Triple Threat of Han Hong (韩红)

Han Hong, a mixed Han and Tibetan Chinese singer, is one of the most renowned female artists in China, winning multiple “Best Female Artist” awards throughout her career. Not only does she have a powerful, beautiful voice and an incredible range, but Hong also sings about Tibetan culture and incorporates her ethnic minority timbre into the contemporary popular musical style, bridging a cultural gap between her Han and Tibetan cultures. Han Hong, despite critics of her outer appearance being too masculine and inconsistent with the sound of her voice, always brings her audience to tears and to their feet. I will be closely observing her “Heavenly Road” music video in which she visually presents Tibetan culture with clips of her visiting Tibet, the natural beauty of her birthplace, and the building of a monumental railroad. She also extends the topics of her songs to more than just cultural traditions and discusses heartbreaking social issues that are in line with her philanthropic endeavors. “Daybreak” is written in the perspective of an orphan who just lost his parents; these her songs are in line with Hong’s own philanthropic contributions. Hong has once said in an interview that her reason for participating in singing competition shows is to finally earn a living for herself and her family because she has donated the rest of her earnings to charity. She is unbelievably generous, active in philanthropies helping the elder, the sick, and the youth. Hong’s songs, style of performance, and even style of dress are proud proclamations of her extraordinary talent as well as her identities; in all fields that she excels in-music, philanthropy, and expression of identity-Han Hong breaks incredible boundaries.

Biography

Han Hong in her military uniform

Han Hong, 韩红, or as known by her Tibetan name, Yangchen Drolma, is a popular Chinese singer and songwriter of mixed Tibetan and Han ethnicity. She was born in Chamdo City in the eastern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China on September 26th, 1971. Han’s mother was a native Tibetan singer, and her father was a Han Chinese rusticated youth who was sent to Tibet during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Han began her music career at the early age of five when she joined a children’s choir, and in 1980, at the age of 9, she began formal vocal training in another children’s choir. She joined the People’s Liberation Army second artillery corps command performance group in 1987 and she was admitted to the music department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army College in 1995. By this time, Han Hong was already composing music and began receiving recognition in the music industry especially in the Beijing music scene. 

Han Hong in 1999 with her son “Han Houhou”

A major development in her life was the adoption of her son, in 1999. In October of 1999, a tragedy occurred at the Maling National Park in Guizhou; the cable cars that delivered visitors up and down the mountains collapsed, causing many people trapped inside the cars. This accident resulted in the deaths fo 14 people and wounded 22 others. Among these victims were the couple Pan Tianqi and He Yanwen, who saved their two-and-a-half-year-old son’s life by lifting him out of the falling cable car and to safety. The story of the couple’s bravery and sacrifice was soon heard by singer Han Hong, who became deeply moved and related this to her own experience of losing her father at the age of six. She decided to write a song to commemorate the couple’s sacrifice for their child, but in order to do that, she wanted to experience the feeling of riding in a cable car, and she did exactly that. While going up and down the normally functioning cable car, she felt the fear and helplessness of the people who were trapped, of the parents’ last hope to help their son survive, and of the love that Pan and He had for their child. Her song about the accident, “Daybreak,” debuted at the CCTV’s March 15th celebration in 2000. Most importantly, Han Hong’s empathy for the child and his parents motivated her to adopt him as her own son. Throughout her life, Han Hong has continued to support many orphans, many of whom call her “Mama.”

Han Hong attending the 71st Tony Awards

Han Hong’s musical career rose to prominence in the 2000s. She was awarded best female artist at the CCTV-MTV awards in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2012. Not to mention her other accolades for individual singles and collaborations with singers like Sun Nan on the song “Beautiful Myth.” In 2015, Han participated in the third season of the popular singing competition variety show, “I Am a Singer,” claiming the first place position, and once again demonstrating her dominance in the Chinese music industry. She also began learning musical composition, and composed her own musical, “A Moment of Remembrance,” in 2016. She was later invited as a composer to attend the 71st Tony Awards, marking a first for an Asian Composer.

It is surprising then, to find out that music not what Han dedicates most of her time doing. She has set a personal goal to use 50% of her time contributing to charity and philanthropy, 30% for her work in the People’s Liberation Army, and the 20% for her own personal life. Many of her charity efforts are dedicated to helping children and the elderly in China; this, she attributes to her own past having been dependent on her grandmother since she was nine years old. In an interview, she has said that by helping children today, it is as if she is healing her own past and stitching up the scars from her childhood. Han’s philanthropy comes from the goodness and the bottom of her heart, wishing to provide children and elders of China a better life, a life that she could not have.

Tibetan Themes and Culture

“I purposefully didn’t choose Tibetan songs to sing on ‘I Am a Singer’ because I don’t want an easy victory. Tibetan songs are my power cards, my master weapons, because it’s in my bones.”

Han Hong on singing Tibetan songs on ‘I Am a Singer’

Han Hong’s musical style is known for incorporating elements of Tibetan culture and style of singing with popular music. One of her most well-known songs, “Heavenly Road,” demonstrates her roots as a Tibetan ethnic minority in its lyrics and singing style. The song is written from the perspective of a Tibetan person, standing atop a mountain, looking out see the magnificent railroad connecting Tibet to the rest of mainland China being built. This song is not what scholars might call “original ecology music,” which refers to the “original folk music which gradually forms in the fixed geographical environmental customs in life after long-term accumulation,” but it is a proclamation of identity and culture for Han Hong. Much of her music, unlike this song, only contain elements of Tibetan culture in the timbre and quality of her voice, but this song’s lyrics specifically refers to different aspects of Tibetan culture such as the sweetness of “Chhaang” or “青稞酒,” which is a sweet alcoholic drink that many Tibetans consume on celebratory occasions like weddings or the birth of a child. She describes the railroad as dragons running through the mountainous ranges, bringing safety and fortune to the land. She takes pride in the beauty of the land that she was born in, but at the same time boasts the Chinese government’s efforts to connect Tibet with the rest of China. Here, her dual-identity as Han and Tibetan ethnicities are shown as well as her loyalty to her country as a leader of the People’s Liberation Army Performance Troupes.

“Heavenly Road” Music Video: 0:36 (Tibetan customs), 2:15 (Han Hong dances with locals)

When examining the music video for “Heavenly Road,” one would find that although Han Hong dances among the ethnic minorities, she herself is not dressed in the traditional attire as they are (2:15). She simply immerses herself in their customs, singing and dancing alongside them; unlike what Wang claims is “fake ecology music,” such as the folk song “Singing Folk Songs Each Year in Spring from Napo County in Folk Song Festival,” “Heavenly Road” does not put on a guise of pretending to be a traditional Tibetan song because Han Hong knows that it is not. Nor does she use the Tibetan language in her song to add “authenticity” to the performance. Han Hong’s music is a perfect representation of her dual identity as a Han and Tibetan Chinese, incorporating singing styles and pride of both ethnicities.

Philanthropy and Life Experiences

As previously discussed, Han Hong would not be who she is without her charity work. Largely influenced by her own life experiences being separated from her mother and seeing the passing of her father at a young age, Han Hong’s activism in advocating for children’s relief funds has shaped her life and her music. In an interview, she describes the fear she felt as a child, riding on a train for three days from Chengdu to Beijing to leave her mother and to live with her grandmother. She was alone for this journey. Her mom packed her clothes and a few boxes of crackers for the road, and Han Hong, at the age of nine, was left to fend for herself. As the trains passed through caves within the mountains, young Han hid behind train curtains because she was afraid that there were ghosts in the caves, and especially the ghost of her father, that would haunt her. To this day, she cannot ride trains that go through caves without blindfolding herself away from the visuals that would trigger her childhood trauma (YouTube interview). When she arrived in Beijing, she and her grandmother depended on each other for years until her grandmother passed away. Even to this day, Han still visits her grandmother’s old house on Chinese New Year’s Eve to spend time with her in spirit, and she even refuses to renovate the house in the belief that if she did, her grandmother would not recognize it and would not return to celebrate the New Year. Han Hong’s love for her grandmother is founded in the care and nurture that she provided for Han in a time when Han felt like she had no one to protect her. 

To give back to her grandmother and to help children in need like herself, Han Hong’s charity initiatives revolve around helping the elderly and the youth. Starting in 2003 at the Women’s Global Leadership Summit held in Hawaii, USA, Han worked to raise money for Tibetan children’s education and health. At the summit, addressed issues of education and cultural development in Tibet and performed a Tibetan song to advocate for her cause. In 2004, she performed at a charity concert called “Love in the Hope of the World” organized by the Youth League Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In efforts to aid those impacted by the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquakes, she launched the Han Hon Charity Quake-Relief Initiative to fundraise, and she even went to Sichuan in person to participate in aid activities. In 2016, Han Hong claimed the number one spot on China’s philanthropic celebrity list. Han Hong has donated her personal earnings and savings to charity to support the causes that she believes in, and has even said that she doesn’t have much left for herself and that is why she participates in all the variety shows that audiences are familiar with. What sets Han Hong apart from other celebrity philanthropists is her personal connection to the people she helps. Unlike some stars in China, whose charity work is tied to controversies and false advertising, Han Hong actually dedicates her life and her work to helping others (Jeffreys). Being a part of the PLA also adds to the list of reasons why Han Hong does so much charity work for her country.

Han Hong performing “Daybreak”

Han Hong’s ability to connect with the people she fundraises for is also reflected in her music. She is able to relate and empathize with the subjects of her songs and use those emotions to compose lyrics and melodies that move the masses. Take the song “Daybreak,” for example, the song was written to commemorate the couple who lifted their son out of the falling cable care in 1999, and although Han Hong never herself experienced the horrors of being in an accident as the one the song was written about, she is able to evoke the emotions of those who experienced it. The lyrics write, “I saw my mum and dad just go away like this; leaving me in this world of strangers; not knowing whether the future will hold any hazards,” Han Hong is able to use her own experience being separated from her parents at a young age to empathize with what the little boy must have felt during the accident, and she composes lyrics of such vividness and emotionality that they always bring the audience to tears. In her very first episode of the singing competition, “I Am a Singer,” Han debuts by singing “Daybreak,” and everyone who hears her angelic and delicate voice breaks into tears. The camera cuts back and forth between Han Hong singing and the audience members wiping their tears, demonstrating the emotional effects the song had on people listening (2:30). It isn’t just her powerful voice and stage presence that brings listeners to their feet, but also the touching lyrics and beautifully moving emotions of Han Hong’s voice that makes the performance so incredible. Han Hong’s personal life experiences not only fuel her drive to give back to charity but also immensely influence her musical performances and creations.

“Daybreak” on “I Am a Singer”

Controversial Fashion & Appearance

Thumbnail image of YouTube video comparing the vocal abilities of Jennifer Hudson, Han Hong, and Whitney Houston

Last but not least, the last “threat” of the incredible Han Hong, is her appearance that defies all stereotypes about what a female artist should look like in order to be successful in the entertainment industry. Han has never stated anything about her way of dress aside from, “That’s just the way I am. Take it or leave it,” but her iconic suits and sunglasses are defining features of how she presents herself to the public. She has, though, jokingly stated in an interview that she wishes “she wasn’t so fat because it doesn’t look good in a military uniform” (YouTube Interview). The two performances analyzed, the music video of “Heavenly Road” and the live version of “Daybreak,” perfectly capture Han’s style of dress: in formal performances, she opts for suits, in casual events, she goes for comfortable tracksuits (which is a suit nonetheless). In China’s conservative society, it is with no surprise that many people have critiqued Han solely for her masculine way of dress. However, Han can be seen as China’s new group of “zhongxing” popstars who utilize their androgynous appearances to their advantage. “In the new Millenium, zhongxing has become widely circulated,” writes Li in the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture. Han does not exactly fit into the definitions of “queer stardom” nor “neutral gender” as the article defines them to be, but her masculine clothing choices have broken a stereotype of what female stars should and have to look like. In a YouTube video that compares the vocal abilities of Jennifer Hudson, Han Hong, and Whitney Houston, the images of the two American singers are quite starkly different from that of Han. Houston and Hudson both have slim, feminine figures, and they are also considered by many to be among the most attractive women in the world. Han Hong, on the other hand, is photographed in a black and white suit, a traditionally masculine form of dress. In a battle of vocal talents, Han stands out against the two singers both because of her vocal ability and folk timbre and because of her appearance. Despite not fitting into the gender and societal normals for a female pop star, Han Hong music career continues to prosper and her reputation as an A-list pop singer only strengthens.

Conclusion

In summary, the combination of Han Hong’s Tibetan and Han ethnic identities, her life experiences and charity work, and her undeniable expression way of dress, has culminated in a triple threat of the most successful female singer in all of China.

Bibliography

Baranovitch, Nimrod. “Ecological Degradation and Endangered Ethnicities: China’s Minority Environmental Discourses as Manifested in Popular Songs.” The Journal of Asian Studies 75, no. 1 (2016): 181–205. doi:10.1017/S0021911815001576.

Elaine Jeffreys (2015) Celebrity Philanthropy in Mainland China, Asian Studies Review, 39:4, 571-588, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2015.1081871

Francesca R. Sborgi Lawson. “Music in Ritual and Ritual in Music: A Virtual Viewer’s Perceptions about Liminality, Functionality, and Mediatization in the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.” Essay. Asian Music 42, no. 2 (1/7/2011): 3–18.

Li, Eva Cheuk-yin. “Approaching Transnational Chinese Queer Stardom as Zhongxing (‘Neutral Sex/Gender’) Sensibility.” Articles. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 1, no. 1 (1/4/2015): 75–95. doi:10.1386/eapc.1.1.75_1.

Moskowitz, Marc L. “China’s Mandopop Roots and Taiwan’s Gendered Counter-Invasion of the PRC.” In Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow, 16–29. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017. doi:10.21313/9780824837655-004.

Music and cultural rights / edited by Andrew N. Weintraub and Bell Yung. Representing Tibet in the Global Cultural Market: The Case of Chinese-Tibetan Musician Han Hong

Street, John. “Music and Cultural Rights. Edited by Andrew N. Weintraub and Bell Yung. Chicago and Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. 313 Pp. ISBN: 978-0-252-07662-6 – Popular Music and Human Rights Volume I: British and American Music. Edited by Ian Peddie. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 206 Pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6852-7 – Popular Music and Human Rights Volume II: World Music. Edited by Ian Peddie. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 200 Pp. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6853-7.” Popular Music 32, no. 1 (1/2013): 145–48. doi:10.1017/S0261143012000712.