Lam Yik Fei / The New York Times

Chinese citizens pay respects at a shrine to Dr. Len Wenliang.

February 9, 2020

YANG | Hear the People Sing

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I can’t exactly remember the first time I heard the soundtrack of Les Misérables. I know it was back in high school. It might’ve been during a car ride with one of my best friends, who liked to “carpool karaoke” to musical soundtracks. It might’ve been before the opening night of my first musical production. After all, every theatre kid knows that there’s no better time to sing “One Day More” than when you’re six hours into the last tech rehearsal, exhausted but excited for the big day.

For the longest time, the significance of this musical for me was limited solely to the memories I associated with it — good times with my friends and my love for the theatre. And I thought that the spirit of the show (and novel) was not lost on me: the fight for freedom, the right to be heard, to love and to live. In retrospect, though, I never fully understood it, not until now.

A few months ago, the pièce de résistance of the show, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” suddenly disappeared from every Chinese music streaming platform, allegedly because some protesters in Hong Kong were singing it during rallys. The unofficial banning of the song made some small waves on social media, but blew over in a matter of days. I’d all but forgotten that this song had been banned until this past Thursday, when the song resurfaced on social media, under unprecedented circumstances.

On Thursday, Dr. Li Wenliang, one of the eight doctors from Wuhan who warned the public of the coronavirus outbreak and were later silenced by the police, died from the virus. His death sparked an outpouring of grief and national outrage, not simply because he was a whistleblower mistreated by the police, but because there were conflicting reports from state media about the time and circumstances of his death, which created speculations about what might have been an attempt at manipulating public discourse.

Chinese people have become conditioned to speak almost exclusively in euphemisms when discussing politics, especially on public platforms. Being straightforward would only lead to getting one’s post deleted, one’s account deactivated, or worse, being “invited” to “have tea” with law enforcement. So in order to get their point across and have it last at least long enough to circulate, people have learned to use literature, movie quotes, illustration and music as proxies of speech.

This time, one of the first ones to go around was a clip of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” This song used to circulate whenever there’s a public crisis, but this time the parallel was too significant and too eerie to be taken lightly: it was a “song of angry men” sung at the funeral procession of General Larmaque, who died in the cholera epidemic. If the song had been touchy before, this time it might just be outright inflammatory.

The original post avoided making any allusions, and most of the reposts were either caption-less or mechanically repeating five words that would look both innocuous and cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the situation: “I can’t. I don’t understand.” As it turns out, when the police brought him in for “spreading rumors” back in January, Dr. Li had to sign an agreement. He was asked: “Can you cease this illegal behavior? Do you understand the repercussions if you fail to do so?” Under which he wrote: “I can. I understand.”

The video got 55 thousand reposts before being taken down just hours later, in the middle of the night Beijing Time.

For the rest of that day, all sorts of “proxies of speech” started popping up on Weibo, and many didn’t make it to the next day. Some were the usual: excerpts from Lu Xun’s essays, quotes from 1984, Dumbledore’s speech about Cedric Digory from Harry Potter. Some were more special: an illustration of Dr. Li wearing a mask covered in barbed wire; another of him eating fried chicken while watching the new season of his favorite TV series, a congratulatory pennant that says “whistleblower” hanging on the wall. The one that shook me to the core was a video of someone in Wuhan playing the trumpet from his balcony into the pitch-black night, while many whistles blew from a distance. It sounded like a requiem. It echoed like a battle cry.

And just like that, the people held for Dr. Li what some called “a state funeral,” and it was bizarrely creative, oddly inspiring, yet indescribably devastating. I wish we didn’t need to encode every political opinion with some piece of literature or film; I wish we didn’t need to decode cryptic language and symbolic art in order to reach a tacit understanding with thousands across the web. I wish I weren’t scared as I’m now writing this column, unable to shake the feeling of trepidation at every word, self-censoring the moment anything starts to sound dangerous. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, so until then, I’m proud of those who refuse to remain silent, and I’m thankful for the existence of art that enables self-expression, and lets us be heard.

The columnist would like to dedicate this article to Dr. Li Wenliang (李文亮), who passed away on February 6, 2020. 一路走好。


Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Five Minutes Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.