IASPM 2014: Collectivism and individualism: the Chinese song “Fill the World with Love”

The collaboration of collectivism and individualism: the Chinese pop song “Fill the World with Love”

(Lijuan Qian, Sichuan Normal University)

Lijuan’s paper focuses on how this pop song became incorporated into Chinese popular culture in the 1980s, and she opens with a discussion of humanism in China at the time, contextualised from Sartre and Marx. “the relation of transcendence as constitutive of man with subjectivity”. She suggests that the individualism and self-determination of Sartre’s humanism was at odds with some early 1980s Marxist thinking in China. Can love be a manifestation of humanism for those in China who have had a hitherto collectivist life experience? Some Chinese critics were concerned that any tendency towards individualism among intellectuals was a risk for society.

The song is representative of a move towards individualism, not least because its lyric is in the first person. The song encouraged group singing, but with a first-person (individualist) narrative. It was inspired by the Michael Jackson/Lionel Richie 1985 charity song ‘We Are The World’. The idea of group singing to pursue charity and social influence was unusual and appealing to many in China at the time. Some in China perceived the song as bourgeois because of its emphasis on individuals and couples. But on the other hand the idea of connecting popular music with social events and world peace was considered very transferable to a Chinese context (and became approved by the state’s ‘cultural officers’). This was an early meeting of youth/popular music culture in China state activities relating to the Cultural Revolution.

“Fill The World With Love” is actually a multi-part song cycle [didn’t fully comprehend this bit – JB] and we then see a line-by-line analysis of the lyrics. [oddly I cannot find it on Google – a victim of Chinese internet politics…?]. Interview with CHEN Zhe, who characterises the songwriting as representative of ‘angry youth’, although he describes his peers as ‘half angry and half intellectual’. This interview contains a number of other quotations that make clear the ground-breaking nature of the individualism explicit in the song.

Lijuan concludes by suggesting that the song (a co-write) was an example of genuine ‘collective composition’. [I infer that this adjective has more than one meaning.]

[JB comment – this was a deep and highly philosophical discussion of popular music’s very real relationship with society under a very different political regime to our own. As a Westerner with no direct experience of Chinese politics or culture, I found Lijuan’s contextualisation of the music with the 1980s Chinese state and the Cultural Revolution to be fascinating. To me, the lyrics of the song look twee and safe – the idea that they could be revolutionary in uncovering humanism and love is extraordinarily powerful.]

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