Should the national day be considered as the birthday of the mother country? The conflict between two kinds of outlooks on the concept of “country”

national_day_decorations_-_beihai_parkSjaak Zhang

During the past week, China was celebrating its 67th national day; meanwhile, an intense controversy as to whether the national day should be considered as the birthday of the mother country arose, which has demonstrated Chinese people’s confusion about what constitute a country. This blog seeks to briefly explain where such confusion lies, and how it comes.

For most Chinese people, October is undoubtedly a most cheerful month; thanks to the National Day (Oct.1st) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), they can enjoy a precious holiday for seven days long, which is well known as the so-called “Golden Week”. For the rest who celebrate the National Day (Oct.10th) of the “Republic of China” (ROC) instead, October is also joyful. Therefore, in the past week, the whole country of China is in a festive mood. Billions of Chinese people. as well as Chinese institutions, habitually wished their mother country a happy 67th birthday.

However, many scholars, especially international lawyers argue that such kind of narrative is not only ridiculous but also troublesome. (According to unconfirmed rumors, Peking University posted “Happy birthday to our mother country” on its website on Oct.1; but it was soon badly satirized by some alumni, who argued that “you are already 118 years old while she is only 67; how ridiculous and shameless it is for you to call her mother”, or that “this only indicates that she is your stepmother rather than biological mother.” )

First, they argue that China, as the fatherland of Chinese people. actually has thousands of years’ history; considering the national day (Oct.1,1949) as its birthday virtually denies its glorious history. Second, they think it is ubiquitous but wrong to refer to the current People’s Republic as a new China, since it implies that there is a concomitant “old China” which contradicts the “One China Principle” that Beijing persists. Last, they even find it neither necessary nor wise to change the formal name of the country from ROC into PRC on Oct.1, 1949; because suffice it to say that the communist government is the only legitimate government of (Republic of) China and the KMT government will thus lose its foundation of legitimacy, while changing the formal name of the country in the mainland China only created a second China in form which has rendered legal excuse for ideas of “Taiwan independence” or “two Chinas”.

Unsurprisingly, such arguments have been strongly criticized, especially by leftists in China, who have shown their full loyalty to Mao and his communist China, and considered the aforesaid arguments as unpatriotic.

In the author’s opinion, such an intense controversy indeed demonstrates a conflict between two kinds of outlooks on the concept of “country”. The arguments of many Chinese lawyers represent the outlook on “country” that originates from the modern west, which is supposed to be well known to most English-speaking audience; while the arguments of Chinese “patriots” reflect China’s traditional outlook on the world, or rather on what ancient Chinese referred to as “beneath the heaven”. According to the latter, China is situated in the center of the world (indeed, the literal meaning of the Chinese word for “China” is central country), and represents the only civilization of the world; the ruler of China was then considered as the master of all the people “beneath the heaven”, and there was no concept of international relationship. In other words, the modern western concept of “sovereign state” does not exist in China’s traditional theory. Therefore, the formal name of China was considered just as the title of a reigning dynasty, which had only historical relevance; whenever an old dynasty was replaced by a new dynasty, it would be natural, in a traditionally-Chinese mind, for the founding father to give China a new formal name so as to symbolize his great achievements and the upcoming new era. It was just based on this very logic that China was given a new formal name in 1949.

Moreover, according to China’s traditional Confucian outlook on “country”, the government is compared to a parent of the people, therefore, the loyalty to the country/Crown is considered essentially as an extension of filial piety. It is then understandable why many Chinese people subconsciously take the current regime of the People’s Republic of China as their mother, and consider the national day as the birthday of their motherland although such narrative does have many logical pitfalls.

Last, since the modern western outlook on “country” was indeed introduced to China along with western invaders’ warships and gunfire, many Chinese people have inherent hostility to and deep distrust of western political theories, especially when they recall the story of the American Indian. Consequently, most of them rather prefer to embrace a pre-modern native theory rather than a modern western theory. That could also be considered as one of the reasons why China so hesitates to follow the western-country-dominated international order and usually denies jurisdictions of international tribunals.

To sum up, the intense controversy in China today as to the interpretation of national day reflects not only the conflict between two kinds of outlooks on the concept of “country”, but also the divergence between the Chinese who have already accepted modern western theory and those who still adhere to traditional Chinese theory. Due to historical reasons, such conflict will probably endure in the following decades. Therefore, more exchange is needed in order to gradually reduce such mistrust between China and the west.