ON 4 MAY 2021 — Youth Day in mainland People’s Republic of China — an anonymous user posted a video entitled ‘The imperious oaths throughout the Chinese dynasties’ 各朝代的霸气宣言 on TikTok (known in China as Douyin 抖音). In modern Chinese, ‘imperious’ 霸 — sometimes translated as tyrant, hegemon or despot — has positive connotations such as leadership and excellence but can also imply domineering and intimidation. The video shows a group of middle-school students playfully reciting and performing in turn historical oaths about defending Chinese territory at all costs against foreign threats. Against the background of combative military music, the students put on dramatically aggressive looks and use assertive body language. These non-verbal elements compound the commitment to defence in the oaths.
The video was also posted on YouTube on the same day and reposted under the same title a week later on Bilibili, a popular video platform that young people in China call the ‘B Site’ B站. By October, it had received a thousand-plus views on YouTube and more than 2,000 views on Bilibili.1 The script of the classroom video is mostly based on a few videos posted over the previous few years on Bilibili featuring historical slogans. In one video series, called ‘Miss Jin talking about history’ 瑾姑娘讲史, ‘Miss Jin’ reads aloud the six ‘most imperious’ speeches in Chinese history to pay tribute to the greatness of the Han people.2 In another series, called ‘Weird tastes of history’ 怪口历史, the host presents ‘heroic speeches that will make your blood boil’ 让人热血沸腾的豪言壮语 against a background of clips featuring historical battles recreated from television.3 These videos have received 146,000 and 95,000 views, respectively.
The reception of these historical slogans online cannot compare with patriotic videos about China’s history, culture and contemporary achievement, the most popular among which have each amassed millions of views as well as patriotic affirmations in the comments.4 The generally lukewarm response, and sometimes even resistance, to historical slogans on social media, by contrast, might reflect younger netizens’ preference for stories of achievement over slogans of defensive wars.
Although grouped together as patriotic rhetoric, some of the slogans’ original meanings and historical contexts do not fit the present conditions particularly well. The slogans used usually starts in the ancient Western Zhou dynasty (1100–771 BCE) with a quote from the early classic Book of Odes 诗经: ‘There is no territory under Heaven which is not the king’s; there is no man within the borders of the land who is not his subject’ 普天之下, 莫非王土; 率土之滨, 莫非王臣.5 The misuse of this quatrain as a bold declaration of total sovereignty traces back to the Warring States period (475–221 BCE). The philosopher Mencius pointed out that the lines had been written as part of a complaint about unfair workloads,6 yet Mencius could not stop the continued misquotation of this line in political discourse. The esteemed minister of the Western Han Sima Xiangru 司马相如 (c.179–117 BCE) quoted it when proposing the emperor exert control over non-Han tribal people in the south-west of the country.7 Given the historical misuse of this quatrain to assert territorial claims, social media users are merely following tradition to appeal to a modern audience.
The militant slogan representing the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) comes from the Western Han General Chen Tang 陈汤 (? – 6 BCE). In 36 BCE, on a mission to the Western Regions, Chen attacked the nomadic Xiongnu barbarians who had long hassled the Han’s northern border, but he did so without approval from the central court. Although he won the battle, his action caused huge controversy at court. To defend himself from accusations of arbitrary use of military force, Chen argued: ‘Those who openly offend the Great Han will be eliminated no matter how far away they are’ 明犯强汉者, 虽远必诛.8 The subsequent imperial edict had to explain Chen’s military action, but it did so with caution, acknowledging the huge burden military campaigns placed on people’s livelihoods. Chen Tang’s slogan represented only one view in the court’s discussions at the time. Stripping the slogan from its complex historical context, two nationalist Chinese action blockbusters — Wolf Warrior (2015) and its sequel, Wolf Warrior II (2017) — adapted it for their tag line: ‘Those who offend us Chinese will be eliminated no matter how far away they are’ 犯我中华者, 虽远必诛.
Another instance of a slogan being misused is even more inapt; representing the Song dynasty (960–1276 CE), it reads: ‘Each and every inch of the mountains and rivers is [worth] that amount of blood’ 一寸山河一寸血. It was used as Chiang Kai-shek’s 蔣介石 conscription slogan in 1944, but it can be traced back to the speech of an enemy of the Song regime. In 1123, the Northern Song struck an agreement with the rising Jin dynasty of the Jurchens (a non–Han Chinese ethnicity) in the north-east to join forces against the Khitan Liao kingdom (907–1125 CE), which had mostly been in peaceful rivalry with the Song on its northern border. After the defeat of the Liao, the joint force disputed whether the old Song territory of Yan 燕 (present-day Beijing) should be returned to the Song. Zuo Qigong 左企弓 (c.1051–1123 CE), a Liao minister who surrendered to the Jin, advised the Jurchens against surrendering Yan to the Song, remarking: ‘Each and every inch of the mountains and rivers is [worth] that amount of gold’ 一寸山河一寸金.9 Therefore, although it is in fact an anti-Song slogan, this line was used to represent the Song in the 2021 classroom video.
These military slogans are, despite this slip, heavily Han-centric. They namecheck all the major dynasties with Han ruling houses while leaving out non-Han dynasties. For example, the Mongol Yuan, which ruled over the vastest territory in China’s history during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, was left unreferenced. The Manchu Qing, the last imperial dynasty, which ruled for almost three centuries from 1644 to 1911, was also excluded from the recitations. Chinese netizens typically ridicule the Qing dynasty in online forums for its weakness and failures in dealing with foreign threats; its final seventy years, starting with the First Opium War in 1839, belong to the ‘Century of Humiliation’ that is at the centre of China’s patriotic education. A satirical comment on Bilibili proposed to represent the Qing with the statement: ‘For those who offend our Tartar Qing [韃清 dá Qing, a sardonic pun on Great Qing 大清 dà Qing], we will either relinquish land if they are close or pay war indemnities if they come from afar.’
Some netizens have expressed caution about decontextualising rhetoric from history. Most online comments, however, are enthusiastic. At a time of stress in international relations, Chinese citizens, especially at the grassroots level, are turning to history for inspiration. The popular use of historical military rhetoric in contemporary China helps to create, using Benedict Anderson’s term, an ‘imagined community’ of guardians of China, to protect it from threat.