China Power

In China, an Ode to ‘Grandpa Xi’

A children’s song about Xi Jinping is the latest sign of a growing personality cult in China.

In China, an Ode to ‘Grandpa Xi’
Credit: Flickr/ Global Panorama & Michel Temer

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently acquired a new nickname: Grandpa Xi (Xi Yeye) instead of Uncle Xi (Xi Dada). This upgrade is appropriate because those who address Xi as “grandpa” are elementary school students. What is more interesting, given China’s recent history, is that the new nickname is a part of the title for a new song praising the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader.

Mao Zedong was the first CCP leader to be praised in a song. Working with the melody of a local folk song in Shaanxi Province where Mao and his colleagues were congregated to re-launch the communist revolution, farmer Li Youyuan reportedly composed a song, “The East is Red,” to praise Mao personally and the Communist Party collectively. In the song, Mao is hailed as the great savior of the Chinese people and the Communist Party as the sun for the entire world. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when Mao’s personality cult was at its peak, the song was used as China’s unofficial national anthem.

Hua Guofeng, Mao’s successor, was also praised in a song. Based on a folk song of Shanxi, Hua’s native province, composers of the Shanxi Song and Dance Ensemble changed the original lyrics to insert “Political Commissar Hua” and “Chairman Hua” in 1976. The scale of Hua’s personality cult in the song is far below that of Mao in “The East is Red.” In the song, Hua simply listens closely to the words of Chairman Mao and gets rid of the Gang of Four.

Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of China from late 1970s to the 1990s, was not a big fan of personality cults. He was one of the CCP leaders in the 1950s who favored collective leadership instead. As a result of his proposal (possibly initiated by Defense Minister Peng Dehuai), “Mao Zedong Thought” — a mark of Mao’s personality cult — was deleted from the CCP’s Constitution at the Eighth National Party Congress in 1956 (though Mao had the line reinserted at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969). Despite Deng’s feelings on the matter, however, a song called “The Story of Spring” was written in 1994 by Jiang Kairu and Ye Xuquan and composed by Wang Yougui to praise Deng’s achievements as the general architect of China’s open-door and reform policies. Deng’s name is not mentioned in the lyrics, however; he is simply referred to as “an old man.”

One year after the death of Deng Xiaoping, in 1998, another song, “Entering into a New Era,” was written by Jiang Kairu and composed by Yin Qing to praise Jiang Zemin, the core of the third generation leadership. Again, Jiang’s name was not mentioned in the song. He was simply referred to as “the person that leads the way” (lingluren) for China to enter a new era. The song was introduced in the 1998 Spring Festival Gala, the premier CCTV event of the year.

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China under Hu Jintao was widely extolled as the Flourishing Age of China (shengshi zhonghua). Still, a song that was sung during the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 2009 had no particular reference to Hu, though he was supposed to be the supreme leader of the country. Sung by Peng Liyuan, the wife of Xi Jinping, the song had strong implications for red princelings as rightful successors of the revolutionary cause.

Now, the song “Grandpa Xi Is Our Big Friend” has been written by Han Shengxun and composed by Wang Liguang with Xi’s name not only in the song, but in the title. Although it is a children’s song, it has symbolic significance. The song was sung most recently by pupils of Yucai Red Army Primary School of Yan’an at Yangjialing, where Mao’s personality cult started 70 years earlier at the Seventh National Party Congress.

In the aftermath of the Eighth National Party Congress, in which “Mao Zedong Thought” was deleted from the CCP Constitution, Mao urged his colleagues to make a clear distinction between a “good” personality cult and a “bad” personality cult, suggesting that his own personality cult was good while Stalin’s personality cult was bad. Yet his “good” personality cult brought political, economic, and human disasters to China.

Hopefully, this new song will remain a children’s song and Grandpa Xi a grandpa, not another Mao Zedong.