Reporting from Beijing — If the significance of the tune that pianist Lang Lang played at last week's state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao escaped the White House protocol staff, not so the Chinese.
The patriotic ballad "My Motherland" comes from a 1956 movie that was set during the Korean War, depicting brave Chinese soldiers battling brutish Americans.
The song is a perennial during televised Chinese galas and a staple in the repertoire of most folk singers here, but its inclusion in the musical program at a banquet celebrating Sino-U.S. relations has inspired a vigorous debate in Chinese living rooms and on blog sites.
Was it a snub, a joke or simply a gaffe?
"When we heard they played this song at the White House, we burst out laughing. We just couldn't believe it," said Wu Renchu, a Shanghai film critic.
"The song is very popular, but there is no denying that it came out of a film in which the Americans were the bad guys. To sing it at the White House, that was not a good thing," Wu said.
The 28-year-old Lang Lang, who was born on a military base in northeastern China but has lived much of his adult life in the United States, has insisted in numerous interviews that there was no anti-American message intended.
"I selected this song because it has been a favorite of mine since I was a child. It was selected for no other reason but for the beauty of its melody. I am, first and foremost, an artist," he wrote on his website.
That explanation has been rejected by many Chinese.
"It's impossible that he didn't know," said Wen Yunchao, a prominent Chinese blogger who writes under the name Bei Feng. "Anybody who went to elementary school in China knows this song very well."
Artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, on a Twitter posting, simply laughed off Lang Lang's explanation. He wrote "Not political?" — and then dismissed the suggestion with an unprintable expletive.
The song was composed for the film "Battle on Shangganling Mountain." The lyrics, which weren't sung in the piano rendition at the White House, includes the verse: "When the friends come, fine drink is offered. But if the wolves come, what greets them are the hunting rifles."
Shen Dingli, a professor of American studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said that Lang Lang's performance at the White House has inspired much debate in a forum of 300 political scientists. "There is a lot of back and forth — was the music included to embarrass the American host, or was it just a technical mistake?
"You could say that the song isn't anti-American, what is being opposed is not the United States, but America's bad behavior in some instances," said Shen, who added: "When the U.S. criticizes China's human rights record, it isn't theoretically anti-Chinese."
The protocol of Sino-American relations is always difficult. The last time President Hu came to Washington, in 2006, the anthem played in his honor was mistakenly identified as that of "Republic of China" — which is Taiwan. The Chinese also were furious that a group from the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement managed to get to a news conference and drown out Hu's opening remarks with heckling.
For this year's visit, Lang Lang was invited by the White House and apparently selected his own music. It is unclear whether the Chinese delegation vetted the choice of music in advance.
The Chinese government seems anxious to avoid controversy on the subject. Much of the commentary on Chinese websites, especially those that praised Lang Lang's Chinese nationalism, was removed minutes after it was posted.
A 35-year-old Beijing-based blogger who goes by the pen name Michael Anti said it was possible that Lang Lang didn't fully understand the origins of his favorite childhood song.
"These kinds of revolutionary songs were part of our childhood education," Anti said. "It shows that the propaganda is still in our blood."