At the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party propaganda movie-musical “The Wings of Songs,” a tune is playing, and there are attractive people frolicking. But, unlike “The Sound of Music,” the frolicking and the music never match. We have just been introduced to three boyish members of a band, the film’s protagonists, who are performing at the quarter-finals of a “Voice of China”-style competition show. We see them playing an accordion, a guitar, and percussion. We hear… almost none of that.
At least not when the barely-passable mimicry of the song’s slow introduction gives way to a bouncy dance track. One actor is still playing the guitar, but there is no guitar to be heard. Another appears to be hammering out ghostly virtuoso accordion passages; the ear, attempting to spare the brain a modicum of cognitive dissonance, searches for them in vain. Instead of those two instruments, we hear a catchy melody in what sounds like synthesized whistling. The third band member is playing a drum. The rhythm of his hands is not remotely resembled by a plodding electronic beat. (They are also lip-syncing to the words, an illusion unworthy even of the earliest seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”)
“The Wings of Songs” was released this April by the China Film Administration, and immediately derided in the Western media as a hamfisted attempt at propaganda. Few journalists, understandably, were willing to watch it start to finish. Doing so brings queasy lessons, not just about the Chinese Communist Party, but also the ugly potential of music.
After their quarter-finals performance, the band members proceed to the semifinals, but, in their critique, the judges prod the group to include more elements of their “hometown” musical styles. This rather gentle criticism results in a crisis: The lead singer wants to withdraw from the competition in order to refine his compositions. His girlfriend, presumably sick of paying the full rent for their palatial Shanghai apartment, dumps him. The lead singer storms out, and a music box playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” thuds, with leaden symbolism, to the floor.
Finally untethered from his attractive, loving girlfriend and beautiful apartment, the lead singer decides it’s time to return to his home province for inspiration. His bandmates, a little pissed off but ultimately recognizing the wisdom of this quest, join him. The three young men are borderline-stalked by a pop-music vlogger who brandishes a selfie stick like a sword. They get lost in the desert, though never come close to running out of water, and see some wild horses. They flirt with flames old and new, always vacillating between these gorgeous, modest, incomprehensibly-infatuated local women and what the English subtitles call their “music dream.” “The Wings of Songs” also features food glam shots; flashbacks to the heroic past of the Cultural Revolution; and massive dance numbers reminiscent of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Along the way, the musicians learn the value of true friendship. The journey is the destination. Eat, play, love.
This heartwarming plot takes place in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the home of the Uyghur Muslim minority. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Xinjiang was integrated into the country, autonomous in name only. As part of the Cultural Revolution, Islamic beliefs were suppressed, books in the Uyghur language were burned, and Han Chinese workers were resettled in the region. In the 1990s, Xinjiang experienced a political awakening, which occasionally led to violence between Muslim Uyghurs and representatives of the state.
Since 2016, the Chinese Communist Party–taking the American “War on Terror” as its inspiration–has pursued a policy of “demographic genocide” in Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press, pregnant Uyghur women have been subjected to forced sterilization and abortion. A BuzzFeed News investigation showed that over a million Uyghurs have spent time in labor camps in the region, with some results of their labor making it to Western markets. In Chinese government documents obtained by the New York Times in 2019, officials admitted to detaining Uyghurs they considered “infected by unhealthy thoughts.”
The pairing of music and propaganda is nothing new. The more specific use of propagandistic operas and musical dramas has a long history in Communist China. The Cultural Revolution produced almost 20 “revolutionary operas,” their production overseen by Mao Zhedong’s wife, Jiang Qing. Those pieces are unbearable, their dull and didactic plots matched only by their plodding music. Make no mistake: “The Wings of Songs” also sucks. But there is something uniquely troubling about this movie-musical: a jarring disconnect between the visual and the aural. The movie shows us natural beauty, delicious food, and smiling faces in traditional costumes. What we hear is the erasure of a culture.
Take the gigantic dance number about an hour into “The Wings of Songs.” (The whole thing comes in at under two hours—one positive modernization of “revolutionary opera.”) We see crowds of men with traditional hand drums, others with what looks to be the wind instruments called shehnais. If they were actually playing these instruments, the result would be a wonderfully human cacophony, full of offset rhythms and buzzing, beating microtones. But all we hear is a single, sinuous violin melody under an insistent electronic beat. It’s a reductive coalescence around the lowest common denominator of a catchy tune and a foot-tapping rhythm. Here, Uyghur culture is simplified, repackaged, and made palatable to the Han Chinese majority whose explicit aim it is to colonize Xinjiang.
A similar moment occurs at the emotional highpoint of the film: The band’s lead singer and accordionist has found Mr. Li, a Han Chinese Communist schoolteacher who raised him as a child and taught him to play the accordion. (In a moment that is both ridiculously melodramatic and somehow still heroic, Mr. Li loses his pinkie, rendering him… still able to play.) The lead singer of the band wants to show his adoptive father how much his journey has taught him about the value of music. Tears are streaming down his face. He takes up his accordion and begins to play.
Or he presses the buttons. As the actor pretends to play the accordion, an instrument of Xinjiang, what we hear is Western, Disneyfied orchestral music, with no accordion in earshot. A string melody soars. Cymbals slowly crash. At one moment, we see a slow-motion tear landing on the musician’s right hand. At moments of great emotion, “The Wings of Songs” seems to say, traditional Uyghur music will not do.
The band, having plundered their home for the most superficial elements of its music, are triumphant. They perform a concert for Mr. Li at the edge of the lake where his wife left him (don’t ask), while the vlogger, finally proving her usefulness, streams it on WeChat. It becomes a viral hit.
“Xinjiang is such a vast and beautiful place,” the vlogger concludes. “I was attracted by various minorities and cultures. I will come back for sure.”
The credits roll. They include the International Chief Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing, largely responsible for pseudo-Chopin interludes for strings and piano. European and American orchestras love to point to China as the future of classical music, thanks to the country’s purchasing power and veneration for the canon. But this repertoire, too, can be abused in the service of apartheid. (A few years ago, I had an off-the-record dinner with a European automobile executive in Beijing. He maintained it was legitimate for the firm to maintain a factory in Xinjiang–because they occasionally organized concerts for the workers.)
“The Wings of Songs” leaves behind a nasty, hollow feeling. One element of that is the atrocities we know the film is hiding. The other is the texturelessness of the music. Every dissonance passes quickly, every pitch is autotuned to uncanny-valley levels, every track overproduced to an artificial sheen. Hearing the soundtrack to “The Wings of Songs” is like watching a vast mouse cursor select the music producer’s totalizing Snap to Grid tool on the multifarious rhythms of human experience.
That’s probably the point. Popular music from Xinjiang “gave Uyghur musicians and audiences a range of ways to express different senses of community and self, and to explore cosmopolitan ideas about belonging,” as Elise Anderson wrote recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books. For the Chinese Communist Party, that was a threat. The China Film Administration hired a Han Chinese composer, Dong Yingda, to score “The Wings of Songs.” In the government-controlled Global Times, Yingda said “she hoped to express the charm of the story through the accompaniment of emotional music that features the strong ethnic characteristics of Xinjiang.” Those are the characteristics the Chinese government is hoping to erase, or at least reduce to bullet points in a tourist’s guidebook.
Some Uyghur musicians worked on “The Wings of Songs.” But, as Anderson noted, many traditional performers have already been sent to prison camps.
One of those musicians was dutarist Abdurehim Heyit. He was apparently interred from 2017 to 2019, then released due to international pressure. Videos of him performing are available on a corner of YouTube with Uyghur content called UrTube. It would be hard to imagine a more striking contrast between his art and the canned sounds of “The Wings of Sound.” When Heyit plays, you hear the natural fluctuations of the organic, vibrating human voice. The slight strain in his high notes is a desperate but dignified plea. You hear the texture of his fingers on his dutar as you might feel a firm touch on your arm; the resonant body of the instrument stimulates the air with the irreducible nuances of its construction. These sounds seem to contain all the complexities of human experience, complexities which the CCP seems intent on extinguishing within its borders.
In “The Wings of Songs,” a character says, “Music lovers are never evil.” As the movie shows, a statement has rarely been quite as perversely wrong. ¶