Motherland, I love You!

Written by Julen Madariaga on October 2nd, 2009

xin_412100601194387584036I was pleasantly surprised when I booked my last minute flight to Japan, I got a very reasonable price for the 1st October National Day. When I went to Pudong airport I understood why: the streets were empty in Shanghai, nobody flew at that time because they were all at home with the eyes glued to the TV set, watching as thousands of men and women, looking silly in their flowery dresses, marched on Beijing’s Chang An Avenue.

I had the chance to watch the parade for 30 minutes as I waited to board my plane. I have to say it was beautiful. Sure enough there were  cringeworthy moments, like when the TV showed the communist model peasants, workers and miners, shining like Mario Bros in 256 colours. But of course, a good deal of hypocrisy is always mandatory in these State events, in China and elsewhere. And regarding the execution, I have watched quite a few of the famous mass events in Pyongyang, and I am pretty sure North Koreans are white with envy watching this one, if their state channel even cared to broadcast it.

All this display of patriotism reminded me of the conversation I had last week with little Yi. It was after we watched an advert on TV, the one where the little girl stands on Tiananmen Square squeaking in that ghastly toddler tone: “妈妈我爱你!” (mum, I love you), and a similar girl says the same in Tibetan in front of the Potala temple of  Lhasa. The screen then goes white, and a message comes up: “祖国我爱你”.  Motherland, I love you. I don’t remember which was the company announced, but the advert has been showing continuously for months, and it was the eleventh time I watched it.

I had a delicate stomach that day, and pushed to the limits of resistance, I couldnt help bringing up the subject:

“This is ridiculous,” I said bluntly, “you can’t love a country like you love your mother!”

“Of course you can,” said little Yi, “you don’t understand the feelings of the Chinese!”

“Yeah, right.”

Babbling toddlers and feelings of the people. That was about as much as I could take before lunch. I regretted I’d spoken at all.

“Our country is like a mother for all the Chinese, ” she continued, “that is what they mean.”

“Yeah, OK, except that it is NOT the same. A mother gives you life, she will always love you and no matter what happens, no matter what mistakes you do or how stupid you behave, she will be there for you. A country, if you fail to comply, will just abandon you or even put you to death ”

“Well, it is a different kind of mother. If you fail, the punishment is terrible. If you work hard and succeed, the prize is much greater. It is a mighty mother with higher stakes, what is wrong with that?’

“Nothing wrong, just that that is not Love”

“It is,” she insisted. “Or don’t Christians teach love of God, and isn’t He much more terrible, that if you fail to behave even your life is not enough, and you get an eternity of pain?”


I shut up. She had some point there. I don’t particularly believe in the Christian god, and besides, 2000 years ago they invented a mother Mary precisely to deal with the rough edges of the Old Testament. But it is true that, in religion and in politics, many people in the West feel that same kind of loving feelings as the Chinese. So this was not really a discussion about China, but a more general one on patriotism.

My problem is that I do not accept the word love to refer to a country. For one reason, because I understand love as a feeling that can only happen between persons, perhaps sometimes with animals, but not with things. And definitely not with abstract and easy manipulable concepts like “nation”. But granted, this is merely a problem of language, and I don’t have the authority to prescribe how the word “love” should be used, even less how “爱” is employed in Chinese. Still, there is a more compelling argument against love for the motherland:  I think it is not in the best interest of the “loving” party.

Let’s look at the facts. Human society has to be organized some way, and the power needs to be held by someone. In the past it was the tribe, the emperor or the feudal lord. Now it is the nation-state, nothing particularly wrong with that.  All forms of organization require the respect and participation of the citizens to work, and it is in the interest of everyone to treat them accordingly, once their legitimacy has been established. Therefore, I understand it is important to respect and work for the improvement of one’s country, and I try to do it, just like I do for my company or for my university. But love them like a mother?

It might be that I am speaking from a very European perspective-though by no means mainstream even there. Perhaps I am failing to take into account the particular circumstances of countries like China. Europeans used to be the haughtiest and most virulent motherland lovers, until their excessive feelings brought about ruin and destruction. Patriotism in China never caused any catastrophe of even comparable magnitude, and instead worked well to save the people from foreign-imposed sufferings. So the feelings of many Chinese are understandable, if not necessarily beneficial today.

And still, the key question we have to ask ourselves is: are these feelings in the interest of the citizen, and in the interest of mankind as a whole? Can the World really be in peace if the relation between citizens and their countries is one of blind love, like child to mother? When there is a conflict of interests, is the loving child not forced to fight for his beloved to the last consequences? Since conflicts of interests and greedy rulers are facts of life that will not disappear, is not the love doctrine in contradiction with the ideal of World Peace that most of us profess?

I would like to hear opinions about this. Of course, I understand that for many sentimental people the feeling of love for their country is very much alive, and there is little to explain since it is just a feeling . But Chinese tend to be very rational and in control of their feelings, and when they choose to love it is rarely out of blind passion, but rather because they consider it a good option.  I suspect their patriotism is in most cases the result of a prisoner’s dilemma: if other countries act patriotic, the only rational attitude is to do the same.

But I wonder if people are actually following this logic (ultimately a defensive attitude) or are really so in love with their country and their flag that they don’t even think much about it. And if you do think about it, do you actually believe that a peaceful World is possible in the long term?

Perhaps I think too much sometimes. Perhaps the fact that I am writing from Nagasaki, where I have just seen one of the most chilling exhibitions of human-caused horrors, might have some impact on my thoughts today. And still, I stand by all I write here.

What are your views?

(PS. On the same subject, also see this post just published on Chinageeks)

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Comments so far ↓

  1. Oct

    Hmm… People are different in their feelings - there are devouts, cynicals and indifferences.

    If you go to Chinese forums like kaidi or tianya, you will find little patriotic feelings but mostly vicious venom toward the government and the country (it has always been a mystery to me and most people why the CCP doesn’t shutdown kaidi, given its outright hostility toward the party - some reasoned that the CCP may want all the dissidents to vent in one place so that they can be monitored but still …).

    In real life you seldom run into a kaidi “jingying” (so-called liberal elites), making you wonder where are those people. Sinister theory suggests this may also be a evil CCP plot - sending in wumaos pretending to be jingyings making stupid anti-China statements that hurts “Chinese people’s feeling” and drowns out the sensible ones.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. Oct

    Yeah, I think all that China loving thing comes out only when they deal with foreigners. Which would prove my idea that the large majority of Chinese are not really blind patriots in love with their country, but rather practical and reasonable people.

    The love China thing is just a defensive mechanism against aggresions -real or imagined - from foreigners. I think part of the reason why many Chinese recur to this is that they feel insecure in debate with foreigners, because 1-Their english is usually not as good as their counterparts 2-Most importantly, because of their education, they don’t have a culture of open debate, and any diverging opinion is quickly seen as a challenge.

    Hopefully these things will change with time, and the Chinese will show their real face as open, tolerant and relaxed as I know them

    [Reply to this comment]

    Mir Reply:

    I think you have a point that the “love China thing” is just a defensive mechanism against aggressions. Here are the major events in recent history that helped tremendously to fan up Chinese patriotic feelings:

    1. The bombing of Chinese Embassy. (Which can be viewed as the turning point when the anger of Chinese youth is primarily redirected toward west powers instead of the Chinese government)

    2. The lost of bid to host the 2000 Olympics.

    3. The gross distortion of west media in reporting last year’s Tibet riot, and the hostilities towards the Olympic torch relay in Western countries (not coincidentally, former members of 八国联军. )

    4. The hypocritical lecture about human rights, when it was so obvious that the intention of the lecturer is to put China down, rather than a genuine caring for the warefare of the Tibetans, Uyghur, etc.

    Besides, it is impossible to deny that with all its faults, the Chinese government has done a remarkable job in advancing the living standard of the Chinese people. People do appreciate the leadership for this.

    If only you can view it from a Chinese person’s point of view, or at least do a cool analysis as in the following assay:

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. Oct

    I don’t think that that China loving thing is just another form of Chinese pragmatism. From my experiences I can tell that most Chinese are really really proud of their country (and defend it fiercely even if we’re debating in Chinese). And because they are so proud, they also want to give something back - call it love, call it patriotism. They feel obliged to do their bit to help strengthen their homeland.
    One explanation for this is of course education. Patriotism doesn’t play any role in German schedules, but it is a big part in the Chinese curriculum. If you hear those things again and again, you’re bound to end up believing them.
    If I compare German and Chinese history, I guess China is now in Germany’s economic miracle of the 1950′s and 60′s. The only reason that Germans at that time didn’t feel proud of their motherland was that they wanted to stay clear from any Nazi-association. But China now doesn’t have historical problems like that one, so it’s just normal they feel proud about their country’s achievement.

    So if you take real achievements and education together, you get a nation of youths that use their country’s flag in heart shap to identify themselves in SNPs. This movement is promoted by the KPC because somehow they have to fill the huge ideological gap that’s left by socialist ideology.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. Oct

    Not to completely reject your argument (I think it has some value)but I would point out that the fact that your discussions are in Chinese don’t really change much the main point: that you are a foreigner, and that those Chinese are very conscious of this when they speak to you.

    Regarding the situation of China now, no historical comparison is perfect, but I would point out that similar parallels have been drawn with Germany before the war, not after. In particular by historian N. Ferguson. Of course, the implications of his comparison and the vision of the future that derives are very different from yours. I don’t believe very much in Ferguson’s predictions, but I have to note that in terms of pure similarities, there are more in his comparison than in yours.

    In any case, my 2 main objections to your comment are:

    1- How many of the Chinese youth are so truly nationalistic as you say? I suspect it is nothing but a very vocal minority.

    2- Even if, as you say, Chinese nationalism has no big catastrophes to be ashamed of, still does this grant that it is benefitial for them to glorify their country and ignite loving passions? Is this not in itself a dangerous state of affairs, regardless of the past, but rather looking into the future?

    I am not so worried by #2 because of my statement in #1, but it is not impossible that there might be more reasons to worry some day.

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. Oct
    San Mao

    Chinese people talk patriotic, especially when they are in contact or on display to foreigners. In reality they are pragmatic. To me, patriotism means putting your country first and making sacrifices for your country, the same way you would for your family (eg mother). I don’t see many Chinese putting China or other Chinese before their own interests. How many Chinese would buy a Chinese brand instead of a Japanese one? How many Chinese would take a lesser paid less prestigious job to serve their fellow Chinese, rather than with a western company or work overseas? Chinese patriotism is more about tribalism than love.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. Oct
    Robert Woo

    I think this is real feeling here for many people. You may feel strange and unacceptable, but this is still how a certain group of people feel. It can be good, it can be bad, but it is as valid many of your own feelings. How to judge whether a feeling is “right” or “wrong”? I think the only feasible means is to see whether such feeling can help to achieve or damage the common good. But is the Chinese patriotism beneficial or harmful? Thoughtful or downright stupid? I think it is still up to the circumstances. In certain times, such almost unquestioned love for the motherland could cause a lot of trouble, even madness, but in certain times, it could also bring some potential good. For instance, what will the issue of single-payer health care look like if the weight of patriotism and the philosophy of Tianxia were added into the equation?

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Oct
    Robert Woo

    1- How many of the Chinese youth are so truly nationalistic as you say? I suspect it is nothing but a very vocal minority.

    I will have to say this is a huge under-estimate. If you are saying how many Chinese youth who are deep into history and this sort of thinking and still turn out to be a very vocal group, then that is the case.

    But, don’t forget the “silent” majority of the youth, for whom the love for motherland is much less than theoretical thinking and frame-building but more than an instinct that is almost born with them. If you count those in, which I don’t think make a lot of difference from the former group, you will have many, MANY.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Oct

    Interesting to see that nobody agrees with me or even with each other. Clearly this is a complicated subject, and the Chinese themselves don’t know to what extent they are patriotic. It is not surprising: human feelings are unpredictable, they change like the weather and there is no way to measure that accurately. For example, I am sure if a poll was conducted in April 08 after the olympic torch incidents, the results would be completely different from 2 months earlier.

    @Robert - I don’t find patriotism unacceptable. I don’t subscribe myself, but that’s all. In the end, the only certain way to judge a kind of patriotism is by its effects. Like some said above, China’s patriotism has not for the moment produced any great disaster. But still, I think it is important to ask ourselves if there is no danger coming in the future.

    @San Mao - I agree Chinese are pragmatic. But like all the peoples, they are also manipulable with easy nationalistic messages. In a way, Chinese from the mainland are even more vulnerable to this because for many years now they have got used to accepting their government decisions without debate. The leaders today are pretty reasonable in international politics, but what will happen tomorrow if the new generation of the politburo is dominated by hardliners. What if they push for a China supremacy policy, based on their history and their grievances? Will the Chinese people stand up against that or will they follow the motherland to the last consequences?

    Not to compare the situation at all, but most Germans in the 30s were also just “pragmatic”, they only wanted to go on with their jobs and avoid trouble, and they didn’t see anything wrong with that… until suddenly they were in Poland, and it was too late.

    [Reply to this comment]

  9. Oct

    By the way, anybody knows what was the company that did that TV advert? Or was it just the government? I have seen it so many times and I never paid attention. I vaguely remember it was the 太平洋保险公司。

    [Reply to this comment]

  10. Oct

    Uln,what simple and beautifull description have you made on a mother’s love, in this post ¡

    [Reply to this comment]

  11. Oct

    Thanks for the comment, mum. Normally you are supposed to use your own nickname in the comment form, not mine… Otherwise people will think I write comments to myself :)

    [Reply to this comment]

  12. Oct

    @Uln: I always thought lack of patriotism was something particular for Germany and Sweden, but a couple of months ago I met a Spanish girl who said the same thing about Spain. According to T.R. Reid’s “The United States of Europe,” patriotism is indeed much less on display in Europe than in other parts of the world (perhaps with exceptions like France), for historical and cultural reasons.

    I’ve talked about patriotism with a lot of people here and I can’t really make a definitive judgement as to whether Chinese as a whole are patriotic or not. Certainly the feeling of being humiliated by the Western powers is alive and well, and I believe this can lead to more patriotism in people when some event occurs (like the ones listed by Mir). Personally, when I see these things with “Mom, I love you”, I think of sentimental footage of 9/11 (I’m not trying to do a tit-for-tat here, it’s just that soap patriotism looks the same everywhere).

    [Reply to this comment]

  13. Oct

    WKL, Spain is very special when it comes to patriotism, partly due to its 20th century history and a very cruel civil war that is still present to some extent in todays politics. In many parts of Spain, to display a national flag or wear the colors on your clothes is a political statement, and most people prefer not to do it. I am quite happy with this state of affairs because I am always a bit wary of patriots. But in the case of Spain I am afraid that the absence of flags is not necessarily for the good reasons.

    Re Europe: I don’t know much about Sweden, but from the European countries I know, I would say UK and France are in general the most patriotic, especially among the “working classes”. Germany for obvious reasons is much more moderate.

    In any case I agree that compared to China or the States, Europe as a whole is more restrained in the display of “motherland love”. This does not necessarily mean that Europeans (or Spanish) are less patriotic, but just that there is a certain social taboo on excessive displays of this kind of feelings.

    Regarding China: The depth and nature of their nationalism is a bit of a mystery, because most are such pragmatic people that one never knows to what extent they believe in ideals.

    But what is sure is that looking a bit deeper, beyond all the display of red star paraphernalia that looks so excessive to the European eye, it might be that Chinese are still more reasonable than Westerners in this. Ask one typical taxi drives why he is proud of China, and a very usual answer is: because it never attacked other countries and it is a peaceful and old culture.

    Whether their beliefs are correct or not, the essence is this: These guys are actually not proud of winning battles, but rather of not fighting them. This is opposite to any Western brand of nationalism, even the washed down, editor-approved version of today’s Europe.

    [Reply to this comment]

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