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Children's choir from remote mountainous area lights up National Stadium
Olympic Anthem sung by 44 Chinese children—in Greek
By Tao Zihui  ·  2022-02-12  ·   Source: NO.7 FEBRUARY 17, 2022
The Malanhua Children's Choir sings the Olympic Anthem in Greek at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on February 4 (XINHUA)

You could hear a pin drop as more than 50,000 people at Beijing's National Stadium awaited with bated breath this very moment: the Olympic Anthem—Greek edition—sung by 44 Chinese children.

Most of the kids, aged 6 to 12, had no previous experience performing on stage, let alone live, and had first learned about the score some four months earlier. After more than 110 days of absorbing the music and learning the Greek lyrics from zero, the songsters made their way onto the stage of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

All young performers hailed from the Malanhua Children's Choir of Fuping County, hidden deep in the Taihang Mountains of Hebei Province in north China.

Inviting mountain kids for a song was chief director of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing 2022 Games Zhang Yimou's idea for the Olympic Anthem. "When we first heard them sing and watched them performing, we were all moved. The voices of kids are very pure and powerful," the world renowned movie director told Xinhua News Agency. "They represent the new era." 

A way with words 

The hymn known as the Olympic Anthem was composed by Greek opera composer Spyridon Samaras (1861-1917) and features an original libretto by Greek poet Kostis Palamas (1859-1943). The pair was commissioned to write the hymn for the first Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. As per the 1958 decision of the International Olympic Committee, it was to be performed at the opening ceremony of every Olympic Games starting in 1960.

At Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020, the hymn's performers were all famous singers; Beijing's choice to travel the unbeaten path and raise the Olympic flag to the vocals of mountain children did not come without obstacles. From breathing exercises to voice coaching and musical notation lessons, teachers started from scratch and taught kids with great patience.

To sustain the children's passion for music, they sampled many methods. Sentences with multiple melodic variations would be taught one by one through games, allowing the kids to sing their hearts out—and making sure not to ruin their enthusiasm.

Given the Greek lyrics, last but not least came the matter of accurate pronunciation. To help the new singers quickly pronounce native Greek, Qin Yezhen, a Greek teacher from Beijing Foreign Studies University, traveled to Fuping together with his assistant Lin Jiahao.

"The complete singing and training process had to be based on learning the Greek lyrics," Lin told Beijing Review. Different from other European languages, Greek features a unique alphabet. "It's an old and rather niche language especially for foreigners," he said. By using English spelling and pinyin, the standard Chinese system of romanized spelling for transliterating and pronouncing Chinese, Lin helped the kids learn and memorize the lyrics as well as understand their meaning.

"They may not realize it now, but in their future education, they may likely encounter some content they've already learned about through the Olympic Anthem, namely in the beautiful wording and its connotations," Lin added.

"Not every athlete will become an Olympic champion, but everyone who strives for something higher deserves respect," Lin told his students. He wanted the kids to experience the true Olympic spirit, "one of mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity and fair competition," he said.

Breaking barriers 

Some 3,000 people from across society were invited to partake in the performances at the opening ceremony, which featured no celebrities or professional performers.

When asked if he felt nervous to sing the Olympic Anthem with the eyes of the world upon them, 11-year-old choir member Di Junbo, who only started learning music in October 2021, replied he was not afraid to show off his vocal talents, adding the lyrics hadn't been that hard to master.

Di thinks the lyrics can be summed up in one sentence: "The ancient spirit is immortal." "It may be very difficult at first, but the more you say it, the easier it becomes. Also, some Greek sounds are somewhat similar to those in Chinese...," he said with a hint of innocent yet studied understatement.

The county was once on China's list of key poverty-stricken counties in need of aid. The past nine years have seen a complete overhaul of the rural landscape. Nationwide, more than 9.6 million people living in extreme deprivation have been relocated from uninhabitable areas. More than 100,000 countryside schools have been renovated or rebuilt, providing tens of thousands of rural children with a chance to carve out an alternative future. Fuping, too, shed the shackles of poverty in late 2020.

"We all know that absolute poverty has been eliminated in China. Children living in the country's mountainous areas are no longer who they used to be," said Zhang Yimou, "It's great that they can stand on the Olympic stage and sing the Olympic Anthem to their heart's content. This really speaks volumes for all we have achieved [in fighting poverty]."

Zhangjiakou in Hebei and Beijing are co-hosting the Beijing 2022 Games. Children born in the host's most rugged areas singing the Olympic Anthem proved an all-inclusive novelty, never before seen or heard. Their stage outfits personified the Chinese Year of the Tiger, roaring with a vibrant sense of culture and tradition.

That feeling of grassroots and sincerity is just what people needed, providing the opening ceremony with a unique undercurrent, Zhang Hongyu, Dean of the School of Music and Dance at Baoding University, said. "We sing the Olympic Anthem to express our inner world. We used the simplicity of the kids' vocals, the voice of innocence, to express our love for the Olympics."

Moving mountains 

Yang Rong, one of the directors of the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Games, spent a lot of time online to find the right "fit" for the hymn, with some of the children well equipped to stretch their vocal chords. Malanhua, or malan, is the nickname of the Iris Lactea Pall in Chinese, a plant that is often seen in mountainous areas like Fuping.

Twenty years ago, the county was a place not hitting the high notes of any kind, and certainly had no music class within earshot. Not in her wildest dreams would Deng Xiaolan, a music teacher at Malan Primary school, have expected that one day, fate would bring them all into the global spotlight.

Deng has been guiding a group of children to sing all year round. She was born there and came back from Beijing to teach singing at the school. In 2006, together with her husband, Deng formed the first small band in Malan Village, and together they created the Children's Music Festival here after her retirement that year.

"Never had we done music at this level before. Together we learned how to read music notes, sang the score one line at a time, inserted the words, and then… Burst into full song," she said. "Our kids didn't miss a single beat."

(Print Edition Title: Choir Practice Makes Perfect) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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