Monday, April 23, 2012

Vitas: Diplomatic License


Vitas is the name of a young Russian pop star who within the past few years has become a major celebrity in Asia, particularly China. Vitas has a five-octave range, it is said sometimes reaching five and a half.

I am very curious to understand what exactly appeals to the Chinese about this Latvian/Ukranian young man. I have done some reading and watched many videos to try to understand this curious phenomenon. I think his relationship with China sometimes borders on controversial.

It is said Vitas has sold out 50,000-seat concerts in China. In 2011 alone, MTV Asia awarded him Best Foreign Artist, and he became the face of Mercedes Benz China. Also that year, Vitas entered the Guinness Book of Records, Russian branch, for the most fans.

In 2000 he gave a concert in the Kremlin at the age of 19, the youngest performer to do so. This one particular song went viral, and began to come to the attention of Asia some five years later. So, by way of introduction to Vitas:

OPERA 2 (uploaded 2001)

More indicative of Vitas's style now, his love song 'Cranes Crying':


So what is this relationship of China with Vitas? One aspect of old China that Vitas stongly reappropriates is Asian spirituality, philosophy and religion- the most controversial of all. Many of his songs refer to Asian spirituality, and many of his costumes. He speaks of loving Chinese philosophy.

But things in China have been changing. I have read that the government does not bother the Christian churches springing up everywhere (although for the most part they are state-controlled), and most of the major monasteries have been restored. I have read that the government looks away except when it gets out of hand (eg Falun Gong).

Vitas dressed as Buddhist monk 
in video 'Opera 1'

In one video shot in Thailand, called Opera 1 (link), Vitas, head shaved, is dressed as a Buddhist monk and worshipped like a Buddha at the temple, which I found startling. When Vitas goes away (that is, not on tour), such as when his mother died, they say it is to Tibet. He belongs to a service organization the Daili Lama belongs to.

From the lyrics: "We always want more than we have. . ."

He says his favorite book is the Bible. Although it is said that one of his parents is Jewish, from his songs he seems to be a practicing Christian. I would venture to guess that he has found for himself a comfortable mix of Christianity and eastern spiritualism.

The irony is, I believe his attraction to spirituality and religion actually increases Vitas' popularity in China; it helps the Chinese to feel in tune with him, as they are themselves reconstructing and piecing together a way of life simultaneously new and old.

Vitas is originally from Latvia 
and grew up in Odessa, Ukraine

What strikes me as particularly controversial is Vitas's song "Forgive Us, Lord," which outright apologizes to G-d for the churches having been destroyed in Russia. From the reference to "the killed tzar," I cannot think this is anything other than an apology for the Russian Communists- like China- banning religion.

Some of the lyrics to "Forgive Us, Lord":

I shall wash myself with the holy water
And stand praying at the icon.
I ask God to absolve Russia from sins.
God, please forgive us for everything:
For the crosses that were pulled off the churches,
For the killed tzar,
And for the burnt icons...


Vitas plays the Russian revolutionary Voitinsky, 
for Chinese movie 'Foundation of a Party'

Vitas good-naturedly participated in China's controversial star-filled propaganda blockbuster "Foundation of a Party" last year. He played Voitinsky, an early Russian revolutionary who was sent to China in the 1920s to help the new republic find its direction. Just as Vitas has come to China from Russia. Significantly, Voitinsky stayed only a few months and left China before Mao rose up.

Participating in propaganda as a founding Communist seems in contradiction to the other things I've said about Vitas, his spirituality and neutrality, and the song "Forgive Us, Lord." It's like he's coming at China from all different directions, simultaneously.

Catholic church in Dali, China

An artist is someone who is allowed to cross borders, bridging the distance between his culture and the host culture, making peace. The artist has, as it were, "diplomatic license" in what to say and do. A sort of "backdoor diplomat."

Vitas said in an interview, "I always return to China as if I return home."

I think Vitas' controversial 360 degree view actually makes him more popular. The new China is looking in all directions too; she is looking to reconcile the old with the new. It must be a confusing time for China as she opens up and yet stays the same. To me, Vitas is mirroring back to China her own tangle of new attitudes.



the Tibetan Plateau

In 2008, Vitas recorded a modern folk song and video about Tibet, which in itself is not strange to the Chinese; it is a song about a beautiful unspoiled* area that includes most of Tibet, part of which greater China claims. It is called the Tibetan Plateau, in Chinese, Qinghai-Tibetan (Qingzang) Plateau.

My question is, is this song controversial? This is very ambiguous.

The song is sung by both Tibetan and non-Tibetan Chinese singers.** In fact the composer was a Korean Chinese. Although written only a few years ago, it is in a traditional style and the lyrics avoid anything political or even current. It speaks of the landscape and the ancestors; and depending on which translation you use, the Divine.

Yet anything that refers to the relationship to Tibet, and how China used to be, is making political statements, no? There is also political controversy over how to handle the plateau's unstable ecology.

Classic Tibetan dance steps

Imagine my surprise when I discovered this about the timing of his song: it seems to have come out one month after a member of British Parliament removed Tibet's status as a suzerainty, which had given her a certain amount of self-goverence while still under China. The MP said the removal would change nothing; but people have protested that this weakens Tibet's amount of autonomy.

This removal came in October 2008-- and one month later, November 2008 (as far as I could determine), Vitas came out with this song about Tibet, I believe the first song he sang in Chinese.

Could this timing be a coincidence? Is that a political statement? Is he criticizing China from the point of view of Tibet? Or is he on China's "side"? Or just drawing attention to the beauty of Tibet?

Vitas in rehearsal with Tang Tsan

He sang this song in duet (video is below) at the BTV [television] Spring Global Gala 2010. I wonder how significant it is that they choose a "traditional" song that is modern, instead of an actual traditional song. And even the words "MY" Tibetan Plateau can sound- intentionally?- like a political statement of ownership. But this is a negative view. There is also a positive way to understand the Chinese embrace of the song.

Here is Vitas singing the song in duet with Chinese singer Tang Tsan. It is a dress rehearsal, not the final televised version, but the sound here is clearer. If you ever wondered what a "countertenor" is, this should explain it. Notice the Chinese dancers in red behind them, with classic Tibetan dance steps.
Some of the lyrics are at the end of this post.


Tibetan dancers in classic dance steps

An artist has the prerogative to touch any issue, hold it up, yet be on NO side, having a sort of "diplomatic license." I believe this is Vitas's choice. This is one of the great advantages of the arts, the "diplomat" that crosses all borders, forging peace. What Vitas probably wants to be, himself: the backdoor diplomat who enters singing. The one who brings in emotions and ideas that build bridges and heal.
Vitas at China's BTV Gala 2010

Maybe Vitas is drawing attention to Tibet for his own reasons. A song of Tibet dovetails with what matters to Vitas: a "traditional" folk song- and yet modern, symbolizing China in modern times rediscovering ancient spirituality and culture.


A Russian stands- both in geography and emotion- halfway between the traditions of east and west. The Russian has the ideas and customs of western society, and his great masterworks have been greedily appropriated by by the western canon. Yet a Russian retains an emotionalism and mysticism.

Building bridges
(Vitas has children from 
audience come onstage)

A Russian makes a good emissary of peace between east and west, through the traditional back door that Russians have always used even through their decades of Communism- circulating their dancers, singers and other performers around the world. Interesting to note that relations between China and Russia are tentatively beginning.

In an interview, Vitas said, "I always return to China as if I return home."


Here are some of the lyrics. They express feelings that this beautiful landscape inspires: a connection to ancient times, and possibly the ancient spirituality, though it's hard to be sure from the different translations.

Where you see two lines close together, these are two different translations. Note that the second translation is more openly spiritual. It is in italics.

who gazes at the blue sky day and night
Who always looks up to the Divine

who thirsts for the eternal vision
And dream about immortal life

It is my Tibetan Plateau
The Tibetan Plateau is my holy highland

*great efforts are being taken to keep it unspoiled, though there is controversy.

** The phrasing is controversial. Where China do not refer to "Tibet" but as a region of China, westerners see it as part of the country of Tibet; where China refers to "ethnic Tibetans," westerners call them Tibetans.

Most of my information on China comes from the book China Road by Rob Gifford, 2007.

I have taken much liberty with my guesswork. Please let me know anything that I have gotten wrong!

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