Tibetan "Red Songs" Series, Part 1: "Laundry Song"

1975 Performance of “Laundry Song” in Beijing

High Peaks Pure Earth has noticed a plethora of recent stories in the media focusing on the upcoming 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1st. This year also marks another anniversary, 60 years since China “liberated” Tibet. China is gearing up for huge celebrations and, in the usual way, has deemed it sensitive enough a time to close Tibet to foreign travellers completely.

Many of the media articles have highlighted a revival of “Red Culture” in China, with a particular spotlight on the city of Chongqing where the Party Secretary Bo Xilai launched a “Red Songs” campaign earlier this year. This informative piece in the mainland newspaper Southern Weekend and translated by the China Media Project tells us that:

Red songs are “red” [popular] once again. As for existing red songs, a program called “90 Years of Red Songs” will be aired on China Central Television Channel One before and around the 90th anniversary of the Party; as for newly-created red songs, 36 “Singing China” songs gathered, selected and produced over the past year or more have been rolled out on major television and radio stations across the country since May.

All this has us here at High Peaks Pure Earth thinking about Tibetan “Red Songs”, it’s highly likely that CCTV’s programme “90 Years of Red Songs” will feature some singing, dancing Tibetans and “ethnic minorities”. It goes without saying that Tibetan “Red Songs” will feature in the 60th anniversary celebrations in Lhasa next month. Whilst we here at High Peaks Pure Earth have focused on what kinds of songs the Chinese government definitely doesn’t like, what are the songs that the CCP does like?

The fact is that Tibetan “Red Songs” have been around for a while, High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a song from 1964 called “Laundry Song” (Chinese title: 洗衣歌 Xiyi Ge, Tibetan title: གོས་འཁྲུའི་གཞས། gos ‘khru’i gzhas) that is still being covered, performed and can be regularly heard at official occasions and gatherings. “Laundry Song” was first performed on stage in Beijing in 1964, here is an historical clip of the performance as discovered on a CCTV TV clip:

"Laundry Song" Original 1964 Performance, Beijing from High Peaks Pure Earth on Vimeo.

The song tells the familiar Socialist narrative of the army and the people being one. For the Sino-Tibetan relationship though, the song puts the Tibetans firmly in a position of subservience, as natives, full of gratitude for the help of the benevolent People’s Liberation Army. The trope of washing clothes fits in also with the Socialist pre-occupation with Patriotic Hygiene where “observing hygienic rules came to be seen as patriotic“.

Many Tibetans of a certain generation will all have grown up with “Laundry Song”, particularly as sung by Tseten Drolma in the 1960s. As Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy says in her essay “Women in the Performing Arts”, published in “Women in Tibet”:

“Everyone in Tibet knows the name Tseten Drolma […] She started by singing all the revolutionary songs of the 1960s and she symbolises the Tibetan commitment to the Party.”

As this LA Times article points out, people who take part in this Red Culture revival may not even be enthusiasts so why do Tibetans sing and perform these songs? In his article “Tibet and China: The Past in the Present”, Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya writes:

“[…] in an authoritarian regime, the failure of a client administration leaves performance as one of the few options available. It is natural then that authoritarian regimes have a love of public displays of spectacle, engineered to perfection, in which the people are required to perform ceremonial displays of contentment.”

This kind of performance and spectacle is illustrated in an anecdote from the 1960s in Lhasa when the propaganda film “Serf” is shown to locals:

“The film, meant to arouse indignation amongst the people against the Tibetan elite’s class oppression, is still seen in China as a powerful depiction of the Tibetan social system. But when it was shown in Lhasa, nobody watched it with quite those sentiments. […] This didn’t affect the performance of sentiment. Everyone in Tibet was supposed to watch the film and cry; in those days if you did not cry, you risked being accused of harbouring sympathy with the feudal landlords. So my mother and her friends would put tiger-balm under their eyes to make them water.”

High Peaks Pure Earth presents two modern versions of “Laundry Song”, this first video is a good example of spectacle and performance but an interesting twist is that the singer is Han Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, married to Xi Jinping, tipped to take over from Hu Jintao next year. According to Wikipedia, “Peng Liyuan is a civilian member of China’s People’s Liberation Army and currently holds the civilian rank comparable to that of a major general” so it makes sense she would be performing this song at a special gala to mark August 1, the memorial day for the foundation of People’s Liberation Army:

“Laundry Song” Performed by Peng Liyuan from High Peaks Pure Earth on Vimeo.

Almost every mainstream Tibetan female singer has performed a version of “Laundry Song” at some point in her career, this link will take you to Han Hong’s version and this link is a live performance by Tibetan girl band Halama. The gender aspect has not been explored it seems, although there are supposedly versions of “Laundry Song” performed by male singers, High Peaks Pure Earth was unable to find any video evidence of this!

The second version High Peaks Pure Earth presents is performed by Tibetan singer Sonam Wangmo and her cover of “Laundry Song” was included on her 2005 album “Natural Born Song”. Sonam Wangmo also has a military connection, she is a singer with the Song and Dance Troupe of the General Political Department of the PLA. This animated video and funky remix brings the 1964 straight to the modern age, except the lyrics of course!

“Laundry Song” By Sonam Wangmo from High Peaks Pure Earth on Vimeo.
Finally, here are the translated song lyrics:

“Laundry Song” (1964)
Who is going to help us turn over a new leaf?
Who is going to liberate us?
It’s the dear PLA
The saving star of the Communist Party
The army and people are one family
Helping us to wash our clothes
Who is going to help us to fix the roads?
Who is going to help us to build bridges?
It’s the dear PLA
The saving star of the Communist Party
The army and people are one family
Helping us to wash our clothes
Who is going to help us harvest barley?
Who is going to help us build new houses?
It’s the dear PLA
The saving star of the Communist Party
The army is our family
Helping us to wash our clothes
Our lives have changed!
Our happiness knows no boundaries
Thank you, dear PLA
Thank you, life-saving Communist Party
The army is our family
Helping us to wash our clothes
*This is the first in an occasional series looking at Chinese propaganda songs specifically about Tibet. Should readers have any favourite songs they wish to let us know about, do drop us a line either as a comment or email us on hp****@hi****************.com

Recommended Further Reading and Viewing:


  1. I continue to be fascinated by the switch from your first image – where a PLA soldier clearly is actually helping wash clothes, or at least doing the heavy lifting – and the second video where animated (faceless) tibetan maids take the PLA soldiers' uniforms and wash them for them.

    I think there's a really strong gendered representation of cultural otherness going on here, and I instinctively feel that the fact that it's women singing it makes it easier to substitute predominantly Han Chinese singers/dancers in elaborate costumes for actual Tibetan performers. This is just a hunch, but it'd be interesting to follow it up – the feminine Other easily slips into being the cultural Other, both bringing with them as they do implicit inferiority.

    But it's also interesting how easily the masculine China/PLA soldier and feminine Tibet/laundry maid fulfils romanticised salvation/domestic harmony narratives on the one hand, and yet could so easily be reinterpreted within a rape narrative on the other. Is that why there's an attempt at brotherliness in the representation of the PLA?

    I am rambling, but I think there's something there worth looking at.

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