Chen Yiaolang is a Chinese singer and songwriter who rose to fame in the mid sixties as a solo performer on the state-sponsored NPN radio networks. Though most of his career was solo he later experienced a metamorphosis of style in the early 70's following the North American Airlift where he met Harvey Edwards and kicked off a ten-year on-and-off relationship.
Yiaolang was born in Shandong province during the height of the Japanese invasion where he lived in poverty and as he put it: "considerable fear". He and his parents fled south in the fifties to evade Japanese oppression, only to be moved again shortly afterwards when the CPC moved eastwards to re-engage the Kuomintang and Japanese forces. When war was settled his family resettled in Shandong when he was sixteen.
The majority of his later teen years was spent re-acclimating to his changed homeland. During which time he discovered music as a method to re adapt and to deal with the lasting effects of war. He lived in relative obscurity working menial factory jobs until approaching the NPN for a music audition on a whim, beginning a career in music in 1966.
As of current though, Yiaolang has left the state-supported media world which had built up his popular image and crafted him enormous popular support. Though he still writes music it's rarely ever played on mainstream public radio. His earlier songs still persist.
Yiaolang was born as the youngest of five brothers and sisters in Qingdao, Shandong in the year 1943. Born into the height of Japanese coastal occupation his early life was considerably rough and he lost his two sisters in 1948. In 1949 his parents - his father a sheet metal fabricator - picked up everything they could carry and ushered them south into Nationalist China by foot.
In Southern China his family drifted seeking refuge, rarely staying in the same town twice as they evaded chaos along the coast and looked for economic opportunity. They lived largely destitute, eating the soles of their shoes at times or "hunting rats" as he later said. His mother passed away from pneumonia in 1957.
When peace was declared across the country by the new NPC regime in Beijing the family returned north to Shandong to attempt to piece together their life. Yiaolang's father quickly found work in the state-owned factories and his brothers went to work the railways. Yiaoliang stayed at home with his father running errand jobs until he turned eighteen.
During his return to Shandong, Yiaoliang discovered and met a band of veteran People's Volunteer bandsmen who taught him to play music. Over the next four years he played casually with them, learning Russian guitar and the traditional Pipa. On encouragement from the group he approached the local NPN radio offices in July of 1965 who were looking for new voices for the radio. Impressed with his voice and his young skill they offered to hire him on to sing and play patriotic ballads. Over the next couple years his skills improved and he began working on a unique style, releasing a solo album on September 5, 1967.
Yiaoliang adapted for himself heavy Daoist themes for his music, pulling on natural themes to relate into humanity and on encouragement from the state to conduct pieces of national importance. He was largely restrained for seriously adapting his music to heavy religious themes as they feared he would, though he never claimed to want to go that way. In interviews he claimed his parents were considerable Daoists, and their philosophy rubbed off on him. "More so," he claims, "after the war ended. I needed to find some sort of peace. Something other than music."
Yiaoliang's ballads won him considerable interest in his fellow post-war youth and the children growing out of the war and having to recover. In a time of rebuilding and famine the NPN used him - and he allowed him to be - a beacon to feed a population that was starving for some light. His music "became a therapy to myself as much as The People" he later said.
From his first album Water he had long-reaching success through the late sixties and even into the seventies, enjoying considerable state support and acceptance.
The North American Airlift was called by the Chinese congress as an act of humanitarian aid to the US and as a imaging move to show the nation in a compassionate light in the political world. To the Beijing politics it was hoped the move would win some popular support abroad and help shed the image of the mysterious shadowy dragon in the east, and that they were a government that was bent to the people.
However to Yiaoliang it was a moment of great opportunity. Since he was young he was curious about the music of the Americans having occasionally heard it outside of bars where foreign fighters for the Kuomintang drank. Though post-war the ability to find foreign music - let alone American - was difficult, even for someone as powerful as he in the emerging culture world in China. But using his power he was able to gain access to the refugee camps the Chinese government set up in Taiwan and the nearby islands to visit and study the musical forms of the Americans for the better part of their stay.
There he met Harvey Edwards, a African-American expat originally from the south. By teaching him delta-blues and jazz Harvey and Yiaoliang forged a professional relationship. Between the two they recorded an album there in the camp and Yiaoliang offered him a roll in his backup band. Edwards accepted and on encouragement applied for Chinese residency, along with others to live and work in China.
The relationship with Harvey marked a distinct change in Yiaoliang's style of playing. Although the content of his songs remained mostly unchanged, the delivery evolved from the traditional folk style the state had grown accompanied to.
Conflict with the NPN Edit
Following his recruitment of and training under Harvey Edwards, Yiaoliang's sound took a sharp change from the sharp tonal music long practiced in China to a mellowed out, electrical buzz propagated by the American. Though Yiaoliang's popularity among his followers remained as strong, his support in the state waned and they threatened to cut his contract.
Yiaoliang was ready to fight back and he mounted a counter-campaign that bubbled up into the Chairman's office. Frustrated with the NPN's handling of the situation Hou Sai Tang fired Wen Daowang. The new commisioner of the NPN, Zhou Shou took a much gentler stance on Yiaolang's music but could however not tolerate it on the national airwaves. He permitted Yiaolang to continue recording and to use NPN resources, but he would loose a great deal of their support and his new American-inspired music wouldn't be promoted by the radios except in certain circumstances.
Yiaolang publicly agreed to the new terms and returned to peace with the NPN, marking a potential shift in policy in the music offices.
Chen Yiaoliang moved to northern Jilin in the late sixties, claiming he liked the solitude up there for when he writes. He currently still lives there.
His music is played largely over the many smaller independent stations across China, focused primarily in urban areas where the growing liberal Chinese youth live and the short open-door policy to America in the mid-seventies brought to the port cities and their orbiting communities a short taste in what American culture is like, alongside Ethiopian culture; which adopted as much of the American jazz and blues traditions as Yiaoliang did in their role in the North American Airlift.