  Was I really that pathetic ?


“Hey Richard over here !”

I turned to see Laoshi seated in the front row.  No escape now.  She smiled that warm, paternal “everything’s going to be fine” smile.

“Et tu laoshi” I thought.  You smiling assassin.  You were my friend.  You understood my limitations.  You held my hand and guided me through the complex world of Mandarin.  I trusted you.   And now, you betray me !  Not serious ?  15 people ?  You stitched me up you smiling heartless b*stard !

Oh well.  What’s done is done.  We’ve hit the trough. It can’t get any worse than this.  It can only better.  No one knows you’re dying on the inside.  Keep your chin up…

“Richard.  Great to see you.  I’m so excited.  Only a little bad news though.  I just talked to Mr Gu from the organising committee.  He tells me I won’t be allowed to accompany you with the singing…..  Don’t worry though.  I’ll be supporting you from the audience……Good luck !”

Marvellous.  Bloody marvellous.

I was told I was act number 4.  The wait was interminable.  With the blood pumping in my ears I remember little of the acts that preceded me.  I recall a group of French students acting out a humorous scene involving a Shanghai taxi driver.  The jokes were lost on me however.  I found it difficult to concentrate.  Is this how people feel on death row ?

Eventually my time came.  The music started up.  The audience was hushed.  What seemed like 100’s of faces stared intensely at me.

It’s “Caesar or bust”.  I clutched the mike like a rubber ring on the titanic and belted out the words ;



The audience were captivated, or were they just horrified ?  I wasn’t sure.  Anyway, I was growing in confidence.  Towards the end of the first verse a 2nd wave of panic set in.  Bloody hell !   I only learnt one verse !  Sod it.  Just keep a straight face and just repeat the first verse.  It worked.  I repeated the first verse a total of three times. Then to round off I belted out the chorus ;

ZHONGUO                  China

ZHU FU NI                 bless you

NI YONG YUAN         you are forever

ZAI WO XINLI          in my heart

I’m not a sentimental type but as I sang the last few lines I clutched my right hand to my heart and felt tears welling up in my eyes.

An insincerity of Hughie Green proportions maybe, but nevertheless this was a heart felt insincerity of the highest order.  This is how Tony Blair must feel I thought.  Pure unadulterated exhilaration.

The crowd lapped it up.  I bowed.  The usually unemotional Chinese stood up and cheered to the rafters.  I welled up ..”Xie Xie Nimen… Xie Xie Nimen”  thank you, thank you, I managed.

After 43 years of crushing disappointment and failure I’d finally accomplished something of worth.  For some reason the lyrics of Queen’s ‘We are the champions’ played in my head…

You brought me fame and fortune
And everything that goes with it
I thank you all
But it’s been no bed of roses
No pleasure cruise
I consider it a challenge before
The whole human race
And I ain’t gonna lose


Anyway, for weeks after I basked in the glory of my performance.  People I didn’t know from Adam would approach and shake my hand vigorously on the school campus.  I marvelled at what had occurred.

The glory has somewhat faded now however from time to time I still speculate as to whether there is, trapped  inside every fat western businessman, a super cheesy Chinese propaganda singer, just waiting to get out…….


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