The Reception of Paul Robeson in Maoist China

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Bryant Suite (New York Hilton)
Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University
This paper examines how the Chinese government and its people followed the triumphs and tribulations of the singing, acting, and athletic career of African American cultural icon Paul Robeson during the Maoist years. In previous work, I studied how the Maoist Chinese government favorably regarded the black American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois. The Chinese regard for the Du Bois paled next to their valorization of Robeson. The Communist Party of China appreciated Robeson’s commitment to world revolution. Robeson’s popularity in China stems in part to the faithful efforts of Liu Liangmo, a Chinese intellectual, writer and activist who recorded an album of songs with Robeson during Liu’s sojourn to the United States from 1941-1949. One of the songs Chee Lai! (March of the Volunteers) later became the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China. Liu spent much time with Robeson in the United States. After Liu’s return to China in 1949, he insured that Robeson’s reputation stayed bright in Chinese eyes. Using journalism, including Liu’s, in the state mouthpiece Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), a Christian magazine Tianfeng (Heavenly Wind), and the popular magazine Dazhong dianying (Cinema of the Masses), I demonstrate how the Chinese stayed informed of Robeson’s activities, troubles with the U.S. government, and interactions with Chinese students. Liu also made possible publication of Chinese translations of Robeson’s 1958 autobiography, Here I Stand, as well as biographies of Robeson in the 1950s and 1960s. Although Robeson never visited China, he was venerated there. The paper demonstrates that the CCP was not indifferent to racial affairs in the United States, kept tabs on favored black intellectuals and insured that the Chinese people knew about them. These efforts laid the foundation for Mao Zedong to develop and promote his three-world theory.

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