Chinese New Year (CNY) has always been loud – from the lion dancing to the repetitive CNY-themed music they play in shops everywhere.
While there are many songs that celebrate the new year, the first song that comes to everyone’s minds is Gong Xi Gong Xi (恭喜恭喜). With its auspicious name, one would imagine that it’s written just for the occasion to celebrate the arrival of spring. However, it’s actually written for another reason, and it’s not as happy as you think.
Those with an ear for music will notice that Gong Xi Gong Xi always sounded a tad ominous – it’s written in the minor key, which is often used to write songs with a sad or gloomy vibe. It’s worth noting that most popular music is written in major keys. So, why is it a gloomy song?
It was never written for CNY
Contrary to popular belief, Gong Xi Gong Xi wasn’t written as a Chinese New Year song. Rather than celebrating the arrival of spring, it was actually written to celebrate the end of a dark era: we’re talking about WWII.
The song was written by popular composer Chen Gexin in Shanghai in 1945 to celebrate Japan’s defeat and China’s victory (and liberation) during the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1945. The war – which lasted from 7 July 1937 to 9 September 1945 – killed 15-20 million people in China. This was the time of the infamous Nanking Massacre, when 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese were killed and tortured by some of the most barbaric and inhumane methods inflicted upon them by the Japanese soldiers.
Chen, who also went by pen names Lin Mei and Qing Yu, wrote the music and lyrics to the song. This native of Shanghai was one of the most accomplished songwriters and composers at the time, who’d penned other famous popular songs like Shanghai Nights and Rose, Rose I Love You.
Chen himself was jailed by the Imperial Japanese Army, and was reportedly subject to torture during his imprisonment for writing patriotic songs during the war.
The association with CNY
The song became associated with Chinese New Year because of two things: its title (Gong Xi Gong Xi) which is a common Chinese New Year greeting, and the lyrics that celebrates the arrival of spring, which is the New Year in Chinese.
“After so much difficulty, experiencing so much discipline
How many hearts are looking forward
To the news of spring?”
This song has been ingrained in our culture as part of Chinese New Year celebrations since the 1950s, so the next time you hear the song, think of where it originated.