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China Doll: Meaning and Mystery

Did you know that the Grateful Dead's popular song “China Doll” was originally called “The Suicide Song”? Written by Robert Hunter, the song has a creepy tone, with dark lyrics juxtaposed with melodies reminiscent of a children's nursery song.

The first verses of “China Doll” speak directly of an act of suicide: “A pistol shot at five o'clock/The bells of heaven ring/Tell me what you done it for/'No I won't tell you a thing'”.

The song starts from the perspective of the suicide victim, but later seems to offer hope, as if there's still a chance to pull the spirit back from the brink of death or despair. The lines, “Pick up your china doll/It's only fractured/just a little nervous from the fall” could be a metaphor for the fallen, “fractured” physical body, or for the fall of the innocence and happiness represented by a child's toy such as this china doll. Further, the metaphor seems to hint at the concepts of resurrection, renewal, repair, and rebirth.

In another sense, the china doll is reminiscent of the ceremonial clay dolls used since ancient times for magickal purposes. The dolls are made to represent specific persons, and should a doll be shattered, so too will the body of the person represented be broken—or so goes the general belief behind the magic. In “China Doll,” we have a doll that's “only fractured/just a little nervous from the fall,”perhaps indicating that it's possible to overcome the ill intentions of others and manifest your own salvation.

“China Doll” is a mysterious tune whose meaning is hard to crack. These are my own best theories and guesses; what do you make of this classic Dead song?