Challenges of the post-colonisation process in Hong Kong Schools

In search of balanced approaches to the learning and teaching of Putonghua songs

Authored by: Ti-Wei Chen

The Routledge Handbook to Sociology of Music Education

Print publication date:  March  2021
Online publication date:  March  2021

Print ISBN: 9781138586369
eBook ISBN: 9780429504631
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This chapter focuses on the challenges of sociocultural perspective in the teaching and learning of Putonghua songs as part of music curriculum at Hong Kong schools. Since the change of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong has been undergoing the process of post-colonisation. This chapter explores a study in which music teacher education students completed questionnaires and semi-guided interviews about their experiences of learning Putonghua songs during primary and secondary education. In the study, participants also discussed the Chinese national anthem, a unique Putonghua song that carries specific civic and political messages, on aspects of national and cultural identities, hegemony and resistance, cultural citizenship and values education, and self-censorship. While findings show that most participants expressed preference in learning, singing and listening to Putonghua popular songs, their perception towards the Chinese national anthem was the polar opposite. Many participants expressed a lack of singing of and interest in the Chinese national anthem while growing up. This was often accompanied by a lack of encouragement from family, teachers and peers, which further dampened their incentives in learning the Chinese national anthem. Based on these findings and supported by related sociological literatures, this chapter advocates a holistic approach to the teaching and learning of Putonghua songs in Hong Kong during post-colonisation. I argue that this may provide a student-oriented curriculum with a mixed mode of formal and informal music activities in order to arouse students’ critical thinking and interest, address and better communicate important civic messages, and encourage inclusiveness in music learning.

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Challenges of the post-colonisation process in Hong Kong Schools


Hong Kong is a melting pot of Chinese cultures and colonial influences. As such, it has always been an interesting hot spot in the sense of its geographical, historical, cultural and educational context, where the East meets the West with multicultural complexity in terms of values education, civic responsibility and national identity. Since the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997, the learning and teaching of Putonghua as the official language is expected to be an indispensable part of Hong Kong school curricula; but has that become a reality? The social movements in the recent decade, such as ‘Protests to National Education Programme’ (BBC News 2012), ‘Occupy Central’ (BBC News 2014a) and ‘Umbrella Revolution’ (BBC News 2014b) in response to the controversial policy proposal concerning national education have been overwhelming. Moreover, the continuous power struggle in politics, economy and social justice between Hong Kong and mainland China certainly raises many important questions concerning the perception and complexity of national identity issues among Hong Kong citizens. As significant, such undercurrent uncertainty and paradox inevitably have direct and indirect impact on local music educators’ pedagogical philosophy and behaviours as well as decision making in relation to curriculum design and teaching materials.

This chapter examines, highlights and unravels the current perception and impact of using Putonghua songs as part of the music curriculum through an analysis of surveys and interviews of undergraduate students studying music teacher education (N=218 for questionnaires; N=25 for interviews). Not only has this group of participants experienced school education locally in Hong Kong after the handover, but they were also taught and influenced by the newly implemented education and language policy implemented in 1997. Given their position as student teachers and culture administrators in training, their perceptions and viewpoints toward using Putonghua songs as teaching material are particularly noteworthy and important.

The findings and results of data analysis are discussed and examined based on aspects of linguistic, cultural and socio-political elements in Hong Kong society, together with scholarship in music education related to hegemony, resistance and self-censorship. In this chapter, I hope to unravel the circumstances and challenges of music educators and administrators at large in 21st century Hong Kong, where the role and use of Putonghua are essential as part of music curricula and curriculum design. This work takes into consideration a newly proposed pedagogical philosophy and strategy in line with cultural citizenship (Leung 2003a) and a collective insight of national identity in the context of Hong Kong education (Fairbrother 2003; Flowerdew 2012; Morris 1997) to incorporate Putonghua songs in order to embrace multiculturalism, nationalism, internationalism and values education, commonly agreed upon and recognized by Hong Kong society. Furthermore, the findings of this investigation are intended to document the process of post-colonisation (e.g. decolonisation, neocolonisation and recolonization) by embarking on this unique historical, social, political, economic and cultural change in Hong Kong education, and ultimately offer recommendations toward a balanced Putonghua music curriculum model for all stakeholders, including policy makers, school administrators, music educators, parents, students and youth in Hong Kong.

Post-colonisation: Decolonisation, neocolonisation and recolonisation

At this point, it is important to highlight the fundamental changes in Hong Kong which have been taking place since the handover in 1997, including those that are still very much in action. In the process of sovereignty transfer, the removal and replacement of policies and mechanisms in favour of the coloniser is an essential and common transformation in the historical, cultural, economic, political and social context (Law 1997b). Moreover, as stated by Law (1997a), during the post-colonial period there are three major types of sovereignty transfer: 1) decolonisation, such as in the case of Malaysia and South Korea where the former colonial identity was removed and restored to the pre-colonial identity (Haggard 1990); 2) neocolonisation, i.e. other foreign powers interfere with and manipulate the transition of political power from the former coloniser to the new government, for example the chaotic state in Brazil after independence (Raghavan 1990) and the use of English in Singapore despite the majority of the population being ethnic Chinese (Lim 1995); and 3) recolonisation, in which the colonial identity is replaced by the newly established political system, e.g. the change of official language in Taiwan from Japanese to Mandarin after the end of Japanese occupancy (Law 1996).

According to Law (1997a), there are already signs of decolonisation, neocolonisation and recolonisation in Hong Kong’s Higher Education institutions. I argue that the findings presented by this study demonstrate evidence of ‘recolonisation’ which has surfaced in Hong Kong schools prior to and since the handover in 1997. Examples of this include the disconnection between the youth and the Chinese national anthem; lack of affection and active participation during the flag raising ceremony; and the acceptance and general recognition of being unique Hong Kongese, as opposed to mainland Chinese. Furthermore, although the population that speaks Putonghua in Hong Kong has doubled since the change of sovereignty in 1997, speaking Putonghua among Hong Kong youth is almost a sign of taboo. This serves as a reluctant reality check that Hong Kong as a society is increasingly being forced to become more like their mainland Chinese counterpart (BBC News 2017a & 2017b). Although national identity is largely identified by the nationality of one’s passport, it is evident that Hong Kong people’s national identity towards mainland China remains extremely polarized. This is seen as people define their identities based on environmental upbringing to conform with those social groups with which they feel most comfortable, rather than have their identities decided by family origin or background, and certainly not dictated by the government (Leung and Lee 2006).

Prior to the signing of Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 regarding the future of Hong Kong, the topic of national identity was non-existent in curriculum. This was preferred by the then colonial government in order to maintain a status quo situation to cope with complex issues of citizenship in Hong Kong (Fairbrother 2003). In preparation for the handover, the colonial government in transition introduced education reforms in 1985 and 1996 that were geared toward the necessary changes in curriculum (Curriculum Development Council 1985; Curriculum Development Council 1995, 1996). It is commonly criticized that such political socialization was only a symbolic gesture and involved little significant impact to schools and the implemented curriculum (Cuban 1992, cited in Fairbrother 2003 and Morris 1997). Specifically, Law (1997b) pinpoints during this transitional colonial period between 1982 to 1997 the colonial transition processes, i.e. decolonisation, neocolonisation and recolonization progressively took place in Hong Kong where resistance and accommodation occur in between those processes in order to reach social consent of cultural and national identities among Hong Kong people, and the three major stakeholders participated in such complicated triangular conflicts are the incoming PRC government, the outgoing British government and local groups including teachers and students. After the sovereign change in 1997, resistance and tension grew as those social movements that developed from the grassroots level increased drastically by frequency and level of violence. Each social movement intensified until the Hong Kong people expressed their opinions towards the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (SAR) and People’s Republic of China (PRC) governments in the District Council Election of 2019 during which candidates of opposition secured an overwhelming victory across majority of districts in Hong Kong.

The use of Putonghua in Hong Kong

As indicated by Sweeting (1995), up to 97% of the population of Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese, though Chinese and English are both official languages. The diverse definition of Chinese as a spoken language can at times be confusing, as in Hong Kong, one can refer to spoken Chinese as Hong Kong Cantonese, Guangdong Cantonese, Chiu Chow, Hakka, Shanghainese, Fujianese, Taiwanese or Putonghua (Adamson and Lai 1997). Since the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997, the implementation of speaking Putonghua as a proficient language in Hong Kong has become an integral part of language policy and education reform in Hong Kong schools. With such a boost of interest in Putonghua, the Hong Kong SAR government has carried out a series of measures to facilitate and foster the use of Putonghua. For example, they announced that Putonghua was to become a core subject from primary 1 to secondary 3 in 1998, and further extended this policy to secondary 5 in 2000. These implementations are based on an emphasis of oral and aural skills in Putonghua and the appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture and folklore (Curriculum Development Council 1996). According to a study on the use of language in Hong Kong (Leung and Lee 2006), Cantonese remains the most spoken language/dialect in Hong Kong, even after nearly two decades of Putonghua learning and teaching in Hong Kong schools and the 1997 education and language policy implementing Putonghua as the official language. This phenomenon shows the uncertainty of Hong Kong citizens in relation to issues of national identity—a topic that was non-existent throughout Hong Kong’s colonial history prior to the handover in 1997 (Leung 2003a) and one that can be best described as a depoliticized civic education (Fairbrother 2003). This phenomena of depoliticization in Hong Kong can be observed in government educational policies for civic education and school curriculum where scholars widely expressed their opinions and frustration that the dirge of cultivation and debate about democracy, and political and citizenship issues directly results in a lack of discussion, involvement and participation for public affairs among Hong Kong people (Fairbrother 2003; Leung 2003b; Morris and Morris 1999).

Learning and teaching Putonghua songs in Hong Kong

Although Hong Kong music curricula have been predominantly focusing on Western music as influenced by British colonial history since 1842 (Everitt 1998; Ho 2006; Leung 2004; Yeh 1998; Yu-Wu 1998; Yu-Wu and Ng 2000), it is believed that performing and appraising traditional Chinese music would be an effective means of cultivating national identity in creating social harmony and Chinese nationalism among Hong Kong citizens (Curriculum Development Council 2002). One has to acknowledge and understand, however, that the Chinese national anthem carries unique and symbolic gestures in politics and patriotism which are vastly different from any other genres of Putonghua songs; it goes without saying that all national anthems carry special meanings to their respective citizens. Therefore, the Hong Kong SAR government has naturally encouraged all schools to perform a flag ceremony on the national day of October 1—the official date of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—with an aim to create social harmony and maintain a sense of political stability, as advocated by the Curriculum Development Council (2002). However, with the custom of social disposition and depoliticized civic education in Hong Kong, flag ceremonies at schools are often only a formality, as teachers and students do not actively sing, but merely stand and listen to the recording while the Chinese national anthem is played in the background (Ho and Law 2006).

Needless to say, the learning and teaching of Putonghua carries multiple functions and purposes, apart from the obvious political ones. Based on Confucianism which has been the core and essential belief in Chinese cultures for thousands of years (i.e. in Han culture which represents the majority of the Chinese population), singing and performing appropriate styles of Chinese music is believed to cultivate one’s ethics and appreciation of Chinese traditional cultures such as history, literature and aesthetics, philosophy, language, poetry, lyrics, art, painting, calligraphy, fashion, dance, and drama (Leung 1995, p. 34). Moreover, the linguistic rhythm of Guoyu (formerly known as Mandarin, now commonly referred to as Putonghua) is suggested to form harmony, not only in nature but also between human beings, as well as foster proper temperament and characteristics of humanity, and elevate one’s social prestige (as cited in Kang Chi (1996, p. 14–15)). Therefore, as part of understanding and appreciation of Chinese history and culture, Putonghua songs are mainly taught in Hong Kong schools to develop students’ values education (Law and Ho 2004). The content of values education can be diverse but it is in accordance with the shared beliefs of moral education, civic responsibility and ethics, as well as a sense of global citizenship among members of Hong Kong society.

In my 2008 pilot study examining the beliefs of 15 postgraduate music students who were full-time music teachers in Hong Kong, however, the data suggested Hong Kong music educators tended to prefer teaching Western music over Chinese music due to their own music training background and the fact that a lack of exposure to Putonghua and Putonghua songs undermined their motivation to teach Putonghua songs as part of the music curriculum. This echoes the evidence as to why Western music is still the major part of music curricula in Hong Kong schools (Law and Ho 2004; Leung 1995). As a result, for music teachers in Hong Kong, consolidating a large quantity of Putonghua songs as teaching materials is not an easy task, although recommendations of music textbooks are available to music teachers and school administration. Whilst the majority of teachers and students in Hong Kong primarily adopt Cantonese as the main medium of instruction in classroom setting, to construct and organize Putonghua songs for pedagogical use and lesson plans can be a daunting undertaking for most Hong Kong music teachers. To consistently source innovative Putonghua songs with originality and creativity, in particular for music performances, choral competitions and music festivals, Hong Kong music teachers often adopt and purchase music scores and textbooks from publishers and bookshops in Taiwan for supplementary teaching materials.

Curriculum design of Putonghua songs and pedagogical philosophy

Ho and Law (2006) state that there are five major categories of Putonghua songs that Hong Kong students experience as part of their music exposure, including 1) Chinese folk songs, 2) traditional Chinese music, 3) popular music from mainland China, 4) Taiwanese folk music, and 5) popular music from Taiwan. Moreover, since establishing a Chinese orchestra in Hong Kong schools is believed to be more financially feasible than developing a Western orchestra, many Hong Kong schools are keen to support the learning of Chinese musical instruments and performances of Chinese orchestras as part of extra-curricular activities (Leung 2004). Furthermore, Leung (2003a, p. 3) promotes a multifaceted model of music curriculum in which the learning content needs to consider the following aspects: 1) popularisation, traditionalization, and contemporisation of music; 2) localization, nationalization, and globalization of music; 3) embedding considerations of aesthetics (i.e. questions of art theory, ‘beauty’, taste, etc.), music theory, history, and philosophy within composition, appreciation, and performance; and 4) integrating elements of culture in the teaching of music.

Music education is believed to create, and is praised for creating, multiplicity in cultural exposures and meaningful music and arts education experiences for students (Campbell 2002; Green 2005; Regelski 2005). Furthermore, as Ho & Law’s study (2006) identified, whilst school music teachers are the main source for Hong Kong students to learn music knowledge, the mass media and private music tutors are the second and third means of music education. Teaching materials and curriculum structure for using Putonghua songs in Hong Kong music classrooms are also essential to reproduce a wide experience of cultural exposure, among others (e.g. in the context of musical, political, social, economic, and historical aspects). Hence, the role of school music educators becomes an dispensable indispensable part of the development of values education and cultural activities in Hong Kong society. Therefore, it is crucial to examine and study how students respond to the existing teaching content of Putonghua songs as taught by music educators in Hong Kong schools since 1997 handover if we hope to begin to unravel Hong Kong students’ cultural and national identities in terms of sociopolitical perspectives.

Popular songs from mainland China and Taiwan, however, are largely well-known among Hong Kong youth. On the other hand, Chinese art songs embed the perfect marriage between Chinese poetry and music; no matter whether the poetry is ancient or modern, it is an effective way to introduce Hong Kong students to appreciation of the aesthetics of Chinese language and the characteristics of Chinese music. Through singing and interpreting lyrics in Putonghua, Hong Kong students can acquire appreciation and understanding of Chinese language, culture and history without interference or worries about political correctness and social dispositions. Aspects and comparative analysis of hegemony and depoliticization will also be included in the following discussion.

Methods and procedures

The purpose of this study was to identify and investigate the previously mentioned aims and objectives relating to the role of Putonghua songs as part of music curricula in Hong Kong since the handover in 1997; the ways in which the five major categories of Putonghua songs are perceived and incorporated as learning and teaching materials in Hong Kong music classrooms; and the ways in which the Chinese national anthem is perceived and incorporated in the context of values education, citizenship education, multiculturalism, nationalism and globalisation.

Data collection for this study is divided into two parts: questionnaires (N=218) followed by semi-guided interviews in voluntary basis (N=25). The questionnaire required participants to focus on addressing their past experiences and current perception of the learning, teaching, singing and performing of Putonghua songs as well as the singing, performing, learning and teaching of the Chinese national anthem at local schools. All music undergraduates who are studying to become music teachers, community-based musicians and music administrators and who have been under the influence and implementation of education and language policy after the handover were approached for data collection. The purpose of semi-guided interview was mainly to focus on comparison, validity and triangulation with the questionnaire data, and to investigate in details individual participants’ former and current exposure to Putonghua songs and the singing and performing of the Putonghua songs as well as the Chinese national anthem at local schools.


While the participants expressed their enjoyment in learning and singing Putonghua songs, the negative views of such songs outweighed the positive ones during their primary and secondary school education. Participants agreed that singing Putonghua songs helped in their learning of the language and supported them to teach Putonghua songs with creative approaches when they set out to teach in the near future (e.g. to make efforts to re-arrange instrumental parts for orchestra and band so that students can explore different means of performing Putonghua song while singing at the same time). However, most participants articulated reluctance and dislike for singing the Chinese national anthem, also showing little interest in teaching it. However, the majority of participants shared a consensus that Hong Kong citizens should learn and sing the Chinese national anthem to create a sense of unity. Such contradicting and polarized perceptions towards the Chinese national anthem echo with the controversy over the implementation of national education as well as the increasing confrontation between the state of Hong Kong SAR and PRC governments, and the pro-democracy social movements.

In one of the interview sessions, the participant expressed as follows:

The lyrics of the Chinese national anthem were written under the brutal circumstances of war; the mood and meaning of the words are totally irrelevant to modern Chinese society, let alone Hong Kong in the 21st century!

In light of this comment, it is important to analyze and understand the lyrics and historical background of the Chinese national anthem in order to unravel the reasons that Hong Kong youth feel strongly disconnect with and unrelated to it 1 . Moreover, scholars argue that the meaning of the lyrics and the content of the Chinese national anthem do not reflect the reality of modern society and students often feel a sense of awkwardness and disconnection when singing the Chinese national anthem in public (Chen 2008). As suggested by Law and Ho (2004), the establishment of national identity cannot be separated from the teaching of Chinese music as part of music curricula in Hong Kong schools. Could the learning of Putonghua songs be another effective method of strengthening the national identity of PRC?

As March of the Volunteer, the Chinese national anthem, was written during the Japanese invasion, the lyrics suggest a provocative message and the words are meant to arouse public awareness and encourage civil responsibility of national security in defending one’s country. The lyrics are as follows:

Arise! All who refuse to be slaves!

Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall!

As the Chinese nation faces its greatest peril,

All forcefully expend their last cries.

Arise! Arise! Arise!

Our million hearts beat as one,

Brave the enemy’s fire, March on!

March on! March on! On!

With such historical underpinnings, it is crucial to instil in and teach Hong Kong students the story and history of the Chinese national anthem (e.g. how and why it was written, the reason it became politically incorrect during Cultural Revolution and revived later as the national anthem etc). When a song or national anthem is being explained and taught from the historical, social, cultural and musical viewpoints (i.e. without bias but with sufficient musical analysis), students are likely to perceive it neutrally with ease. This is the kind of understanding and unbiased attitude with which music educators can use to help students learn sociology and culture through musical activity. In particular, under the influence of social movements and political paradox of national identity, how to select a balanced, student-oriented music curriculum is an indispensable task for music educators in order to avoid unnecessary confrontation and uneasiness among Hong Kong students.

National identity and nationalisation

Among the five categories of Putonghua songs, the Chinese national anthem stands out as a significant symbol of nationalism. As suggested by Leung (2004) and Ho and Law (2006), one of the major concepts and philosophies in education reform and music curricula is to develop from localization to nationalisation in order to further extend to globalization. This has been a strong factor which has provided Hong Kong with a definite competitive edge among Chinese societies such as mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore. Therefore, the implementation of singing the Chinese national anthem would be a crucial step to reinforce Hong Kong students’ loyalty to the PRC. The consent of a Hong Kong Chinese identity among stakeholders in society needs to constructed and developed based on ideology and traditions of Chinese cultural heritage as foundational and executed with cognitive and affective means of educational sources such as schooling (Law and Ho 2004).

Since the handover in 1997, the raising of the national flag and the singing of the Chinese national anthem has been gradually encouraged as part of the school curricula and timetables implemented in public schools; and less than 1 year later, the Hong Kong SAR government also issued a memo to aided and private schools to announce the implementation of similar policy (Fairbrother 2003; Law and Ho 2004). As reported by the Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers (2002), the majority of kindergartens, primary schools, and secondary schools only raised the national flag of the PRC and sang the Chinese national anthem on the National Day; whereas 1/5 of those schools did not plan any celebration of the National Day. In fact, the national flag only flies on Handover Day (July 1) and National Day (October 1), and not for other official school events. Moreover, the Chinese national anthem is not even sung in public in many schools. However, many among the 25 participants who participated on a voluntary basis in the interviews shared a sense of national pride when they watched the Chinese national anthem being sung at the Beijing Olympic award ceremonies as the athletes from Hong Kong and mainland China received medals. Some also shared heartfelt views as student teachers on their perspective towards the Chinese national anthem and national identity. This phenomenon further echoes the contradiction and disposition among Hong Kong citizens towards national identity and political issues relating to the One Country Two Systems principle. In sum, Hong Kong people could choose to carry both a local Hong Kong and a national identity. This is further supported by the Oxford English Dictionary in which ‘Hongkongers’ and ‘Hong Kongese’ were accepted as newly added terms in 2014. Combining the symbolic meaning of being a Hongkongers or Hong Kongese and the consented anti-government result of District Council Election in 2019, the unique social identity of Hong Kong people has formed after long period of resistance and accommodation, which further echoes the colonial transition process of recolonisation.

The following participant was obviously concerned about how to be ‘depoliticized’ and conformed in music classroom, and offered a feasible situation under the challenging circumstances:

I was told one day at school that we need to sing the national anthem the next morning at the flag raising ceremony, to avoid us looking bad or unprepared the teacher taught us the song. Since the national anthem inevitably carries political symbols in one way or another, I think I will use the same excuse when I become a music teacher in the future, because I think being neutral in politics is a must as an educator, and the excuse my teacher gave was convincing and a rather useful strategy to get job done and not being political at the same time.

On the other hand, a rather sensible, idealistic and well-rounded response as shown below:

In any ordinary situation, it is very difficult for a student to feel a sense of pride as a Chinese when singing or listening to the national anthem, one has to be well informed about his/her country’s history, cultures and circumstances of current society to have a sense of belonging and feeling related to the national identity. I want to teach my students the history about the national anthem, including why and under what circumstance it was composed, and why it was chosen to become the national anthem and its symbolism etc. Only until my students can truly feel proud being a Chinese, they won’t be able to sing the national anthem from their heart.

In addition, a couple of honest reflections were presented on their experiences of singing the national anthem as listed below:

As a Chinese, it is essential to know the national anthem, it is an important song for all Chinese to know and sing, but there is no need to exaggerate its lyrics and meanings – a song is just a song.

I was forced to sing the national anthem at the flag raising ceremony. Ever since then, I hate it when I listen to the song, because it reminds me of that awful experience I had at school.

Furthermore, some relate to the understanding of the historical background and lyrics of the national anthem:

Many people think they are Hongkongers not Chinese, of course they don’t feel related to the national anthem and its meaning. In addition, the lyrics are all about war and human suffering, Hong Kong people nowadays can’t feel associated with those emotions at all.

The lyrics of the national anthem include many negative words, such as blood and slaves, which is so far away from the life we live now in Hong Kong.

In contrast, some expressed their frustration and anxiety as music educators:

I know I’m suppose to feel proud when I sing the national anthem and teach my students the same national identity, but I am yet to feel it.

When I teach the national anthem, I definitely won’t emphasize that we need to sing the national anthem because we are Chinese. I probably will teach my students to sing the song first followed by introducing them the background and story about the national anthem, but up until now, I have no guidelines and support as how to teach the national anthem in music classroom.

Hegemony, resistance and depoliticization in music education

Based on the questionnaire data (see Table 3.1), it is evident that while the self-perceived level of Putonghua sufficiency has risen among Hong Kong youth, students enjoy singing Putonghua songs for leisure much more than learning them at school, although it is agreed that singing Putonghua songs does facilitate and enhance students’ ability to learn the language more effectively (Leung and Lee 2006), and facilitates direct connection and association with Chinese musical cultures and heritage (Leung 1995). It is worth noting that 1/5 of the participants did not agree with the incorporation of Putonghua songs as part of music curriculum whereas almost 2/5 of the participants agreed that Putonghua songs should be learned in music classrooms. The remaining participants were neutral in this regard. Such polarized opinions about the role and use of Putonghua songs as curriculum also exposes uneasy and uncertain social dispositions in light of the recent social movements and conflicts in Hong Kong society. With the proposed policy for national education in 2012, distrust and aggravation towards the state (i.e. the PRC and Hong Kong SAR government), and frustration towards the education system in Hong Kong was elevated to a new height in 2014 and 2019 as unsettling social dispositions and paradoxes were commonly outpoured and conflicted among the Hong Kong public.

Table 3.1   Perceptions towards Learning and Teaching of Putonghua song in Hong Kong (N = 218)

Past experiences about Putonghua songs as a music learner:

Agree/Strongly Agree

Disagree/Strongly Disagree

I enjoyed learning Putonghua songs at school.



I enjoyed singing Putonghua songs in general.



My ability of Putonghua is adequate to sing Putonghua songs.



Putonghua songs helped me to learn and speak Putonghua.



Singing Putonghua songs should be part of my music learning.



I tried to learn Putonghua songs with creative ideas.



I was asked by others to learn Putonghua songs, e.g. parents, music teacher, peers, school etc.



My teachers offered adequate support to sing Putonghua songs.



It is not surprising that the data shows lack of support from teachers and school administration in learning Putonghua songs at schools as no clear, constructive curriculum guidelines were in place from the state (Fairbrother 2003; Ho and Law 2006; Leung 1995). Under such an ambiguous and polarized social outlook, music educators in Hong Kong are cautious and reluctant to display their thinking and political opinions towards Putonghua songs as the data reflects in this study. Such phenomenon is also reflected in the ratio of ‘whether or not one was asked to learn Putonghua songs at school’ for which the percentages of positive and negative responses are very similar. A lack of especially clear social consent towards national and cultural identities has caused the norm of social atmosphere and education system to be depoliticized and polarized among the Hong Kong people for decades since the era of the British colony (Bray and Lee 1993; Leung 1995; Fairbrother 2003). Therefore, it would not be in the best interest of music educators and school administrators, nor parents and students to openly encourage or discourage others to learn Putonghua songs. Such social paradoxes and paradigms have not changed even as mainland China has been the sovereign for over two decades under the framework of One Country Two Systems.

When responding to means of creative approaches to learn Putonghua songs, most questionnaire participants mentioned using YouTube and other online resources to enhance their knowledge and understanding of the language, musical styles and interpretations. This is very similar to how Hong Kong youth gain access to popular culture and music in everyday life (Ho 2003a; Leung 1995). Participants often cited that they like to watch TV programmes and drama series from Taiwan. Therefore, it is evident that the role and use of the Internet, mass media and popular culture are crucial and indispensable during the process of post-colonisation in transitional Hong Kong. The accessibility of those means can reach and connect to Hong Kong youth directly, and such a bottom-up approach and initiative of learning Putonghua songs produces the most effective and non-biased outcomes, as opposed to the top-down approach (i.e. initiated by school, State such as Education Bureau and Hong Kong SAR and governments). Another successful example of the influential and prevailing impact of popular culture would be the growing popularity of K-Pop in recent years, which has been an astonishing global phenomenon. Such means of cultural transition and promotion are considered to be non-invasive, yet extremely powerful and non-tracible.

One of the main reasons that the Hong Kong public is on the defence about the proposed national education curriculum is because it was considered a drastic gesture from the PRC government to influence the curriculum content and ‘brainwash’ Hong Kong students about political beliefs and idolization of the Chinese Communist Party. After a major outcry and confrontation occurred between law enforcement and protesters during Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution, former and then Chief Executive of Hong Kong SAR, Leung Chun Ying, announced that the implementation of national education courses in primary and secondary schools was temporarily withdrawn until the revision of guidelines for moral, civil and national education, which have caused many concerns to Hong Kong public, have been addressed.

Scholars strongly suggested that for all teaching and learning content of civic messages in values education, ‘many learning activities taking place inside classroom appear to have negative association with students’ civic knowledge, signifying even further the importance of informal civic learning outside of classroom and school’ (Fairbrother & Kennedy 2011, p. 439). Therefore, the teaching and learning of the Chinese national anthem requires carefully planned strategies that consist of a mixed mode of formal and informal learning for effective outcomes and long-lasting positive impact so that students can engage and learn comfortably during activities which are held with ‘an open classroom climate, and [through] a variety of organizations and associations including art, music, and drama’ (Fairbrother 2003, p. 440). To successfully encourage and facilitate students’ critical thinking in civic topics such as national and cultural identity, citizenship, democracy and patriotism, it is highly advocated that engaging young people in formal and informal environments for civic learning would be the most appropriate approach in comparison to traditional classroom teaching (Fairbrother 2008; Fairbrother and Kennedy 2011).

Self-censorship in music education

When I first applied for the internal research grant at the university (long before the government announced the proposed policy of national education), I was informed by the Human Ethical Research Committee that my application would not be successful unless I promised not to publish any research findings due to political sensitivity, and to change the topic from ‘To Sing or Not to Sing: Investigation of the Perception and Teaching of National Anthem and Putonghua Music as Part of Hong Kong School Curriculum’ to something less provocative. In order to secure the funding, I complied with the latter suggestion and resubmitted my application. Surely that incident was an indication of self-censorship exercised by the university, but it was utterly disappointing to me as a researcher and academic because it occurred at a university where academic freedom was promised, not to mention that being curious about the world is supposed to be tremendously important to all learners. While an organization (in this case the university) exercises self-censorship out of fear of punishment or tries to prevent unnecessary attention and pressure from authority, it represents the gatekeepers and bosses of the organization as upholding more conservative views, hence unspoken rules and ambiguous instructions become a norm in the organization as social control and conformity takes place (Lee and Chan 2009).

During the process of this project, I was made aware that an inappropriate edition of a Chinese folk song was adopted as one of the set songs for the Hong Kong Schools’ Music and Speech Festival for which thousands of Hong Kong students apply annually. The inappropriateness of the edition was because the second verse was changed to specifically praise the Chinese Communist Party and its symbolic socialism. There are other editions available to choose from, but the organization chose the one from the People’s Music Publishing House, which is the official music publisher affiliated with the PRC government. Some students and parents made a conscious decision not to go through with the competition (although the registration fee was already paid upfront) to express their frustration and resistance to hegemony. This incident shows a lack of self-censorship, which was supposed to be exercised at the level of organization to avoid upsetting cultural groups and individuals in the Hong Kong society with different political views, but obviously was not properly executed, and made a lot of parents and students uneasy about learning and singing that particular Chinese folk song for the competition. Horton (2011) describes self-censorship as causing conflicted thoughts between the self-censor and the author by which moral ambivalence is developed as a result. I further supplement that in the processes of self-censorship and the lack of it in post-colonisation Hong Kong, tension caused by resistance to hegemony on the one hand and the ownership of freedom to expression on the other often creates self-doubt, frustration and actions for further resistance or conformity among the author, self-censor, and stakeholders who are at the receivers’ end.

In the months post completion of data collection and analysis, I intended to expand this research to primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong and reach out to music teachers and students who are currently on the forefront of the post-colonisation process in Hong Kong. I first contacted several music teachers whom I know very well, but they all expressed concerns about my research into Putonghua songs and the national anthem, and how it would be perceived by their school administrators. After some persuasion and promises that their confidentiality would be protected and respected, some allowed me to collect data from them and their students in music classrooms. For those who were still in doubt, I had to meet with their school principals and get the consent form signed before data collection. A couple of principals expressed their concerns, ‘Our school doesn’t want to be labelled as pro or con to the PRC government – everything is too political nowadays.’

While censorship is strictly implemented by the mainland Chinese government over mass media and the Internet (e.g. social media and websites such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Line etc., are not allowed), it was disconcerting to observe and realize that self-censorship is commonly practised among Hong Kong people to avoid unnecessary attention or troubles with the authorities; it is more so since the newly imposed national security law in Hong Kong since July 2020. The ruling of ‘One Country Two Systems’ which was supposed to keep Hong Kong at status quo as agreed between the British and PRC government has undoubtedly changed in recent years in the light of 20+ years under Chinese sovereignty.

Cultural perceptions in formal and informal learning

In the transitional Hong Kong of the early 21st century, many issues concerning the role and development of Putonghua songs as part of music curricula remain unclear and inconclusive, and there is a great demand to critically examine and study such phenomena in depth in the context of musical, social, cultural, economic, historical and cultural aspects. Putonghua songs are also thought to be a useful tool in enhancing values education which includes a wide range of topics, such as enhancing moral education and civic responsibility, issues of national identity in Hong Kong for social harmony, and the impact of the Chinese national anthem for nationalisation. This study embarked on a journey in which I have investigated, addressed and answered some of the abovementioned arguments and issues.

I recommend that the design of a balanced and holistic Putonghua song curricula as part of music curricula for Hong Kong schools that is considered to be student-oriented and appealing to Hong Kong students be based on the overall data analysis of preferences towards different types of Putonghua song. Popular songs from mainland China and Taiwan would be the most appropriate teaching materials and curriculum content to firstly arouse students’ interests and support in learning Putonghua songs (Ho 2003b), and hopefully singing those songs would encourage students to learn the language in a leisurely and creative manner (Leung 2003b). Moreover, Chinese traditional folk songs would also be an asset to include as part of the curriculum in Hong Kong music classrooms to support the richness of Chinese heritage and culture. As recommended by Leung (2003b, 2007) who advocates the importance of cultural citizenship, the concept of cultural-oriented curriculum would be one of the ideal approaches for educators in Hong Kong during the post-colonisation process, and I believe the same reference could be used in the context of music education as Hong Kong continues her journey in the 21st century. Abril (2007, p. 82) sums this up perfectly by expressing the importance of social inclusiveness in addressing and communicating with a wide range of cultural groups and stakeholders in regard to any significant song in the society (i.e. the Chinese national anthem and Putonghua songs at large in this case). He says,

presenting or performing only one version of the song potentially conceals the song’s history and limits opportunities to think critically and discover what it means to live in a democratic society … represent it, resituate it, reinvent it, and/or reconstitute it to reflect contemporary times, or personal realities.

Reflective questions

  1. Given ongoing challenges and opportunities presented by growing multicultural diversity, how do you engage in music teaching and learning that is non-biased, inclusive, and student-oriented while being educational at the same time?
  2. In light of the reality of a changing music curriculum, how can you facilitate open-minded, practical approaches for meaningful and robust discussion among stakeholders such as governmental authorities, school administration, music teachers and parents?


The Chinese national anthem, namely March of the Volunteer, was composed by Nieh Erh in 1932 one year after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. This song was then dedicated to the volunteers who rose to defend the nation long before Japan formally declared war on China. In 1934, Nieh Erh went to continue his musical studies in Japan where he was murdered at the age of 24. His song was officially announced by the Chinese Communist Party to be adopted as the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. However, the lyricist, Tian Han was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, and the song was consequently banned for 10 years until he was released in 1982.


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