Translatio Imperii Sinici
In the speech translated below Wang Ke’er 王珂兒, a first-year student in senior high school, confronts the topic of 祖國 zǔguó, the ‘mother-/ fatherland’. The text of Wang’s speech was circulated online in October 2014, although assiduous official Net-Nazis scrubbed it from the Internet as quickly as it spread. It resurfaced again in early 2019. This translation has been made as part of China Heritage Annual 2019, the theme of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici, or ‘the inheritance of empire’.
In the 2019 China Heritage Annual we focus not merely on the incipient ‘Red Empire’ of the Xi Jinping era — a topic discussed at length by Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 — but also on the ideas, habits, cultural expressions, as well as the burdens of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which still powerfully influence the Chinese world.
Here a high-school student, someone who gives voice to what we call ‘Other China’ — that is a world of ideas and hopes that is not entirely dominated by the Communist party-state, or Official China and its discursive habits — mulls over the malign influence of the dynastic past while addressing the future with a measure of optimism. In doing so, Wang Ke’er also confronts the ‘China Dream’, that grab-bag concept of Xi Jinping and his propagandists. Wang tells her audience that her dreams are of a different order; they have far more in common with outspoken thinkers like Xu Zhangrun than with the droves of Party hacks and their fellow-travelers in mainland China, Hong Kong and overseas who parrot official formulations. Wang’s comments make a mockery of the Communist Party’s risible, ahistorical claims about the longevity of ‘China’ and its supposedly millennia-long story of unity, peacefulness, abstract spiritual continuity, national pride and ethnic harmony.
By alluding to the dynastic past — and in choosing to discuss particular dynasties — the speaker also offers a subtle critique of ‘Snow’ 沁園春 · 雪, Mao Zedong’s most famous poem, the second stanza of which reads:
This land so rich in beauty
Has made countless heroes bow in homage.
But alas! Qin Shihuang and Han Wudi
Were lacking in literary grace,
And Tang Taizong and Song Taizu
Had little poetry in their souls;
And Genghis Khan,
Proud Son of Heaven for a day,
Knew only shooting eagles, bow outstretched
All are past and gone!
For truly great men
Look to this age alone.
— ‘For Truly Great Men, Look to This Age Alone’
China Heritage, 27 January 2018
In her remarks, Wang lists these dynasties and wonders how she should relate to them today. And, when she goes through a list of famous modern political thinkers and leaders, she even cheekily employs a line from Mao’s poem — ‘All are past and gone’ 俱往矣 — before telling her classmates that it is up to young people like her, and them, to challenge the past and change the future.
Some readers have questioned whether this succinct and sophisticated argument was really written by a seventeen-year old in the People’s Republic. We leave it to readers to judge for themselves, although our experience would indicate that such voices from The Other China — insightful, sardonic yet uplifting — are not particularly rare, nor should they be ignored.
Equally, it is worth noting the kinds of criticisms directed at Wang’s views. One critic commented:
Students like Wang Ke’er are proof of the failure of our educational system. They only learn historical data points and material that is useful when taking exams. These children learn scraps of information about historical personages and incidents, but they aren’t apprised of the background or significance of those historical events. In this particular case, Wang can’t even explain clearly [the meaning of] the term ‘Fatherland’. It’s little wonder that students are concerned about the kind of education they are receiving.
— 正成, ‘写给王珂儿并答《假如我活了两千岁，
我的祖国是谁？》’, 7 October 2015
祖國 zǔguó literally means ‘the land of one’s ancestors’ or ‘patria’. According to patriarchal tradition, ancestors were regarded specifically as belonging to the male line of a clan or family. Therefore the term 祖國 zǔguó — a modern expression adopted from Japan — should be rendered as ‘Fatherland’. Aware of the Nazi-era odium associated with ‘Fatherland/ Vaterland’, however, China’s state media has long preferred to use the word ‘Motherland’ when translating 祖國 zǔguó. This is a term that is useful in other ways, in particular as a result of its associations with the Russian родина rodina, which was widely employed in the Stalinist-infused propaganda that was common among the Chinese Communists from the 1940s.
Although in English the word ‘Motherland’ enjoys positive associations related to the concepts of nurturing, birth and progeny, we would note that the primary element in 祖 zǔ, as in 祖國 zǔguó — ‘Father-/ Motherland’ — is 且, a stylised penis.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 June 2019
If I Were Two Thousand Years Old
What Would I Call My Motherland?
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
This is the text of a speech made by a [seventeen-year-old] female student during a high-school speech day on the theme of ‘Our Deep Love for the Father- /Motherland’. This student’s understanding of things is far more sophisticated that that of the majority of her elders. Her remarks reflect positively on the youth of this country and offer hope for the future of China itself. 編者按：一所高中舉辦「熱愛祖國」的主題演講，這是一位少女的演講稿，其清醒認識超過我們大部分成年人，中國下一代有希望! 中國有希望!：
This is the text of a speech made by a [seventeen-year-old] female student during a high-school speech day on the theme of ‘Our Deep Love for the Father- /Motherland’. This student’s understanding of things is far more sophisticated that that of the majority of her elders. Her remarks reflect positively on the youth of this country and offer hope for the future of China itself.
Teachers, Classmates: Salutations!
My name is Wang Ke’er and I’m in the first year of senior middle school, class #6. The topic I’ve chosen to address today is ‘If I Were Two Thousand Years Old, What Would I Call My Motherland??’
In my speech I will not resort to the kind of grandiloquent or emotive language that we have previously heard. I have my own ideas about what the word ‘Motherland’ means to me. I feel that our society doesn’t want for knowledgeable people, but there’s a scarcity of individuals who can think for themselves.
And what I’ve been thinking is this: If I were two thousand years old, what would I call my Motherland?
— In the time of the Han dynasty [206 BCE-220 CE], for instance, it would be ‘Great Han’, a political power known by that famous line: ‘Regardless of how far flung they may be, any who dare encroach upon my territory, will perish at our hands’.
— If I lived in the Tang-era [from the seventh to the tenth centuries] my Motherland would be the ‘Great Tang’, a dynasty celebrated for being able to attract supplicant peoples from distant lands.
— In the Song [960-1279] my homeland would be the ‘Great Song’, a dynasty with advanced technical knowhow and a prosperous economy.
— If I was living in the time of the Yuan dynasty [1279-1368], which was ruled over by the Mongols, I’d be a low-caste underling eking out an existence under the iron hoof of the invaders. But would my Motherland have been the ‘Great Yuan’? Would I have loved it as my homeland?
— Or take the Qing dynasty [1644-1912]. The Manchus who established the Qing butchered their way through the Great Wall and executed [all male] subjects who refused to shave their forelocks and grow long queues [as a sign of their submission]. The Manchu-Qing rulers carried out the Ten-day Yangzhou Massacre [of 1645], one that puts the murderous Nanjing Massacre [of countless civilians in the Republican-era capital by the Imperial Japanese army in 1937] in the shade. Would the ‘Great Qing’ really have been my Motherland? And how would I have been able to love such a land?
I’ve gradually come to understand the fact that, regardless of who dominates your Mother by force, you’re expected to treat them as though they are your Father; but to do so, aren’t we just debasing ourselves? Classmates, sometimes it even occurs to me that if the Japanese invasion of our China had succeeded, wouldn’t we now all be chanting ‘Tennō banzai!‘ [Long Live the Emperor of Japan]?
I’m truly confused: if I had really been alive over the past two thousand years, I honestly don’t know who or what my Motherland would be. However, in my heart of hearts, I do know there is a true Motherland, one in which people enjoy equality and justice; and it is a place where people don’t constantly feel aggrieved.
- This heartland of mine is one lets you both be a winner — for when you win you will be able to do so with confidence and peace of mind — as well as a loser — when you lose you could be allowed to do so with humble acceptance and honest acknowledgment;
- This heartland of mine can unfurl its wings and take you in its secure embrace whenever it is necessary;
- This heartland of mine fills you with hope, no matter how difficult your life may be.
Germany had its Karl Marx, while Russia produced Joseph Stalin. America boasts of George Washington and England too of Winston Churchill. All are past and gone. Today we, the young people of the world, have a responsibility. [For, as the Qing-era reformer Liang Qichao wrote in his ‘Paean to Youthful China’:]
Today’s responsibility lies with the youth. If the youth are wise, the country will be wise. If the youth are wealthy, the country will be wealthy. If the youth are strong, the country will be strong. If the youth are independent, the country will be independent. If the youth are free, the country will be free. […] If our young people are more heroic than the rest of the world, China will be more heroic than the rest of the world. [For more on this song and its place in official youth culture today, see Homo Xinensis Militant, China Heritage, 1 October 2018 — trans.]
On our watch, the watch of China’s youth, we must strive to build a country that is better than ever before; a country that truly deserves the deep love and reverence of each and every one of us; a country with a democracy that will be the envy of the Americans; a country possessed of technological knowhow that will be the envy of the Germans; a country of plenty that will be the envy of the Japanese; a country that is so honest and uncorrupt that even the Singaporeans will be impressed.
Ours will be a country that is a land of stunning achievement, a Motherland of which I can truly be proud, a place that is worthy of being a Fatherland that will never be forgotten no matter how many generations pass or how many descendants there may be trailing into the distant future.
The China Dream? In the past, the Chinese had Three Old Dreams:
- They dreamed of having a Decent Ruler — a Good Emperor — one who had a meaningful and positive response to the problems they faced. A ruler who was beneficent to all;
- They dreamed of Untainted Officials. Even if they couldn’t have a truly Good Emperor, they would dream about there being at least one unsullied official, one who was clean and who had the personal daring to give voice to the concerns of the common people when addressing the ruler; an official who had the courage to challenge the Emperor;
- They dreamed that if there was no hope for even one Untainted Official there would be a heroic Knight-errant, someone who could seek revenge on their behalf.
Today, the Chinese have Three New Dreams:
- The First Dream is for Freedom, to be freed from the oppression of monolithic state power and the burden of autocratic rule, along with the repressive behaviour of the New Nobility;
- The Second Dream is for Human Rights, that is to enjoy equal rights and an environment without some privileged group that lords it over everyone, creating impotent resentment; and,
- The Third Dream is for Constitutional Government, a kind of political arrangement that is underwritten by a constitutional order in the interests of all of the people; a constitutional rule that is a true expression of the will of the whole people which allows all to participate in politics equally; a constitutional order that will determine just how things can and should be done.
The Three Old Dreams were fantasies embraced both by [dynastic-era] officials and subjects alike; they were a kind of self-stupefaction, reflecting the stuff of nightmares that haunted everyone for millennia. Their effect was to pacify the people, to make them submit meekly thereby allowing the power-holders to do as they pleased, to enjoy things as they wished, to kill and maim at random while vouchsafing their eternal right to rule.
The Three New Dreams are the inevitable product of modern mercantile civilisation. They are an expression of social enlightenment, a symptom of a popular awakening, the result of the struggle and sacrifices of people of conscience and hope. They are dreams that will, one day, be our woken reality.
- 王珂儿, ‘假如如我活了两千岁，我的祖国她是谁?’, CND (China News Digest), 2015年2月26日 (reprint)
- 正成, ‘写给王珂儿并答《假如我活了两千岁，我的祖国是谁？》’, 7 October 2015