When he first returned to Shanghai full of hope and looking forward to a new life back home, Chen Gexin was highly regarded nationally. He came to work as a composer at the Shanghai Film Studio. He was employed by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music to teach composition and orchestration. However, at that time, like his fellow artists, he could only sing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the proletariat. He was a bit overwhelmed and apprehensive at this turn of events.
His works no longer had the spirituality and brilliance of the past. “I was used to writing about romantic feelings, talented men and beautiful ladies, and suddenly I could only praise the CCP and the proletariat.”
Since he was restricted in his artistic career, he just wanted to live his life in peace and quiet. However, the Communist Party soon raised its ugly head against all forms of literature and art. In the eyes of the Communist Party, the pop songs of the 1930s and 1940s reflected what they regarded as decadence, the “corrupt life” and “sweet music.” So Chen Gexin’s early songs were characterized as such by the communists.
Overnight, Chen’s song Fisherman’s Daughter was branded as “reactionary” and a “yellow song.” Zhou Weiqi, then outgoing president of the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles, published an article entitled Criticism of Yellow Music. By “yellow music” he meant light, relaxed, and soft music. This type of music was against the communist mentality of fighting and class struggle. “Yellow” light music was considered as not being in line with CCP standards. As a result, Chen Gexin’s popular recordings and compositions, along with other artists and their songs, came under severe communist attack.
In 1957, Mao Zedong launched the movement speak freely and air views freely, called the “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” This campaign was a lure for encouraging academics, artists, and intellectuals to present their opinions, suggestions, and criticisms of the government. Many well-meaning people were taken in by this sinister lure and innocently sent in their views as to why they felt the CCP had been too strict in placing limitations on their work. Many gave criticism and some gave good suggestions. However, those who did that found that they fell into a trap and were soon labeled as “rightist” and anti-communist, and they automatically became the enemy of the government. Although he did not say anything, Chen Gexin was nevertheless classified as a “rightist” and sent to work as slave labor on a farm in Baimao Ling, Anhui Province.
Innocent plum blossom classified as ‘rightist’ and anti-communist
Why was Chen Gexin classified as a rightist? Chen Gexin’s 1957 masterpiece Plum Blossom broke a major Chinese Communist taboo in its title and lyrics. The plum blossom is the national flower of Taiwan, Republic of China, and this song, with its title singing the praises of the plum blossom in bloom and its lyrics praising the character of the plum blossom, was enough to convict him in those absurd times.
As a result of this “rightist” charge, Chen Gexin’s family fell into very severe difficulty. Chen Gexin had four children — three boys and one girl. The eldest son, Chen Gang, who later composed the violin concerto for Butterfly Lovers, was scolded at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as a “rightist filial son”; the second son, Chen Clang, a mathematical genius, was originally studying at Fudan University but was sent down to Jiangxi Province to feed pigs on a farm. His daughter, Chen Xiaoli, became silent and kept a low profile; his youngest son, Chen Dong, suffered emotionally without his father’s presence and love. His loyal wife, Jin Jiaoli, took on the entire burden of the family.
Chen Gexin’s life on the slave farm was full of hardships. Ai Yi, a writer who was also being “reformed” on the farm, recalls that those ”rightists” lived in thatched huts, with dozens or even hundreds of people crammed into a large bunk. Apart from the intense hard labor during the day, they spent most of their time around the small thatched huts, where they ate and rested. The heavy workload, the grinding living conditions, the loneliness, and the helplessness of life put everyone under severe physical and mental strain.
Having been accustomed to the big city life in the metropolis, Chen’s sudden incarceration in the uninhabited mountainous region made him completely unprepared to adapt to the heavy, grinding labor of “reformation” life. Fortunately, his family gave him food and nourishment to help him get by.
Chen’s loyal and heroic wife Jin Jiaoli endured unbearable hardship
Every New Year’s Eve, his wife Jiaoli would walk an astonishing 80 miles to the farm in the wind and snow just to spend a night with Chen Gexin. What was even more heartbreaking was that before she could finish her drink of boiled muddy water, the whistle blew again to signal the end of the farm visits, and Jin Jiaoli could only “cry all the way home.”
In 1961, food rations were drastically reduced, and the diet of the “rightists” was so restricted that they only had one meal of rice and one meal of porridge per day, and even then they were forced to endure a lot of hard labor. A strange disease was also prevalent on the farm at the time. According to Ai Yi, many prisoners succumbed to the disease that caused weakness, emaciation, and severe weight loss. Suffering from pernicious anemia, they died of ”swelling all over” their bodies.
On the morning of January 25, 1961, when the “rightists” got up to start their day’s hard labor, they noticed that Chen Gexin did not move, and he did not respond even when called. Chen Gexin had stopped breathing and had passed away during the night. He was just 47 years of age.
In a time of imposed famine and severe cold, when it was impossible for everyone to protect themselves, the slaves died of hunger every day on the farm and were hastily and unceremoniously buried. Their bodies were often dug up by wild animals and eaten. Afterward, his distraught wife Jin rushed to the farm to retrieve her husband’s body and could only retrieve what was left of his remains: 206 bones from the graveyard.
Looking back on his once-promising and star-studded career, the life of Chen Gexin, along with the great cultural heyday, was destroyed under the CCP’s perverse and cruel campaigns. All too many talented stars, singers, musicians, artists, poets, actors, academics, writers, scientists, doctors, philosophers, monks, nuns, teachers, industrialists, patriots, and dreamers fell victim to the misery of authoritarian terror. Today, their bright stars are all witnesses against the savage regime. The losses to China and the world will never be regained.
Translated by Eva