Billy Joel Teaches History

Red China tells me that ‘Red China’ is “an unofficial name for (the People’s Republic of) China”.  The red doubtless references the Communist Party of China which is the founding and ruling political party of the country.  Red has long been associated with communism from the Red Army of Soviet Russia to the bright red Chinese flag.  ‘The East is Red’ was a popular slogan under Chairman Mao and, indeed, a song that became the de facto anthem of China during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.  Fear of the rise of communism was referred to as the Red Scare and after World War II was synonymous with McCarthyism.

All Billy Joel says, however, is ‘Red China’ and he doesn’t offer a lot of insight as to what meaning he wants ascribed to the term.  Perhaps it’s an abstract.  Perhaps, and possible given it’s lyrical proximity to Harry Truman, it’s in reference to Truman’s intervention in the Chinese Civil War near the end of the conflict in 1950. 


The Tiananmen Square protests took place in 1989 (the same year ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ was released) and ended in military suppression on June 4th which earned the event the name Tiananmen Massacre.  The People's Liberation Army, under orders to clear the Square of the student protestors, used live fire to to push through the blockade and protestors. There is no precise count of those who were killed but estimates range from several hundred to several thousand.  It seems likely that this event is what we’re meant to recall when we hear the lyric ‘Red China’.

June 5, 1989: Tiananmen Square 'Tank Man' image

In November of 2008 Billy Joel performed a concert at the Asia World Arena in Hong Kong with attendees calling the performance ‘outstanding’ and ‘unforgettable’.  Then in 1993 Joel’s River of Dreams album contained a song called ‘The Great Wall of China’.