How old is the motherland?

Today is your birthday, my motherland (from the Beijing Times)

On October 1, China celebrated its sixtieth anniversary with a grand parade in the morning and a lavish gala illuminated by spectacular fireworks in the evening.

The Chinese media celebrated as well, with special October issues looking back on sixty years of progress, and front pages lauding the National Day through headlines like "Sixty Years of the People's Republic," "Happy Birthday PRC," and "Hurrah for the Motherland!"

In some papers, such as the Beijing Times cover shown here, "sixty years" appeared alongside "motherland." Commentators were irked: surely the motherland is older than sixty.*

Essayist Huang Yilong, whose pithy comments on current affairs make his blog a must-read, contributed a concise critique of the misguided slogan:

Was an old man once without a motherland?
—— "Red Song" Appreciation #2

Today is your birthday,
My China!

"China" was born on October 1, 1949. An ancient country whose civilization stretches back into history turns out to be just sixty years old, a tiny sapling among the forest of peoples across the world, and an old man like myself is somehow sixteen years older than it is. It's kind of embarrassing.

The last bit there is not about China, but about myself. I've always thought that China was my motherland. My embarrassment is that I'm sixteen years older than my motherland. That is, during the "pre-motherland period" of 1933 to 1949, was I a "motherland-less" person? I also thought that I was a "patriotic child," a "patriotic youth," and a "patriotic young man" in those days. But when you have no country to love, how can you be patriotic?

Yet taking a careful look back at the ceremony in Beijing sixty years ago, Mao Zedong, who presided, declared "The Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China is established." An elementary school student can understand that he meant that the government was established, something entirely unrelated to the motherland! With a nod toward the nationality of seniors more than sixty years old, as well as the millions of our ancestors, I'd rather use Mao Zedong's formulation:

Today is your birthday,
My government!

Wu Fei, an educator whose blog posts Danwei has translated in the past, picked up Huang's comment and attached it to two longer op-ed pieces that elaborated on the same theme.

In the essay translated below, commentator Li Zhenxi quotes the lyricist for the song that so annoyed Huang and goes on to explain what Mao himself may have thought about China's birthday:

Happy Birthday, Motherland! (from New Culture View)

Is The Motherland Only 60 Years Old?

by Li Zhenxi

Every year around National Day, you'll see in the media things like "the Motherland's birthday." And although every year lots of people write in with corrections, the same mistake continues to be made. Today, I heard a man's voice pronounce in sonorous tones, "We celebrate the 60th birthday of the motherland...."

A foreigner ignorant of Chinese history might think, China is so young, just sixty years old! Is that some kind of joke?

So once again I need to remind you: October 1 is the birthday of the republic, not of the motherland. China did not come into being on October 1, 1949. If the motherland were only sixty years old, then where did the Book of Songs come from, and the Songs of Chu and Han rhapsodies? And Tang, Song, and Yuan poetry? I hope that my compatriots' patriotism does not lead them to mistakenly compress five thousand years of Chinese history into a single page.

What we ought to say is that this is the sixtieth birthday of the republic.

A friend once argued with me, saying that on this special occasion, "motherland" refers to the People's Republic of China; that is, the meaning of "motherland" is identical to that of "China," and therefore it's not wrong to talk about the motherland's birthday. For example,

"The motherland is a term of endearment for one's country. Is the Tang or Song or Yuan the country to which the Chinese people today belong? No. It's China, the People's Republic of China. Treating the commemoration of the founding of the People's Republic (the PRC's National Day) as the birthday of the motherland (a memorial day) is completely normal."

And so forth.

So apparently, this topic requires further discussion. I went to Beijing one year to meet a group of modern Chinese language scholars that included the editorial committee for the Modern Chinese Dictionary. When the discussion moved to errors in modern Chinese, they all said that "the birthday of the motherland" was a joke (this was just after National Day). Someone said, sure, our country is the People's Republic of China, but with every historical period, the government of our country (two related but distinct concepts) is different. The country represented by those governments is our motherland — apart from puppet governments like Wang Jingwei's. Should we say that say that the Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing were not China (our motherland)? There is nothing unusual about regime changes and political system reforms for various reasons, but you absolutely cannot replace a country's entire history with the newest, latest government. If we set the birthday of our country in October, 1949, the frightening result would imply that only sixty years are left out of the millennia of Chinese civilization! And this would seem to betray the patriotic motivation of the people hailing the "motherland's birthday." Besides, "China" is a word with many meanings, including the PRC. "China's birthday," therefore, is grudgingly acceptable, but because of ambiguity it would be better not to say it. If "China" is used, then "new" is usually added in front: "New China's birthday." But "the motherland's birthday" is totally unacceptable.

In 2004, when I visited the home of the composer Gu Jianfen, I brought up her famous song, "Today Is Your Birthday, My China" (今天是你的生日,我的中国), and said that it was a favorite of mine. As she was explaining how it was composed, she emphasized that the original title was "Today is your birthday, my motherland," but after a number of experts pointed out that the terminology was imprecise, and because she herself felt that "the motherland's birthday" was a little illogical, it was changed. "China, after all, can also be a shortened form of the People's Republic of China." Our motherland is currently called "The People's Republic of China," and how I love her! But "the motherland's birthday" is still inappropriate, because I also love the thousands of years of my motherland's culture and civilization! October 1, 1949 was the birthday of the republic, and to call it "China's birthday" (and here "China" means "The People's Republic of China," although newspapers actually very rarely use this formulation because, as a journalist friend of mine says, they're afraid of people reading between the lines and turning "China" into "The Republic of China") is acceptable, but it is not "the motherland's birthday."

A similar example comes to mind. On March 10, 1943, Chiang Kai-shek published China's Destiny, which mentioned the slogan, "Without the Nationalist Party, there would be no China." That same year, in the August 25 issue of Jiefang Daily, the Communist Party published an editorial under the title "Without the Communist Party, there would be no China" that criticized the book and closed with the line, "In today's China, without the Chinese Communist Party, there would be not China." Cao Huoxing, a 19-year-old party member, wrote a song titled "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No China" that circulated through the liberated areas. But when Mao Zedong learned of it, he felt the name was inappropriate. He believed, "Before there was Chinese Communist Party, China already existed." So he personally changed the name, adding "new" before "China" and thus creating the popular song "Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China" that has endured to this day.

Mao thought, "Before there was Chinese Communist Party, China already existed." Similarly, before there was a People's Republic of China, China already existed. Sure, at this stage, at least for the people of mainland China and Hong Kong and Macao, the motherland is the People's Republic of China, but we can't simply say that because the PRC is sixty years old that this is "the motherland's 60th birthday." I think that were Mao still alive, he would object to calling it the 60th birthday of the motherland. Otherwise, where would the "Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi" and "Tang Taizong and Song Taizu" of his poem* come from?

Therefore, October 1 is "the birthday of the republic" or "the birthday of New China," not "the birthday of the motherland." I ask all of my countrymen who love the motherland to cease from the ridiculous celebrations of the 60th birthday of the motherland — to be generous, it's a joke; more seriously, it's a political error.

When Hu Feng took part in the founding ceremony for the People's Republic, he called out, filled with naive romanticism and passion, "Time has begun...." (little did he know that in just a few short years he would be drowned in the time whose beginning he had announced). But that was just poetry. Sure, on October 1, 1949, the founding of the People's Republic of China turned over a new and brilliant leaf in the pages of Chinese history, or even a new era for the Chinese people. But it was a "new leaf" and a "new era" in a thick history book covering thousands of years, not the "beginning of time" from nothing. Time (history) began for China long before October 1, 1949.

Going further afield, commentator Yan Lieshan wrote up a piece for the Chongqing Economic Times about the season's great patriotic film, Han Sanping's The Founding of A Republic. Although there is nothing problematic about the English title, Yan takes issue with the use of "founding of a country" (建国) in the Chinese title:

Is Han Sanping Forcing You Into the Theater?

by Yan Lieshan / CET

Directed by China Film Group president Han Sanping with a budget of 37 million yuan, The Founding of A Republic took in box office receipts of more than 100 million on the mainland in just three days and is predicted to break 450 million. This has led many people to complain about high ticket prices, and an online survey revealed that 90% of respondents supported making the film "free for everyone in the country." Media in Shanghai and Beijing published op-eds echoing this "public opinion" and requesting that Han Sanping "give every audience member a free baptism in patriotism," the reason being that "the actors asked you for no appearance fees, so you have no reason not to make it free for the audience." There is, in my opinion, a bit of justification for this "coercion," and I'd like to argue for Han Sanping, for free.

First let me say that I'm no fan of Han's, and I have no interest in the film itself. Even if the ticket price dropped to ten yuan, or if it were given to me gratis, I'd first have to see if I had anything better to do with my time. Even the title is a little grating on the ears. At the beginning of the year, a certain government agency issued a guiding opinion advising against terms such as "the former Soviet Union" (前苏联) and "founding of the country" (建国). Indeed. The Soviet Union is the Soviet Union. There's no "latter Soviet Union," just like the Qing Dynasty in Chinese history came after the Song, Yuan, and Ming Dynasties. We don't say "the former Qing," and there's no "latter Qing" now. "China" was not "founded" in 1949. Set aside China's three- or five-thousand years of history — at the very least, there existed a nation that was forced by the West to sign unequal treaties, and Hong Kong's "return" in 1997 was an acknowledgement of the existing lease agreement between China and Britain. China's seat in the UN, including its membership in the Security Council, succeeds from the Chinese government that took part in the founding of the UN in 1945, with its legitimacy unbroken. An academic has suggested using the term "founding of the government" (建政, the accession to power of the Chinese Communist Party, which Mao Zedong announced on the Tiananmen Rostrum with the words "The Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China is established"), but this has not been adopted. So at the 60th anniversary celebration, the standard usage is "(celebrate the 60th anniversary of) the founding of the People's Republic of China," or in a shortened form, "the founding of new China," rather than "founding of the country," a misleading formulation not in line with international law.

I'm not a star-chaser, and the content of the film holds no attraction for me whatsoever. What I cannot understand, though, is why, with all of the available material you could film for the 60th anniversary celebration, you have to go and rehash all the stuff about the pre-1949 civil war rather than filming stirring stories of things that happened since 1949, especially the last thirty years. The "three great campaigns"* have been filmed countless times, and the fifty-episode TV series Liberation is another "offering." Do mainland audiences really only want to watch "brothers quarrelling at home?"* I know, you need to be particularly scrupulous and restrained if you film anything after 1949. Like if you filmed a story about the pioneering spirit of the masses as shown in the rise of the rural contract responsibility system and applauded by Deng Xiaoping, you can't avoid mentioning the unpopularity of the People's Commune system. However, there's always material to film. In terms of leaders, there's Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon and the thawing of Sino-US relations, and then there's Zhou Enlai attending the Bandung Conference and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and so forth.

Returning to our topic: reportedly, "Media figures generally believe that the success of The Founding of a Republic stems from two factors. The first is the extraordinary cast of stars: 172 a-list Chinese stars appeared on screen in a sort of stunt, 'the most awesome film offering in history.' The second is the full use of Hollywood blockbuster techniques, opening up a new era for Chinese patriotic cinema." But ask yourself, you who have bought the high-priced tickets to see The Founding of a Republic: did you go to see the glittering red stars, or to get a patriotic education? No one compelled you to spend money or forced you into the theater, nor did the man cheat you with fake advertising hiding a dog of a film — count up those stars if you don't believe me! As for the "patriotic" packaging, thousands upon thousands of films and TV shows wrap themselves in a red-tinted package, and I've never seen you pull out your wallet to help fill in the gaping holes left by slack box office receipts. So if the guy's taken the risk of traveling the commercial road, you can't get all angry when he makes money. As for the "zero fee" taken by the big stars, that's not a purely selfless contribution made for the cause of patriotism. They're all chasing the China Film Group, and they're boosting industry big-shot Han Sanping. They're clever people, all of them — who's going to take a loss? They won't, and their managers certainly won't. Stephen Chow* won't give face to just anyone. Try it with another film group if you don't believe that: even if you hold out a thousand patriotic flags, he won't go in for it. Forcing people to appear for free is even worse than forced donations: those at least are meant for disaster victims who lack basic necessities. If you don't provide a free movie, does that impugn your patriotism?

There's an old joke in my hometown, in Pingyuanhu District of Jianghan: There was a man who mocked some people for being compulsive gamblers who had played all night out on a boat. Someone asked him, where were you that you know this? His answer: I was standing in the water. The joke mocks those people who lack self-awareness and have forgotten what they are doing. The people who buy high-priced tickets but criticize Han Sanping for "profiting off of patriotism" and "sucking up profits" — have you ever taken a step back to think about just who it is who has contributed to Han's success?


  1. 祖国 zǔguó, means "homeland" or "native land." The translation "motherland" is encouraged by references to "mother motherland" (祖国母亲).
  2. Referenced in "Snow" (沁园春·雪). Note that the author does not mention the next couplet, which name-checks Genghis Khan and his mighty bow. And though he does mention Yuan poetry, he leaves the Mongol dynasty out of the "Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing" in the next paragraph.
  3. 三大战役: Decisive battles between September 1948 and January 1949 that defeated the Nationalists in northern China, namely, the Liaoshen Campaign, Huaihai Campaign, and Beiping-Tianjin Campaign.
  4. 兄弟阋于墙: A line from "Cherry Tree" (常棣), a poem in the Minor Odes section of the Book of Songs. The following line, 外御其务, notes that despite the arguments, the brothers will defend each other from outside insults.
  5. 周星星: Stephen Chow was rumored to be one of the many stars recruited for the film, but he ultimately did not appear. Assistant Director Huang Di explained that his hair style was inappropriate for the 1940s.

Related reading: Motherland, I love You! on Chinayouren; "A Little Reflection on Patriotism" on ChinaGeeks; Whose birthday is it anyway? at Froogville.

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