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Hong Kong Basic Law

China’s national anthem and territorial borders are not timeless and unchanging

Philip Bowring says history has a more nuanced tale to tell about the country’s anthem and its territorial boundaries, with both having evolved over time

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 9:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2018, 7:01pm

Before it becomes dangerous to discuss such matters in Hong Kong, it is worth considering ideas of patriotism in the light of history. We are told we must respect the national anthem as a symbol of the nation, not to be dismissed or assigned new lyrics. Yet, the history of China’s current anthem shows that it has been as much a rallying call for the party, and the state, as for the people.

Official anthems are a fairly modern invention. France’s La Marseillaise was a bloodthirsty revolutionary, as well as patriotic, song which became the official anthem in 1795. But it was replaced by Napoleon, banned under the restored monarchy, then twice removed and reinstated. The US’ Star-spangled Banner, whose lyrics date to a battle against the British in 1814 and whose music was composed by an Englishman in the 18th century, only officially became the anthem in 1931. The British, meanwhile, not having had a revolution in recent centuries, have stuck to the ponderous patriotism of God Save the Queen (King).

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As for China, its first official anthem dates from the dying days of the Qing dynasty – 1911. Since then, there have been several changes. The republican period saw three anthems, culminating in one from 1930, the party song of the Kuomintang, which is still used by the Republic of China on Taiwan today. The current Chinese anthem,  March of the Volunteers , was written in the 1930s and became official after the revolution. But it was sidelined during the Cultural Revolution, and its author, Tian Han, imprisoned. The East is Red, an old folk song given new words in praise of Mao Zedong, became the de facto anthem. March of the Volunteers officially returned after the death of Mao but with some new words of praise of him and the party. The original 1934 lyrics were reinstated in 1982. It is hard to separate patriotism and political trends. 

As for musing over the permanence of the current borders of the People’s Republic of China, and claims over Taiwan and most of the South China Sea, these should be a natural outcome of reading history. Those borders, excluding the South China Sea island claims which date only from the 1930s, were the basically established under the Qing dynasty and hugely increased the geographical area of the state, adding territories which made it far larger than under the Ming, Song, Tang or Han dynasties. These include parts of Xinjiang and Mongolia, plus the Manchu lands and Taiwan. Qing assumption of control of Taiwan dates only to 1683, and even 300 years later, indigenous groups were still resisting alien rule. 

The Qing dynasty recognised itself as a Manchu empire, of which the central part was Han. Its expansion included conquest and decimation of the Mongols of Dzungaria, now mostly northwest Xinjiang. The vast but thinly populated non-Han parts retained their separate identity, with Han settlement in Manchu lands not allowed till the 19th century.

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Han migration to Taiwan was sometimes curtailed as it was causing trouble with the indigenous peoples, who still controlled parts of the island even by the time it was ceded to Japan in 1895. Many Western maps of the 18th and 19th centuries made a distinctions between “China” and “Chinese Empire”, reflecting that the latter was the Manchu Qing empire, with the historic mostly Han China bounded by non-Han territory. (The definition of Han is cultural and linguistic. In genetic terms, there is no such thing as a Han race).

The post-Qing governments have, naturally, given the sense of oppression under the Manchus, been Han-centric and never more so than today. Beijing’s current focus on appealing to Chinese overseas to support the (former) motherland clearly identifies Chinese as being Han, not citizens of an erstwhile multi-ethnic empire. Post-1948 China has used internal migration policies specifically to alter ethnic demographics, especially in Xinjiang where Han, who were only 7 per cent in 1953 are now 40 per cent despite lower birth rates. But success has been only partial. The emphasis on Han culture may succeed eventually, but it may not if the Uygurs and Tibetans see themselves not as part of a Han nation but as peoples whose religions and cultures are being suppressed, and many of whom share history and culture not with Han China but with the Turkic-speaking lands that stretch all the way to the Mediterranean. Once they were the equals, in terms of power, even of China.

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For sure, many historical developments do become permanent. The Austronesians indigenous of Taiwan are no more going to regain their lands than the aboriginals of Australia. The once mighty Manchus have almost ceased to exist, losing a demographic battle as well as their hold on power in Beijing. But question marks clearly linger over other regions. Likewise, the issue of Qing territory lost to imperial Russia in the late 19th century could reappear when the China-Russia relationship sours. This also involves all of Mongolia and parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Qing and Russian imperial expansions in Asia were both mostly at the expense of local peoples. That process began to be reversed with the Soviet collapse. It may well have much further to run, and China may not be the beneficiary.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator