When Paul Robeson Sang for China

An Excerpt from ‘Arise, Africa! Roar, China!: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century’

From the 1920s to 1940s, Paul Robeson was one of the most prominent African American performers. A barrier-breaking actor and singer, he released hundreds of songs and performed in major theatrical productions. Trained as a lawyer, Robeson was also an activist who advocated for labor rights and racial justice during the years of Jim Crow laws. During the Second World War, he took up China’s cause in its fight against Japan, holding concerts to raise awareness and funds. Building on a tradition that had developed during the Harlem Renaissance, Robeson, “consistently articulated the linkage between African and Chinese civilizations,” writes Gao Yunxiang in her new book, Arise Africa! Roar, China!: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century. That connection drew him into collaboration with leftist Chinese sojourners like Liu Liangmo (刘良模), a prolific journalist, musician, and Christian activist whom Robeson befriended when Liu visited the United States between 1940 and 1949. Robeson and Liu helped to globalize the “March of the Volunteers,” the future national anthem of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which Robeson nicknamed “Chee Lai,” or “Arise,” after the song’s central refrain. The following excerpt from Arise Africa! Roar, China! recounts the collaborations between Robeson and Liu, which would facilitate Robeson’s popularity as one of the PRC’s heroic revolutionary models .

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In November 1940, Paul Robeson received a phone call, perhaps from the noted Chinese writer Lin Yutang, asking him to meet a recent arrival from China: Liu Liangmo. Within half an hour, Robeson was in the caller’s apartment. Liu recalled Robeson “beaming over me with his friendly smile and his giant hands firmly holding mine.” They became fast friends. When Robeson inquired about the mass singing movement that Liu had initiated in China, Liu related the backstory behind the new genre of Chinese fighting and folk songs he had helped to invent for war mobilization, singing some examples. Robeson’s favorite was “Chee Lai!” or “March of the Volunteers,” because, as he explained, “Arise, Ye who refuse to be bond slaves!” expressed the determination of the world’s oppressed, including Chinese and Black people, to struggle for liberation. Listening intently to Liu’s rendition of the song, Robeson wrote down some notes, and left with a copy.

Robeson and Liu met at a propitious time. Robeson was one of the most popular singers and actors in the United States and amplified his fame with the recording “Ballad for Americans,” which became a national sensation after a live radio broadcast on November 5, 1939. At the same time, Robeson’s politics had tilted to the left. The FBI maintained a growing file on him. Robeson’s interest in China was not new; he had been studying the Chinese language and Chinese philosophy for several years. He was well known to the Chinese people. Liu had heard of Robeson’s travels to Spain to sing songs to encourage the embattled defenders of the Spanish Republic. Aware that Robeson often sang freedom songs of all countries in their original language, Liu had brought copies of Chinese fighting and folk songs to the United States, hoping that Robeson might perform them. Several weeks later, on a starry night, Liu attended an outdoor Robeson concert at Lewisohn Stadium of the City College of New York. Robeson sang many Black spirituals and songs of national battles against fascism; then he announced, “I am going to sing a Chinese fighting song tonight in honor of the Chinese people, and that song is ‘Chee Lai!’” Robeson, Liu recalled, sang in perfect Chinese; the audience demanded an encore.

Robeson reprised this song in his numerous concerts in North America and Europe, sometimes amid entangled racial and ideological controversies. He sang it when the Washington Committee for Aid to China invited him to headline an event to raise money for United China Relief in 1941. The event had taken on additional political significance after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to rent out Constitution Hall because of his race. The DAR had apparently learned little from the scandal two years earlier when it refused access to Marian Anderson, only to have Eleanor Roosevelt resign from the organization and then arrange Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Committee for Aid to China found a new venue, Uline Arena. Even then, significant controversies arose over segregated seating and the division of the proceeds. The committee was also anxious about sponsoring the event with the National Negro Congress, which was suspected of communist connections. Eventually most of the committee resigned, ostensibly because Uline Arena refused to guarantee that it would not segregate in the future; under the surface was the fear of contamination with communism.

Keynote Records. Courtesy of Gao Yunxiang.

Cover of the album ‘Chee Lai!’ recorded by Paul Robeson, Liu Liangmo, and the Chinese People’s Chorus for Keynote Records in 1941.

Chinese intellectuals in the United States kept tabs on this controversy as it played out. In her memorial piece for W.E.B. Du Bois, the noted writer Bingxin recalled her encounter with a member of the DAR while staying at the National Women’s Club in Washington, D.C. After Bingxin mentioned the “startling Jim Crow streetcars,” the other woman, with clenched teeth and a red face, passionately defended the practice, citing African Americans’ lack of “human intelligence and feelings.” Shocked by this “mad-dog . . . daughter of revolution,” Bingxin wrote that she heard “the striking voice of Paul Robeson singing at our school—‘nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’—suddenly ringing in my ears.” Liu, his former colleague in China’s mass singing movement Chen Yiming, and future vice president of the China Society for People’s Friendship Studies Chen Xiuxia (both then Columbia University students) fondly remembered the excitement of hearing Robeson sing “Chee Lai!” in both Chinese and English for thousands of Americans at Union Square in Washington, D.C., in 1942 and Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1948. At the Union Square concert, Robeson stood shoulder to shoulder with Liu and performers of the Chinese People’s Chorus, which Liu had organized in New York City’s Chinatown. Robeson also sang this song, along with a Spanish fighting song and a Jewish song popular in Warsaw under German occupation, for Alexander Pushkin’s 150th anniversary tribute in Moscow in 1949. The considerate Robeson sent royalties to the lyric author Tian Han, who forwarded part of them to the surviving mother and brother of the composer Nie Er in Yunnan province.

In November 1941, with the cooperation of the China Aid Council (under United China Relief), a conduit organized by Madam Sun Yat-sen’s China Defense League, Robeson, Liu, and the Chinese People’s Chorus recorded an album of Chinese fighting and folk songs for Keynote Records titled Chee Lai! Songs of New China. They intended the record to be played on radio stations and in homes around the United States. The chorus had asked Liu to approach Robeson about making such an album, and the singer agreed readily. Liu saw such collaboration as “a strong token of solidarity between the Chinese and the Negro People.” The album included such songs as “Chee Lai!,” “Work as One,” “Fengyang,” “Chinese Farmers’ Song,” “Chinese Soldiers’ Song,” “Riding the Dragon,” and “Song of the Guerrillas.” Robeson sang “Chee Lai!” and the third, fifth, and sixth songs, after repeated careful rehearsals, while Liu and the chorus performed the others. Robeson’s liner notes read: “Chee Lai! (Arise!) is on the lips of millions of Chinese today, a sort of unofficial anthem, I am told, typifying the unconquerable spirit of this people. It is a pleasure and a privilege to sing both this song of modern composition and the old folk songs to which a nation in struggle has put new words.” Madam Sun’s liner notes praised Robeson, “the voice of the people of all lands,” and “our own Liu Liang-mo, who has taught a nation of soldiers, guerrillas, farmers, and road builders to sing while they toil and fight.” She hoped that the album of songs “that blend the harmonies of East and West [would] be another bond between free peoples.” Lin Yutang was involved in recording the album and contributed an accompanying booklet, and his liner notes exclaimed that “China is finding her voice.” The New York Times lauded it as one of the year’s best and noted that profits went to the China Relief Fund; The Philadelphia Inquirer applauded its “tonic glimpses of a heroic people.” Local newspapers advertised it among eight “Allied War Songs of Special Merit.” The album quickly became popular across the United States.

Dagong bao, then printed in exile in Guilin, noted its wide reception throughout the Americas. In response to demand from Western customers, Chinese restaurants in New York City and Chicago reportedly ordered the full set of six records, priced at $2.75, to play during dinner. Following Robeson’s lead, Kenneth Spencer, another noted African American baritone, adopted some songs from the collection to his repertoire. Liu subsequently published a slim collection of Chinese “folk-songs and fighting songs,” with arrangements by musician Evelyn Modoi. Hollywood eventually adopted “Chee Lai!” The U.S. Army Air Force Orchestra played the tune at the start and conclusion of the film Why We Fight: The Battle of China (1944), directed by the famed Frank Capra and produced by the State Department.

In recent years, Robeson and Liu’s collaboration and friendship have received scholarly attention. Richard Jean So has imaginatively configured their connection as an example of “pentatonic democracy” and has shown the similarities in structure and message of the African American and Chinese songs which the two friends collaborated on and sang. Such universality, however, extended well beyond their art into the realm of politics, which was always foremost for both men.

Nevertheless, Robeson’s ties with China were frequently off the radar of even the FBI during his lifetime, and they have received insufficient study given Robeson’s profound affection for China, a nation he never visited. More attention has been given to Robeson’s adoration of the Soviet Union. He famously remarked in 1949, “I am truly happy that I am able to travel from time to time to the USSR—the country I love above all. I always have been, I am now and will always be a loyal friend of the Soviet Union.” “Chee Lai!” was by no means the sole connection between Robeson and the Chinese people.