The dark history behind one of Lunar New Year's most popular songs
'Gong xi gong xi' is a rare New Year song presented in a minor key — but there's a reason for that
Some songs have become the musical signifier of a brand new year. In Times Square, "Auld Lang Syne" is the first thing New Yorkers hear when the countdown hits zero. For those who celebrate Lunar New Year, especially in East Asia, the ubiquity of a song like "Gong xi gong xi" acts as a similar cue.
But this Mandarin staple doesn't sound like many other songs played around this time of year. Written by songwriter Chen Gexin sometime between 1945 and 1946, "Gong xi gong xi" has been updated over the decades, nowadays fleshed out with more instrumentation and sometimes taught to young children in school. But one thing that can't be changed is its minor key, an uncommon feature that decidedly makes this song less celebratory-sounding. There's a reason behind that, though: it wasn't written for Lunar New Year. In fact, its origin story is much darker than some may realize.
1945 marked the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, an eight-year military conflict between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan that claimed an estimated 20 million casualties. During the '30s, Chen was arrested and jailed for months in Shanghai for writing anti-Japanese songs. Later, he joined the Nanjing-based Japanese government working in its music and film arm for a number of years.
Upon Japan's surrender, Chen was freed but as Yvon Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Department of History, notes: "Chen and many others would have felt incredible relief but also a lot of sadness and complexity.... They'd lost so much and I'm sure many felt survivor's guilt and the guilt of having had to follow the occupiers' rules to live."
All of these emotions were eventually channeled into "Gong xi gong xi," which in English translates to "Congratulations, congratulations." Its minor key is probably a reflection of the sombre environment Chen found himself in, or potentially influenced by the lilting minor key of early 20th century Japanese pop music.
The song's lyrics are pretty straightforward: "On every street and in every lane/ on everybody's lips/ whenever people meet/ the first thing they say is 'congratulations.'" Elsewhere Chen writes about the upcoming spring and seeing plum flowers sprouting, expressing optimism, but not revelling in actual good news just yet.
"Shanghai and the rest of the country, after these interminable years of war and occupation, was really devastated," Wang points out. "And soon after, runaway inflation made things worse for everybody who had lived through the war, so hope was there but it was a reserved joy, a cautious hope."
So how did "Gong xi gong xi" become a song associated with Lunar New Year then?
That part is unclear, and people have various guesses as to when it came to prominence during New Year celebrations. (One theory suggests that the song could've picked up popularity around the beginning of the televised CCTV New Year's Gala specials, which began in the '80s and have become the world's most-watched television special.) But it's obvious that part of the reason why people gravitated toward the song is its optimistic lyrics, which directly line up with the positive, hopeful greetings used during Lunar New Year. Certain English translations of the song even tweak "congratulations" to "good wishes."
But Wang says a song like "Gong xi gong xi" is also an apt reflection of the current state of global politics, therefore making it a perfect New Year's anthem.
"I think in 2020, a year in the midst of what feels like so much turbulence — ultra-nationalism, fear, global climate devastation, inter-generational tension and widening gaps between the haves and have-nots — this song both expresses a sense of hope and a sense of caution," he explains. "A knowledge of darkness, a knowledge that good things don't come easily, but its stubborn repeating of 'gong xi ni' is like a mantra: We must dare to hope anyway as we try to make the world better."