Music and Friendship —by Jinny Batterson
Poets and writers have long proclaimed music a universal language. Whenever I’ve taught in China, I’ve incorporated music into my English lessons and programs. But learning goes both ways—some of the first Chinese words I learned, beyond the very basic “ni hao,” “zai jian,” and “xie xie,” (hello, goodbye, and thank you), came through a song.
In 2002, during a short teaching stint in Zhengzhou, Henan, I was presenting a lesson about Chinese immigration to the United States. The first large-scale Chinese settlement in America came in the wake of the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Several thousand Chinese young men, mostly from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, crossed the Pacific then in search of “gold mountain.” China was undergoing hardship and turmoil—it seemed a good time to leave in search of a better life. I used simple tools to supplement my lecture and to connect the students to these adventuresome ancestors of theirs. First I drew a rough outline map of the U.S., pointing out where California was. Then I wrote on the chalk board some lyrics of the folk song “Clementine,” honing in on vocabulary about “miners” and “49ers.” After more explanation and a couple of solos of the lyric, I tried to get the students to sing along—many did.
At that time, most Chinese students were still shy about asking questions in class, especially outside major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. The school where I taught this lesson was a large public junior middle school (roughly equivalent to U.S. grades 7-9) in a mid-sized provincial capital. At the end of our singing, I saw several students looking puzzled. I was resigned to not knowing what had intrigued them. I expected them just to sit quietly, waiting to see what the strange foreign teacher would do next. They surprised me. One of the bolder students raised his hand.
“Excuse me, teacher,” he began. “We all know that tune, but it has different words.”
He and several of his cohorts then proceeded to teach me the Chinese “Happy New Year” song—“Xinnian Hao,” whose tune seems to have crossed the Pacific, possibly in both directions.
A bit later in my China travels, I was exposed to a classical Chinese lyric that has haunted me ever since: “Dan Yuan Ren Chang Jiu,” loosely translatable as “Wishing We Last Forever.” In the year 1076, Song dynasty poet Su Shi composed the verse. At Mid-Autumn Festival (honoring the harvest moon, plus family and lovers’ reunions, occurring in September or early October by the Chinese lunar calendar), he spent the night drinking wine, looking at the full moon, and missing his long-lost brother. Toward morning, he wrote the characters of one of his best-known poems. With a modernized tune, the lyric was recorded in 1983 by Taiwanese singer Theresa Teng (Deng LiJun). I first heard the song in 2007. At the end of my year’s teaching in 2009, my students sang me the song karaoke-style in farewell. I’ve tried an Americanized adaptation below about long-distance friendships. Click here for a link to the Theresa Teng Chinese version.
(To Friendship —adapted by Jinny Batterson)
How bright the round moon shines—
Wine soaks this sorrow of mine,
How I long to see you,
Friends, just one more time.
The moon first waxes, then wanes,
‘Til just a sliver remains,
Riding high, cold, distant,
In the pre-dawn sky, just as lonesome as I.
Oceans may divide us,
Mountain ranges hide us,
Friendship’s still there.
Whether by pale moonlight
Or by noonday sunlight
We stay aware
Of others who care.
People have joys, sorrows, fears,
Journeys range both far and near.
Though we stay continents apart
And never meet again, treasured memories remain.