Qiao Yu, the songwriter who penned timeless classics that have been sung by generations of Chinese for decades, died Sunday. He was 94.
Born in the city of Jining in the eastern Shandong province, Qiao was China’s most famous lyricist in the second half of the 20th century. He wrote more than 1,100 lyrics during his lifetime, many of which are being remembered during a time of national mourning.
Qiao is said to have started his romance with words from the early age of 4, learning more than 3,000 Chinese characters. He could also recite ancient poems from the Tang and Song dynasties by then.
But it wasn’t until his late teens that he penned his own poem after being secretly enrolled in the now-defunct Art Institute of Northern University in the spring of 1946. Three years later, he joined the Communist Party of China.
Qiao rose to fame as a lyricist in 1955 after writing the theme song for the children’s movie “Flowers of the Motherland.” The track “Let’s Pull on Our Oars” — inspired by watching children paddle boats in Beijing’s Beihai Park — has since been a song known to most Chinese children.
“Our boat is gently drifting on the lake/ A cool breeze is rustling for our sake/ Our homework has been well done/ Let’s heartily have a lot of fun,” says the song.
But Qiao’s greatest hit would come in 1956 with “My Motherland” becoming a patriotic tune reverberating through the decades. The song was the soundtrack to the Korean War drama “Battle on Shangganling Mountain.”
“A great river flows, its waves wide/ Wind blows the scent of flowers to both shores/ My family lives on the shore/ I am used to hearing the punters’ call/ And seeing the white sails on the boats,” says the start of the song.
Although these lines have now been widely regarded as a “stroke of genius,” the movie’s director had initially asked Qiao to clearly spell out the “great river” as the Yangtze itself.
“That would indeed be very powerful, but after all, it is still a minority of people who have seen the Yangtze River,” Qiao reportedly said. “However, no matter when and where you were born, there will almost always be a river in front of your home, even if it is very small, and the story that happened on this river will be closely related to your own. Therefore, I wrote ‘great river’ instead of mentioning any specific river as it will feel intimate and natural to the audience.”
Qiao’s second breakthrough in his creative career came after the end of the Cultural Revolution when he was approached by the director of “The Red Peony” to write the movie’s theme song in 1980. He completed “Song of the Peony” in just one night and it turned out to be the biggest hit that decade.
The romantic ballad “Missing” also became an instant hit that decade after Mao Amin performed it during the 1988 Spring Festival Gala on the state broadcaster China Central Television. His words were adored for cleverly depicting the feeling of falling in love as “a butterfly flying into my window.”
Qiao’s song “Unforgettable Tonight” has also been the closing soundtrack of every annual gala since 1985, familiarizing his works to younger generations while evoking nostalgia for the old. Many of his fans see his lyrics as simple and relatable, which the lyricist himself agreed with.
“I have never seen lyrics as a gourmet meal in brocade or a high house,” Qiao is quoted as saying about his writings during a 2016 interview. “It is the home-cooked meal, the coarse cloth, or the small, cozy, though not spacious, courtyard that is indispensable to an ordinary person’s day.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: Qiao Yu in Jinin, Shandong province, 2009. VCG)