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A Song for China: How My Father Wrote Yellow River Cantata

by Ange Zhang


The vast and powerful
Yellow River is often called the mother river of China. It is also the subject of a famous musical with lyrics by militant poet Guang Weiran. In this non-fiction picture book, Chinese-Canadian author and illustrator Ange Zhang pays tribute to Weiran, his father, and guides readers through the significance of this patriotic, historic work – now 80 years old.

As a boy, Weiran (called Father in the book)  “was smart and sensible, and he loved to read.” He excelled in academics, public speaking, drama, and poetry. At 12, he took part in student demonstrations against foreign oppression. At 13, he joined and worked for the Communist Party of China (CPC), which, along with the Nationalist Party of China (Kuomintang), promoted independence.

Within a year, the Nationalists began assassinating CPC members. Father lost many close friends; he was interrogated but released. He enrolled in university and pursued writing. Five years after the 1931 Japanese invasion of China, the 23-year-old had achieved success as a writer and penned a collection of poems, which – paired with music by his friend and famous composer Xian Xinghai – became the Yellow River Cantata. The piece premiered at the Shanbei Gonxue Hall of Yan’an in 1939 and became an emblem of Chinese national spirit.

Packed with details, this complex biography benefits from rereading, but the author’s thoughtful narrative is cohesive. Events are arranged  chronologically; the book includes sections such as “Childhood,” “Youth,” and “War with Japan.” Zhang describes army attacks, puppet regimes, and the effects of military conflict. Still, the central theme is Weiran’s love for his homeland. Zhang has created a canvas on which the terrible calamities, tragic deaths, heroic acts, and victory songs can be viewed in context and reflected upon. The Yellow River poems are reprinted at the end; after reading Weiran’s story and learning pertinent facts about China’s history, the poems themselves are accessible and resonant.

Zhang’s woodblock artwork matches the patriotic subject matter with its bold black lines and occasional splashes of red. This contrasts with the warm, golden-toned paintings that accompany the lyrics to Yellow River Cantata. Interspersed throughout, family photos and informative sidebars add background to the story.

A Song for China is a dense, masterful work, ideal for rich discussions about art and culture, war and politics.