For the last two centuries, the Chinese psyche has been defined in large part by the humiliations and sufferings brought about by foreigners (see the Opium War, the Second Opium War, and the Nanjing Massacre). After the founding of the current Peoples Republic of China, it was the disastrous policies of the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward which furthered that wound. The latter were the Chinese inflicting pain onto themselves.
In a T.V. series released in 1991, called 渴望 (“Yearning”), 毛阿敏 (Mao AMin) touched the hearts of every Chinese with her rendition of the theme song under the same name. The T.V. series itself was an epic, depicting the social upheaval that characterized the Cultural Revolution. The impact of the Cultural Revolution was pervasive. It gripped the whole nation.
Through 渴望, 毛阿敏 brought out the sadness and the strong yearning inside every Chinese to want to shed the past and to seek a future free of those sufferings. Every Chinese have lamented how things have gone so wrong for the bulk of the last two centuries. If anyone who wishes to understand why the Chinese want peace and stability nowadays, he or she should start by understanding this song and what it conveys.
(A 10-minute cursory translation by berlinf – so you can get a rough gist of the lyric. berlinf is a professional Chinese literary works translator. We are not giving justice to the Chinese lyrics. Just imagine the result from translating a poem by a Western poet like Thoreau into Chinese in 10 minutes!)
We’ve all been through
Ah this long journey of life
Of endless inquiry
Deep inside I yearn
For a truthful life
Who can tell me
Is this right or wrong
Thus I ask
Passengers heading south
Those days of a life
Those confusions of the past
What is a reality
What is an illusion
These are hard to tell
Those joys and sorrows
Those farewells and reunions
I have them all
Ah this long journey of life
Of endless inquiry
Deep inside I yearn
For a truthful life
Who can tell me
Is this right or wrong
Thus I asked
Passengers heading south
Those graces I was given
Those wrongs I suffered from
I shall forget or forgive
Till there is none left
Except the barest of feelings
Which I shall tell
From the very start
To let these stories pass
In the lamp light of thousands of homes
Yet these are ordinary stories
That they are like a song
Mused over in the past
Mused over in the days to come
Per Nimrod, the lyrics performed in this video is actually an abridged version. Below matches with this performance:
Although Mao Amin’s interpretation of the song is famous, it’s worthwhile to note that the lyrics were written by Li Nangang (李南冈, aka 易茗) and the music composed by his wife Lei Lei (雷蕾). As a duo, the two of them were responsible for a number of the classic TV themes from that era, and both have remained active with other collaborators to the present day.
I know very little of Mainland popular song of seventies, eighties or even nineties. I grew up listening to Taiwanese singer, and later on HK Alan Tam and Leslie Cheung. Different generation would have their own best sixties, seventies and eighties. My favorite until today is still Huang Shujun (黄舒骏) and Lou Dayou (罗大佑), seem no one could beat this two on lyric. Could anyone write an article or provide link for evolved of Mainland song and music?
Unlike novel that are restrain by environment and politic, I hope China could have some break through in song and music. I still think Taiwan have the best singer and songwriter among the few Chinese region.
If this post was meant to speak only of music then thanks for that, it is cool and I like the song. But if we are allowed to speak politics I would like to say:
China has passed many sufferings and humiliations, by foreigners and by Chinese themselves, but that is not at all rare in the World. Most nations have suffered the same or even worse in the last 160 years. Spain for example had a terrible civil war and a dictatorship that in total killed as many people as in China (as a percentage of population). Lets not even mention Korea, France, the Jews, most of Africa, South and Centro American Countries, Vietnam sufferings (partly caused by Chinese invasion), Russia, Eastern Europe, etc. etc. If you count victims as ratio of the population I dont think China is even in the top half of the list of victim countries.
Sorry for being anticlimactic here, please bear with me for a second. I only say this because I want to ask the question: WHY do Chinese, even as their country is doing fine and becoming a superpower, even as their position is envied by most countries in the World, WHY do they still need to relish in the old humiliations? Does anyone imagine that Mexicans waste so much time crying for Texas, or Turkish crying for the loss of the Balkans??
I am sure eveyone of us has felt humiliated at least once in our personal lives, do you keep reminding it to yourself or just live on? Is this attitude really healthy and does it serve any purpose other than feeding nationalism?
PS. this is intended as a sincere question, not a rant. If you dont agree with me please just breathe and tell me why, no need to get excited 🙂
My guess is that the answer will be some variation of “we need to have that victim mentality to remind us to never be victimized again”. The only thing is that, while many would choose to keep such reminders in the back of their mind, many others would choose to keep them in the front of it. That would probably explain why such folks seemingly lead with it.
@SKC@Uln: I would like to refer you to a famous piece of text by Mencius, which probably every Chinese student is required to recite, and I believe eloquently summarize why the past grievances are cherished so much in Chinese philosophy.
Mencius said, “Shun rose from among the ditched fields. Fu Yueh was called to office from the midst of his building hut frames; Chiao-Ko from his fish and salt; Kwan I-wu from the hands of his gaoler; Sun-shuh Ao from his life by the seashore; and Pai-li Hsi from the market place.
“Thus, when heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and removes his incompetence.
“Men for the most part err, and are afterwards able to reform. They are distressed in mind and perplexed in their thoughts, and then they arise to vigorous reformation. When things have been evidenced in men’s sight, and set forth in their words, then they understand them.
“If a prince have not about his court families attached to the laws and worthy counselors then, even if abroad there are no hostile states or other external calamities, his kingdom will generally come to ruin.
“From these things we see how life springs from sorrow and calamity, and death from ease and pleasure.”
Now, think about it, Mencius put down these words more than 2300 years ago, after when numerous people, institutions, dynasties, countries and civilizations rose in sorrow and calamity and fell in ease and pleasure, when Chinese people reiterate this classic to their children, there’ll be a quite long list of examples serving as arguments, with U.S and U.K possible new entries in the list in the future.
WHY do Chinese, even as their country is doing fine and becoming a superpower, even as their position is envied by most countries in the World, WHY do they still need to relish in the old humiliations?
I thought about your question for quite a bit, actually. I think the best answer I can give is – this is simply a Chinese narrative. Why do Spielberg or Hollywood keep making these movies about WW2 Germany? We can make an endless list of questions like that.
Remember, this post is about “yearning.” When the Chinese people feel that China has solved poverty, caught up with the developed countries in living standards, and etc., I think this “yearning” feeling will fade. So, I wouldn’t characterize this as “relish” in old humiliations.
I am curious if this “yearning” feeling has affected your interaction with Chinese people you have met? Has it gotten in the way?
I have no doubt for “human rights” and “democracy” campaigners who are not sincere and are interested in something else, this “yearning” has gotten in their way and has a tsunami like effect against their cause.
For Chinese people my grandparents generation, they were direct victims of WW2 Japan’s invasion. How could have the Chinese his generation stopped the killings by foreigners? A peaceful world, a stronger China, and a capable Chinese government able of protecting them.
For Chinese my parents generation, many of them saw the death and destruction when they were young, or they lived through the after effects of WW2. They then lived through CR and GLF. This generation believes a pragmatic China is needed to guard against crazy ideologies. They obviously believe, too, a stronger China and government is necessary to protect themselves.
Finally, the current generation – they are raised by the previous two. So, why wouldn’t you expect their values to be similar?
Regarding your “relish” point – I am not sure how familiar you are with how hard the Chinese government is trying to tone down the anti-Japanese sentiment inside China in favor of normalization between the two countries.
One last point – during the 1997 Hong Kong hand-over. I remember 99% (figuratively) of the media coverage in the U.S. (I am guessing the same in the U.K.) around that time were about a democratic little lamb about to hand over to a vicious wolf and the forecasts of destruction of Hong Kong’s way of life. Why not provide some history and talk about how wrong the Opium Wars were? So, to the ordinary Chinese, this re-inforces the “yearning.” The past must not repeat.
Like I said, this “yearning” gradually disappears as China grows richer and more stable.
that’s a good quote. I imagine a tale such as that one is not unique to the Chinese education system, or to Chinese dinner tables. Complacency breeds laziness, which is the seed for failure. Work hard to achieve more. Seek good counsel. Learn from history. Those all seem like good words to live by.
As I said in #11, “(Chinese people) need to have that victim mentality to remind (them) to never be victimized again”. I guess my question is how often that sentiment is used, these days, in the face of real threats, vs how often it is trotted out as justification for just about anything CHina does. Sort of like the “crying wolf” tale.
“this is simply a Chinese narrative.” — but what motivates, explains, justifies, and perpetuates this narrative? A need for a strong China does not mean China needs a victim mentality or that she needs to easily feel humiliated, it would seem at least to me.
My Chinese isn’t great, but “yearning” does seem an apt translation of the song title. To me, both the English word and the song title/phrase speak of something forward looking, rather than dwelling on the past.
@dewang – I admit my last sentence was a bit over the top. It wasn’t aimed at you, it was aimed at some excited people who sometimes show up in this blog. I just wanted to avoid turning this into a flame war, because it is a sensitive topic.
Re: I am curious if this “yearning” feeling has affected your interaction with Chinese people you have met? Has it gotten in the way?
I would say no, not so much. Actually most Chinese are very pragmatic and they have better things to do than spend time worrying about the opium wars… it is just a small part of them that take these things too seriously. The problem is that those Chinese are very vocal, and somehow this subject comes up all the time.
Also, I am not sure that the government is really toning down these feelings, as you suggest. I think the CCP employs a double strategy, fueling nationalism when it is to their advantage (ie to ensure cohesion and loyalty to the party) but also toning it down when it goes too far (ie when it risks to spoil a super commercial deal with Japan where there are $$$ to be pocketed…)
You raised a good question: why is Chinese nationalism defined so much by past suffering. I don’t think it’s just politics. It’s a sociological question. China’s fate has been directly tied to colonialism, brutal invasions, and civil wars.
You mentioned Vietnam, I don’t know if you are spouting Vietnam propaganda here, I have so many Vietnamese (and Korean) friends, and I know for a fact much of the anti-Chinese feelings you express is fomented /emphasized recently as part of their nation building process. Same with Korea. Historically, I don’t think either country would say they suffered in their interaction with China. In fact, without China, we’d not have Korean and Vietnamese culture as we know it.
China is so different from some of the small states you mentioned. China is a different civilization (not just an empire). It is the only major other civilization that has succeeded, in its own time, as much as the West. So the downfall of China in the hand of the West is much more significant than the fall of Soviet Union to the West (in so many ways, Russia really is a part of the West) – which is so much more significant than the other things you mentioned.
When I travel China, I see a lot of “backwardness.” I know the backwardness was due in part to Chinese insularity, but also in large part to aggressions from outside – such as the opium war and Japanese aggression. I think Chinese should definitely not forget the past. The suffering of the Chinese nation – with a population of 1/3 – 1/4 population throughout recent history, happens on a scale much larger than say suffering in Kosovo, or Spain, etc. As China prospers (my definition of China is high; China would probably not become prosperous in my life time; hopefully my son will see a truly prosperous China), hopefully the pain of the past will become more distant – will merge into China’s history as just an anomalous period when a dynasty falls and the country falls into chaos.
#16, about whether government is fueling nationalism, that’s a subjective call. I know the government can definitely inflame nationalism more, but it’s really not in the interest of the government. The government needs people to be patient and to tolerant of the inevitable bumps that will come along the long way to rebuilding the country. Nationalism can be an enemy of the government, if the people don’t see government as aggressive enough in defending the country’s interest and giving away too much of the store to foreigners. Nationalism is part of the nation building process, but it is only a part. And I think the gov’t has been taking a very centrist way in handling nationalism thus far.
I personally think that the nationalism for past suffering could help Chinese to achieve two purposes.
1.To make known of “west” and aggressor hypocrisy.
2.People tend to become smart and creative out of necessity, the need to survive stretches the mind more than anything else. This apply well to country which saw great upheavals and sufferings
Having said that, I hope the nationalism emotion could be balanced out through culture and art. Listening to any 靡靡之音 is anytime better than bombarded with something like 我的祖国。
@Rhan: Well, that’s your opinion. I and many people around me would consider 我的祖国 much more aesthetically pleasing than many 靡靡之音. Besides, the lyrics of 我的祖国 is about love between young people, friendship, and the beauty of motherland, which are emotions most human beings will have. there were just two lines about greeting invading wolves with shotguns, I would consider it a very neutral song, what’s so nationalistic about it?
Yeah, this is solely my opinion. I find many songs from China that talk about love, friendship and scenery would ultimately relate back to revolution and motherland. I read from a website on difference of two songs I paste below that talk about the same topic, soldier and middle autumn. I agree with the author that Xiao Deng 君在前哨 would make us feel warm with genuine temperament while 十五的月亮 tend to make us feel heavy and sobriety. I personally like both songs but find it a bit odd to read term like 巡逻, 祖国, 军功..
Watch any show on celebration of spring festival, the MC use the term motherland at least hundred times from beginning to end. China is supposed to be the sources of cultural and arts affection for most Chinese including overseas Chinese, hence I believe they should try to avoid being too political. Taiwan used to be having this role, my childhood memory of school lives resemble exactly what portray in most Taiwan movie and series of the seventies and eighties, but their influence is faded since the rises of DPP.
“Watch any show on celebration of spring festival, the MC use the term motherland at least hundred times from beginning to end. China is supposed to be the sources of cultural and arts affection for most Chinese including overseas Chinese, hence I believe they should try to avoid being too political. Taiwan used to be having this role, my childhood memory of school lives resemble exactly what portray in most Taiwan movie and series of the seventies and eighties, but their influence is faded since the rises of DPP.”
That is precisely the problem with Taiwan: a confused bunch who have been at a loss with their identity, due large part to DPP. You seem to suggest that compared to MC, Taiwan is in a more “advanced” stage and over time MC would be more like Taiwan.
That is wrong.
What you’re seeing is a more basic and natural expression of feelings and emotions by a people, who are, once again, at ease and proud of being themselves. It is an emotion and sentiment that are compatible with how Chinese feel about their country, their long and distinguished civilization, what they have suffered in the past and what they have come back and achieved so far. This is a feeling likely to be quite foreign and unfamiliar to contemporary Taiwanese.
“The singing of the Chinese national anthem
This might seem like an odd pick to Americans. But part of the remarkable nature of these games is the continuing exploration of the people of China, and a deeper look into their national pride. Never was that self dignity and absolute affection more apparent than the singing of “March of the Volunteers.”
After having been in many, many stadiums and having heard anthems belted out in every conceivable way, it was fascinating to see the Chinese singing in such an emotional way. There was no restraint whatsoever – every voice was maxed out, and every word was given an equal measure of passion. It was such an abundant harmony that almost anyone I could see who wasn’t Chinese was looking around at the people standing next to them, enjoying the spectacle.”
Contrast this with Taiwan. I’ve seen some Taiwanese who wrote enviously about the excitements and bonding experiences that MC have experienced during the occasions such as when China got the Olympic hosting right and National Day. Of course, I’ve also read many Taiwanese trying to put down such sentiments and feel superior with the so-called “universal values” (“普适价值“）. These are mostly sour grapes in my honest opinion and you could tell the “void” that they felt.
I hope China will never lose such affection and attachment, even if it starts to import more of the “universal values.”
@Rhan: Your probably have a overly sensitive ear, I actually quite often find many Taiwanese having a strong sense of vigilance and feeling of insecurity, I can definitely understand what causes that. But to me, 我的祖国 is just a sincere description of how a naive person will feel about his home, friends, and circumstances surrounding him/her, rather than such a sophisticated thought like nationalism. Even the “shotgun” lines are pretty sincere, some wolves come to my home to loot, I should drive them away ,not for the party’s sake, not for honor, but to protect myself and my home, isn’t that a very natural feeling anyone would have? I I don’t think this song is comparable to that of “军功章“. I know it was made as a theme song for a somehow propagandistic film, but listening to it alone gives you another feeling.
I wrote “I find many songs from China that talk about love, friendship and scenery would ultimately relate back to revolution and motherland.” Read the lyric 这是英雄的祖国 and 这是强大的祖国 , what love and friendship had to do with hero motherland and powerful motherland? Doesn’t the song imply that motherland could dictate how we love and how we make friends? My understanding could be wrong and if I do, I am sorry but this is how I comprehend the meaning of this song. It doesn’t in anyway diminish the song arts value and popularity.
I know how Chinese feel towards their country and I am trying to be objective and sensitive while making comment. I am in the opinion that Chinese should avoid become too Chinese because this is exactly what happens to DPP, the opposite way, they do not want to be Chinese. To me, both are extreme.
What is your feeling when you hear “we are Taiwanese, we love Taiwan” a few hundred time a night? Can you say their feeling is not natural? I doubt so and I deem this as no different with hundreds time of “motherland”
I always say democracy may cause more problems to China because democracy can never solve the nationalistic emotion.
Rather than compare China with Spain, Mexico, Vietnam, etc, it might be more apt to compare China 1842/1945 with World War II between the great powers of Europe.
They were “civilisational crises”; both necessitated re-invention. In the case of the West, it had to ditch imperialism and nationalism that had put Germany into conflict with France and mainly Great Britain. The old powers adopted liberal democracy and forged closer fraternal bonds.
China’s century of humilation similarly laid bare the inadequacies of the 5000-year civilisation it had been so proud of. Against tremendous odds, it has re-invented itself and continues to do so.
The Western world commemorates World War II every year, pledging “never again”. Why shouldn’t China remember its greatest hours of peril as the starting point of its modern nationhood?
It’s not about victimhood.It’s a reminder of the need for vigilance.
It seems that many people recognize the song in a political/historical context. Originally, it might have been, since it was the theme song for a tv series with just this setting, but I love the song for the reason that it endured for this long, solidified by Mao A Min’s performance at this top event here. China’s a country composed of how many billions – to have so many heads listen and appreciate it – especially with the singer’s technical ability and her own emotional contributions – I don’t think the song is purely political, representative of a “Chinese” mentality, as if that’s itself some uniform, constant derivative. Come on, be real. It’s a beautiful song, and if you know the Chinese language, it means a lot about living life, and who doesn’t sigh and smile having had some headaches on the road, Chinese or not.