The legendary Chinese composer had different names in different places.
In China, he is remembered as Xian Xinghai, one of the country’s greatest composers; in Kazakhstan, he was known as Huang Xun, a refugee with remarkable talent; in Singapore and France, he was Sinn Sing Hol, a poor student with insatiable passion for music.
Wherever he went, whichever name he took, his music gave people courage and strength to fight against fascist invaders in the World War II. Chinese President Xi Jinping told the composer’s story in his first state visit to Kazakhstan in 2013.
Based on that true story, The Composer, a movie launched in Chinese cinemas recently, tugged at the heartstrings of numerous viewers.
When war broke out between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941, the composer was working on a documentary for the Communist Party of China under the alias of Huang Xun in Moscow. Forced to abort his mission and evacuate, he tried to return home through a southern part of Soviet Union, today’s Kazakhstan, only to find the borders closed. He was left alone in the Kazakh city of Almaty where he knew no one and had no place to stay.
The composer was sitting on his suitcase with a violin in hand when Kazakh musician Bakhytzhan Baikadamov first spotted him. Baikadamov spoke Kazakh and Russian, the composer responded in English and French. “But it was obvious that the Chinese musician really needed help and had nowhere to go. So my father just took his hand and led him to us,” Baldyrgan Baikadamova, daughter of Baikadamov, recounted the fateful encounter.
Hence began the friendship of two legendary composers of two great nations. “They always supported each other. Together they overcame the wartime hardships and wrote a new chapter in the history of music,” Baikadamova told Kazakh media.
Baikadamov went on to become one of Kazakhstan’s most honored composers, after whom the Kazakh Choral Capella is named. The Chinese composer Xian Xinghai, whose Yellow River Cantata has inspired millions, was a household name in China. But he hid his true identity and contributed to the Kazakh cultural cause anonymously.
Xian incorporated Kazakh traditional music and folklore in his works. Among his masterpieces is Amangeldy, a symphony in honor of the Kazakh national hero. His works served as a rallying call to fight Fascists and proved immensely popular with the local people.
In today’s Almaty, two boulevards are named after Baikadamov and Xian Xinghai. Visitors to Baikadamov’s old house can find letters Xian wrote to his daughter in China, which were never mailed.
Touched by the story, Chinese filmmaker Shen Jian took it upon himself to turn it into a movie so that more people can learn about the friendship between Xian and his Kazakh friends.
Film shooting began in June 2017, when a bilateral agreement was signed to promote cooperation in the film industry. The Composer became the first movie jointly produced by China and Kazakhstan.
The production unit had a crew of over 300 people from both countries with some additional 20,000 people also involved in the endeavor. And dozens of interpreters bustled in the scene speaking Chinese, Kazakh, Russian and English.
In the beginning, language was the biggest barrier. But the actors took the initiative to learn each other’s language and forged deep bonds of friendship. “I hope this is the first of many more great movies jointly produced by the two countries,” Sabit Kurmanbekov, an art director of the movie, said.
Kazakhstan is among many stops of Xian’s lifelong journey to rallying people in different parts of the world to rise against Fascism. The story of Xian Xinghai is the epitome of how people-to-people exchanges can bridge hearts, enrich cultures and unite nations to address common challenges.
Born in Macao, Xian traveled far and wide. In Singapore, primary schoolteachers found his talent and led him, son of a widowed housemaid, into the world of music. In Paris, the wannabe composer, who worked as a busboy in restaurants and a cleaner in public baths, was admitted into the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris and got his training from world-class masters.
Then there was Kazakhstan, where Xian spent some of his last years with true friends before his death in Moscow at the age of 40. “I am very happy that you understood me. Being understood is the greatest reward an artist can ask for,” one of his Kazakh friends recalled him saying to the audience after his Amangeldy earned thunderous applause.