Echoes of ancient sacrifice
By Xu Xiaomin
CHINA'S patriotic songs have always been sung by experienced artists in the style of Chinese folk songs, with a resounding voice expressing rich emotion during the performance.
But recently, some pop songs have been recommended as patriotic songs for middle school students by the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, stimulating heated debate around the country. This is the first time local government has recommended such songs to students.
Among the 100 recommended songs are "The Chinese" by Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau and "Hero at Heart" by Hong Kong veteran singer Emil Chow. The reason for the debate is that among the 100 patriotic songs on the list, Taiwan pop singer Jay Chow's song "Snail" is also recommended.
The singer is well-known for his unique rap style and is criticized for his inarticulate singing. "I can't hear a word clearly, can such murmuring be called a song?" said Xu Yongyi, a local engineer in his 60s.
"Snail" (a single from Chow's 2001 debut album "Fantasy") embodies a man's inner cry in a snail that firmly believes it will realize its dream of reaching the sky someday, no matter how many difficulties it encounters on the way.
The lyrics read: "I will climb step after step, fly forward with a leaf, someday I will have my own sky." The words "someday I will have my own sky" are repeated in the song.
What arouses controversy is the fact this is the first "patriotic song" to encourage young people to pursue their own dreams instead of loving and contributing to the country and the Communist Party of China.
"Jay Chow's song expresses the pursuit of nature, friendship and hard-work which will educate students very well," said Wang Yueping, an official with the commission that is in charge of selecting the patriotic songs. "It's popular among students and what's more, the theme of the song is positive."
"I read all the lyrics of the song, but I didn't find anything related to patriotism. It can only be seen as a healthy and positive song for young people," said Li Qing in a story about the debate carried in the Shanghai-based Youth Daily.
It is very interesting that to realize personal values and pursuits are mentioned as an item of patriotic education. For a long time, when Chinese people talked about patriotism, it was conceived as abandoning personal benefits as a sacrifice to the State.
In ancient society, loving the country and sincerely devoting oneself to its rulers was considered the essence of patriotism for thousands of years. Talk about patriotism ignored personal pursuits or benefits. It was the interests of the emperor and the country that were most important.
In ancient times, the emperor was identified with the country, so being loyal to the ruler equalled patriotism. Being devoted to the emperor, before and after his death, was accepted almost as a kind of religious obligation by ancient Chinese. Sometimes, such awe turned out to be very cruel.
From the Xia Dynasty (21st-16th century BC) to the Zhou Dynasty (11th century to 256 BC), when the emperor died, his most treasured articles, loving concubines, capable officials and servants were buried with him. In 621 BC, 177 people were buried with an emperor, among them three of his high officials. People took such excesses as a kind of honour, and also a way to demonstrate their sincerity.
Such cruelties were partly abandoned after the Zhou Dynasty. But sacrificing oneself for the emperor, or for the country, was still encouraged in the Chinese cultural system. It was the core of the whole feudal mentality in China that a sincere subject should be ready to die for the emperor anytime and anywhere.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the powerful eunuch Wei Zhongxian framed many top officials, the country's safety was threatened by the Manchu invaders who were to set up the succeeding Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Under such circumstances, some officials were tortured in prison by Wei, among them the famous Zuo Guangdou who said "all my hair and skin belongs to my emperor and father". He thought the only way to pay back the emperor and show his sincerity was death. Facing such uncontrollable chaos, many people believed death was the only way to maintain their loyalty of spirit. To die for the emperor and country was a revered way of death, "as heavy as the Taishan Mountain."
Another famous royal official of the Ming Dynasty was Fang Xiaoru, Emperor Jianwen's teacher. When Jianwen's powerful uncle Zhu Di grabbed the throne, Fang didn't surrender to the pretender, even when threatened with death. "I will sacrifice my life for the emperor, I have no other wish". He was killed in 1402, and 873 of his family members and relatives were also murdered.
The positions and obligations of emperors and officials were fixed by custom and officials had to sacrifice their blood and life if required. Officials believed "if the emperor asks me to die, it is necessary to commit suicide". Even if the emperor was deranged or cruel, officials had no right to rise up. Their responsibility was to immortalize the emperor through their own deaths.
Some of the deaths did not "go to waste". Ancient dynasties honoured such deed and took them as good examples with which to educate the people - a type of ancient patriotic education. Their stories were written in history books; memorial buildings were constructed for them; their offspring were awarded money and high positions.
Travelling around China, it is easy to find temples bearing the name "Zhonglie" (martyr) that were built for people who died for their emperors.
One example is the legend of the Yang family generals during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Three generations of Yang's family fought battles for the emperor and many family members died on the battlefield, even though the emperor did not especially trust them. But no one regretted the loss. The legend was written into novels and operas and many places were named after Yang's family. The force of Yang's story lasted for hundreds of years. It is unlikely that Jay Chow's song will enjoy such distant renown.