The famous Mao slogan, that he never even used

'The Chinese people have stood up' is probably the most famous slogan on the mainland. Quiz any Chinese, from employees of multinational companies in Beijing's skyscrapers to barefoot farmers who have never left their half-hectare of land in the mountains of Guizhou , and almost all of them will say they had heard it at some time in their lives.

The slogan was attributed to Mao Zedong when the People's Republic of China was established 60 years ago, and some will even tell you they recall vividly how Mao pronounced the words in Putonghua with his heavy Hunan accent while standing in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949.

The slogan trumpets the legitimacy of the Communist Party, which regarded itself as the saviour of Chinese civilisation by driving the Japanese, Western powers and the corrupt Nationalists off the mainland.

The slogan is a manifesto of the 'Chinese dream', which aims to bring back the power and prosperity that the country had historically enjoyed. The propaganda machine has created many slogans in the past six decades, but this is one of the few that struck, and remain in, the hearts of ordinary people.

Yet there is one problem. Mao did not say it in Tiananmen Square. He did not say it on October 1, 1949, either. And some historians say that - like 'Let them eat cake', which Marie Antoinette never said, and 'Play it again, Sam', which Humphrey Bogart never said - Mao never said the quote attributed to him.

The quality of the official film footage of the founding ceremony of the 'new' China was as bad as it could be, with black and white images that were often dark, shaky and blurred, and muffled soundtracks full of noise and crackling. Nonetheless, when Mao stood in front of a microphone in Tiananmen Square, speaking with a ribbon on his chest and a piece of paper in both hands, the slogan did not appear, nor did it anywhere in his address to the marching crowd during the rest of the ceremony.

Beijing resident Wei Zhi, 77, who was in Tiananmen Square in 1949, said he never heard Mao utter those words that day. 'I was in Tiananmen Square at the Zhongshan Park's south gate. I was 17 and had just enrolled at the Beijing police school,' Wei recalled.

'I did not see Mao Zedong but I heard everything he said and to this day I remember very clearly all that was said. But I do not remember Mao saying, 'The Chinese people have stood up', and I don't think he said it. I think it was too emotional a sentence to say at such a formal event,' he said.

His claims were backed up by many other witnesses - including a Xinhua reporter who was on the tower that day and an anchorwoman of a state radio station.

Tian Shude , author of the book Truth: 80 Historical Questions About Mao Zedong, asked Li Pu, the Xinhua journalist who wrote the official wrap-up report on the ceremony, about the slogan.

'I have been approached by people with the question before,' Tian quoted Li as saying, 'In the beginning I was not quite sure. But after a thorough re-examination of my memory, the answer is very clear: Chairman Mao did not say it during the opening ceremony.'

Tian also interviewed Ding Yilan, an anchorwoman for China National Radio, who did a live broadcast of the event.

'I am sure that Chairman Mao did not say it. I have kept a copy of the audio recording from that day,' Ding was quoted as saying. 'Many people have the wrong impression that it was announced at Tiananmen. But this is not what really happened historically. We must correct it.'

But that will not be easy. Mainland history textbooks, documentaries and even publications of the Communist Party's Central Literature Publishing House link the slogan with the ceremony in Tiananmen Square. After being bombarded by propaganda for decades, most people took it for granted.

Both Li and Ding said Mao had used the slogan at the opening ceremony of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference on September 21, 1949, where it was officially elected as the ruling party of China, because the title of Mao's speech that day was 'The Chinese People Have Stood Up'.

But Professor Guan Huailun of the Nanjing municipal party committee says even that was wrong.

In a paper published in the academic journal Party History and Organisation Study in 2007, Guan argued that Mao had never mentioned the slogan during the speech and the title was added by editors.

'What he said was 'The Chinese have stood up', which, despite being just a word off, conveyed a totally different meaning,' Guan wrote.

''Chinese people' is a political term. In different periods, its definition could change. In Mao's own words, it includes workers, farmers, urban petty bourgeoisie and patriotic bourgeoisie.

'Chinese, however, is a nationality. In Mao's own words, it includes every Chinese who is brave, hard-working and together constituted a fourth of the world's population.'