Thoughts on Patriotism, Old and New

The other day, my fiancee asked me — rather out of the blue — if I was proud to be an American. The question caught me off guard. Pressed for an answer, I suggested that I was sometimes proud to be American, and by way of example noted the recent “terror mosque” controversy that’s happening in the US right now as something I am not proud of ((because the people opposed to this “terror mosque”, which is actually a muslim community center, should be an embarrassment to any American who has read (or even just glanced at) the Constitution.)). (As a side note, Jon Stewart and the folks at the Daily Show have, as ever, been doing an amazing job skewering the idiots opposed to the community center and I highly recommend watching their coverage if you aren’t already).

In any event, such questions always make me think about patriotism, and in this case caused me to search for a famous essay of Chen Duxiu’s I read and translated back when I was working on my undergraduate thesis. Unfortunately, I didnt end up using the translation in the thesis, and have since lost it. It has been translated many times before, but a quick Google search didn’t immediately turn up a translation, and I discovered the Chinese original text isn’t that easy to find either (though I did find it). So, though it’s been done earlier and better elsewhere, here’s a quick translation of Chen Duxiu’s famous “Should be be patriotic?” essay. If you’re looking for a copy of the original text in simplified characters, mouseover my translation for that (or use this cool mirror site).

Chen Duxiu: “Should we be patriotic?”

“Be patriotic! Be patriotic! These days, this call permeates even the furthest reaches of our society. It is on the lips of corrupt officials and barbaric soldiers; even the traitorous don’t dare say unpatriotic things in public. Since the Shandong incident [in which parts of Shandong province were ceded to Germany in 1897], the patriotic clamor has risen to a roar. It is as if the word patriotism [爱国] itself has been ordained by heaven, no discussion is permitted.

Emotions and reason are two important parts of the human spirit, but there are times when the two conflict. Patriotism is mostly emotion, and reason plays a relatively minor role. At times, reason plays no role whatsoever (German and Japanese soldiers are like this). Human behavior is the natural result of impulsiveness. I think if reason could be used as the foundation of this ‘impulsiveness’, only then could emotions be solid and unchangeable. In society, when emotions are running high, people think that their rashness is righteous, and blindly forgetting about reason, they do evil things their rational selves never would (the murder of civilians in England and France during the first World War is an example of this). This is because in large groups, people cannot use reason as the foundation of their emotions, so a mass of people is blind. Sometimes, they do good, other times, they do evil. Because of this, I’d like to raise a rational discussion from the word that everyone so blindly follows, “patriotism”, and ask everyone: should we be patriotic?

If we don’t found our discussion in reason, then patriotism won’t be able to be any kind of lasting motivating force for our behavior, whether the impetus for it is that the masses are blindly following the call for “patriotism”, the officials are ordering us not to be patriotic, or the government is telling us to be patriotic.

If you’re going to ask whether or not we should love our country, you must first ask what our country is. Originally, countries were just groups of people who banded together to resist oppressive forces from outsiders, and a way of managing travel and interpersonal disputes. The good could use the idea of “country” to repel outside forces and pacify internal disputes. The evil could use it to repress outside forces and oppress their own people.

We Chinese were closed off from the world, and before the domination of Japan and the commencement of trade relations with the West, we had only the concept of Tianxia [天下, literally “all under heaven”], there was no concept of a nation-state [国家]. So among the common people, the idea of “patriotic thought” hasn’t penetrated very deeply. If you want to make it long-lasting like it is among the peoples of Europe where multiple nations have coexisted since ancient times, rather than just temporary, I fear that will not be easy.

In Europe, multiple countries have coexisted since time immemorial, so patriotic thought has become a deeply-rooted part of their natural characters. Recently [in China], some lofty thinkers, individualists, and cosmopolitanists have not only suggested that the idea of a nation is artificial rather than natural; moreover they’ve seen and heard about dark and evil things done at home and abroad, all in the name of the nation. Since they oppose the nation, it’s natural they aren’t advocates of patriotism. In their minds, patriotism is another name for something that hurts people. They view patriotic martyrs as confused lunatics.

We are uneducated, unknowledgeable, disunited Chinese, our lack of patriotism is not the same as the lack of patriotism practiced by that group of lofty idealists. And officials preventing the people from engaging in patriotic activities is also, needless to say, very different from what those people are saying. Although at present I cannot dare to hope that we uneducated, unknowledgeable, and disunited Chinese could have lofty ideals, I don’t want Chinese to be uneducated, unknowledgeable, and disunited for long. Even if our countrymen were to suddenly be educated, knowledgeable, and united, only later could they be qualified to unite with lofty idealists the world over and unify the world.

Our China is weak and oppressed, and there are of course also still many internal evils being committed. Patriotism can be used as a tool to extort the people and repress individuality, but China does not at the moment have the ability to use it to oppress outsiders. To even suggest that China could use nationalism and the people’s patriotic spirit to oppress someone else [at the present time] is preposterous.

Lofty thinkers oppose patriotism, hateful opportunists use it to repress others. Although China can’t use patriotism to repress anyone else, we’ve already been oppressed by others nearly to our breaking point. Unlike oppressing others, being patriotic for the sake of resisting oppression and surviving is not something that should be opposed, no matter how lofty a thinker you are. A person’s self-respect, regardless of how it develops, is not a bad thing so long as it does not have a negative effect on others.

So, in accordance with the discussion above, if someone asks whether or not we should be patriotic, we should shout: What we love is the nation of people using patriotism to resist oppressors, not the government using patriotism to oppress other countries! What we love is the country that exists for the happiness of its people, not the country that people must sacrifice themselves for! ((In my translation here I referred several times to one I found rendered in Striving Toward a Lovable Nation: Nationalism and Individual Agency in the Writings of Chen Duxiu, an undergraduate thesis by Wesleyan 2010 graduate (one hopes) Antoine Cadot-Wood. I came across it only by chance, but its focus is quite similar to that of my own undergraduate thesis, which is interesting.))

Just a few months ago, Southern Metropolis Daily published a modern take on Chen Duxiu’s classic essay by historian Hong Zhenkuai, which was translated in full by the wonderful but distressingly inactive CHINAYOUREN blog. We suggest you click through for the full piece, but here is a relevant excerpt [I have made some minor changes for grammar]:

The functions of a State should be performed by the government. If the government can do these functions, then the State is “seeking happiness for the people”; if not, then it becomes “the State for which the people sacrifice”. In human history the most common in practice is that the government cannot fulfill the State’s functions, or else it does them poorly. In this case it can appear that government equals no government. Or that government is even worse than no government.


In any society there are some large tasks that involve many people, and there is no way any organization can do them other than the government. If the government cannot perform its responsibilities, the society becomes unruly, and public interests suffer. For example, food safety, public health, protection of the environment; these kind of affairs need to be taken charge of by the government.

In the development of human societies, this problem has been encountered for a long time: the people need the government but the government cannot live up to their expectations, protect them against outside menaces or provide internal services. In many cases it even evolves into an organization that infringes on the people’s rights.

To make the government do its task diligently, the people need to have the right to supervise the government, and the most effective way is to elect the government by voting. The people need to understand what is common sense – that is, as Liang Qichao said, that the State is not the dynasty (government). The dynasty can be changed for the survival of the State. What the people should love is their country, and not the dynasty.

As Chen Duxiu points out, however, this modern conception of patriotism is not something that’s existed in Chinese culture for long. In my own research for my undergraduate thesis, which involved May Fourth-era patriotism among other things, I found that overwhelmingly, “patriots” from traditional times were people who sacrificed themselves for the government, often in cases when it was painfully clear that the government was in the wrong (see, for example, Qu Yuan, Yue Fei, etc.). And, of course, the whole question is also mucked up by the fact that it’s difficult to trace terms like “patriot” across linguistic and cultural barriers and through history without sacrificing some accuracy. Thus, I wrote,

It is difficult to trace exactly when the term aiguo first came into use and when it was applied to figures like Qu Yuan. It seems likely that in traditional China, there was no differentiation between patriotism and political loyalty, and appeals to any kind of patriotic or loyalist sentiment based on China as a cultural entity came only in times of external threat. Still, Giles’s A Chinese Biographical Dictionary (published in 1898) specifically mentions that figures like Wen Tianxiang were patriotic. This indicates that, at the very least, these figures were understood widely as patriots at least two decades before the May Fourth movement began. Those who would argue that patriotism is an entirely modern concept that did not exist in traditional China must at least admit that the actions and writings of Qu Yuan, Yue Fei, and Wen Tianxiang were considered patriotic in pre-May Fourth China. Whether one understands them as loyalists who were later redefined as patriots when the term was introduced or not, the effect is the same. They indicate what was considered love of one’s country in traditional China and how that love was primarily expressed: through loyalty to one’s superiors.

The idea of patriotism meaning loyalty to the dynasty, it seems, has fairly deep roots. This is not, of course, altogether untrue outside of China’s borders. Certainly in the US, morons on both sides of the party lines routinely accuse their critics of being unpatriotic because they oppose something an incumbent official has done.

In any event, rereading Chen Duxiu’s essay in 2010 is interesting because China’s situation has changed radically. It is now very much in a position to use patriotism as a force to oppress others, should it wish to. In fact, China’s more technically apt netizens fire off a volley or two of just that sort of nationalism from time to time. Oscar Wilde called patriotism “the virtue of the vicious.” Was he wrong?

What should the role of patriotism be in modern China? Or to put it in Chen Duxiu’s words, should we be patriotic?

0 thoughts on “Thoughts on Patriotism, Old and New”

  1. And under the same train of thought, the early Comintern-controlled CCP also wanted to 武装保卫苏联.

    Using Communist internationalism to justify capitalist-democratic internationalism gets you nowhere. Seriously.


  2. As for non-oppressive nationalism, I think Old Tales Retold’s comments about Anti-CNN on the “Netizen Thoughts on Ai Weiwei” article sums it up pretty well. Loving one’s country and fighting for injustice usually do not conflict with each other, especially when even the Chinese government openly declares social justice and harmony to be one of its top goals.


  3. It’s amazing that many of the points in Chen DuXiu’s essay written close to a hundred years ago are still valid today.

    On the other hand, the whole “vicious Chinese nationalists/patriots” issue is overblown. The term “nationalist” is used mostly as a pejorative by the Western press to describe anyone who is resistant against Western influence. I’ve rarely seen the term being used on Americans who resist foreign influence, or on entities which the media is sympathetic to, such as Tibetans, where the term clearly applies.

    Ultimately I would say most people except for the extreme left or right are nationalistic.


  4. @chaji
    “Loving one’s country and fighting for injustice usually do not conflict with each other”
    Or as one popular phase: “外争国权, 内争民权” (fight for the nation’s rights internationally and fight for human rights & civil rights domestically).

    “vicious Chinese nationalists/patriots” is really vicious 5 – 10 years ago. But many of them have evolved greatly in recent years from blind puppets which CCP can easily manipulate to real patriots who differentiate the government from the country clearly.
    Thanks to internet, CCP’s playing with nationalism/patriotism backfires very quickly.


  5. At times like this, it’d be nice to be able to DM you on Twitter. I don’t have that option, so….Great essay, don’t bungle it with silly typo in last sentence.


  6. Why resort to name calling (idiots) with someone you disagree. How can you have reasoned conversation when you begin using language that tries to belittle someone you may not agree with?


  7. @lolz

    The term resistant in reference to Chinese nationalists’ attitude toward foreign influence seems a bit off-base. Vitriolic seems much more suitable.


  8. When Obama gave his propaganda speech about ‘combat mission is over’ speech today, he mentions over and over again the word patriotism. When he mentions about ‘honor our troops’, while whitewashing the reasons we gone to war in the first place. I wonder why he mentions why we should patriotic in the first place.


  9. lolz,

    “I’ve rarely seen the term being used on Americans who resist foreign influence, or on entities which the media is sympathetic to, such as Tibetans, where the term clearly applies.”

    Agreed. This is a good example of the childish way that even sympathetic media approach the Tibetan issue. I would argue that the fact of Tibetan nationalism is a point in their favour, but this point is invisible in conventional lazy discourse.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s