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Nie Er and the National Anthem of China


Nie Er or Ehr (February 14, 1912 –July 17, 1935) was a Chinese composer best known for March of the Volunteers, the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, who in numerous Shanghai magazines went by the English name George Njal. Nie Er’s ancestors were from Yuxi, Yunnan, in southwest China. He was born Nie Shouxin on February 14, 1912, in Kunming, Yunnan.  This is a Chinese name; the family name is Nie. When Shouxin was young he showed signs of musical talent. He was able to imitate the voices of people he knew, and almost any sound that entered his ears. Thus, people began to call him “Ears” (Er).  Other than having well trained ears, Shouxin was also able to move each one of his ears, independent from the other. This earned him another nickname, “Doctor Ears.” Shouxin felt that his nickname was interesting and said that “Since friends give me one more ears, I will have one more ears from now on.”  Later on, he changed his name to be Nie Er.

From an early age Nie Er displayed an interest in music. From 1918 he studied at the Kunming Normal School’s Affiliated Primary School. In his spare time, he learned to play traditional instruments such as the dizi, erhu, sanxian, and yueqin, and became the conductor of the school’s Children’s Orchestra. In 1922 he entered the Private Qiushi Primary School (Senior Section), and in 1925 entered Yunnan Provincial Number One Combined Middle School.  Graduating from there in 1927, he entered Yunnan Provincial Number One Normal School. At school, he participated in the Book Club, and organized the “Nine-Nine Music Society,” which performed within the school and outside. During this time, he learned to play the violin and the piano.

In June 1931, Nie Er entered the “Mingyue Musical Drama Society” as a violinist. In July 1932 he published A Short Treatise on Chinese Song and Dance, in which he criticized the Drama Society’s president, Li Jinhui, as a result of which he was forced to leave the society. Prior to joining the Lianhua Film Studio on November 1932, he took part in shaping the Bright Moonlight Song and Dance Troupe. He later joined the musical group of the “Friends of the Soviet Union Society.”  He also organized the “Chinese Contemporary Music Research Group,” which participated in the Leftist Dramatist’s Union. In 1933, Nie Er joined the Communist Party of China.  In April 1934, Nie Er joined the Pathé Records and managed the musical section. In the same year he founded the Pathé National Orchestra. This was a prolific year for Nie Er in terms of musical output. In January 1935 Nie Er became the director of the musical department of Lianhua Number Two Studio.

Nie Er wrote a total of 37 pieces in his life, all in the two years before his death. A significant proportion of these songs reflected working class life and struggles. He often collaborated with lyricist Tian Han.  In April 1935, Nie Er went to Japan to meet his elder brother in Tokyo. There, he composed the March of the Volunteers, which would later become the national anthem of China.  On July 17, 1935, he died while swimming in Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan, at the age of twenty-three. He may have been en route to the Soviet Union, passing through Japan to receive training, sent by the Chinese Communist Party. Some suspect that he was killed by the Japanese, while others believe that he was killed by Chinese Nationalists, as he was in Japan to flee from them. However, he disappeared while swimming with friends, thus making the possibility of assassination difficult and highly unlikely. Evidence points that drowning as the most probable cause of death. He was found by the local rescue team the following day. According to the rescue team and the police, his body was not different from that of ordinary drowned bodies.

My collection includes the following works by Nie Er:

Ch’i Lai! (March of the Volunteers).


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