When the Chinese colonel and I sang a duet together in London recently I was taken back to balmy days in the Boy Scouts, when there was an England. Then we sang songs which reinforced a clear idea of who we were and how distinct are our values; just like the Chinese soldiers today. We did not need to wait for the occasional royal wedding or funeral to remember who we were.
The songs the 20 Chinese officers sing include pop songs and folk songs and patriotic songs. They have a repertoire which, I have discovered, is shared by many Chinese, students or officials or housewives or pensioners, started on at primary school and then enriched at a hundred dinner parties and outings. Although few of the songs are nationalistic, in fact most are love songs, the singers’ whole demeanor exudes confidence and pride in their country. And why not? Not only do they come from the world’s most ancient surviving civilization, with innumerable contributions to humanity to its credit, but they have, after 200 years of struggle, fused the essence of Chineseness with the technologies of modernity and created the entity which looks as if it may dominate the world, and that quite soon. In the course of this endeavour, Chinese attitudes to and perceptions of the world have changed as fast as the skyscrapers have gone up. Have ours?
I don’t know, but what I do know is that singing matters and that we have just as much right to be confident and proud of our country as they. Former Secretary of State Michael Forsyth, when he led the Scottish Young Conservatives (yes, there were some once; I was President of one very active unit) published a song book. But today, hardly any Brits can sing for fun. I know. I host a great many parties at which Chinese sing and Brits droop. That surely must reduce their social lives, their joy and their sense of belonging. Mr Malone is brilliant to have galvanised those forces’ wives to sing – but why was it necessary? Why is singing part of everyone’s daily happiness in China but not here?