Malaysian singer Priscilla Abby Cai Enyu (蔡恩雨) sparked a major controversy during an appearance on the Chinese TV program “Our Chinese Heart (中華情)” when she shared her experience of witnessing the flag-raising ceremony in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

“It is hard to describe with words, but it is a kind feeling of reverence for my country,” she said after being introduced as the first “third-generation Malaysian Chinese” to appear on the show. The 20-year-old singer was unable to hold back tears as she described the moment, saying: “This is a type of event that is rarely seen in Malaysia, but here in China, the spirit of hard work is the most important thing, because when people unite it is possible to achieve greater things together.”

The interview was received angrily by Malaysian viewers. Along with expressing negative views of Malaysia, Priscilla Abby, as she spoke, referred to China as her “motherland.”

The arguments that ensued reflect a contrast in perceptions of identity between those in China and members of overseas Chinese communities. If we analyze the situation from the context of China’s modern history, it becomes easy to rationalize the debate – the concept of the “motherland,” after all, has been contentious for well over a century.

As Priscilla Abby recollected her experience watching the raising of the flag of the People's Republic of China (PRC), the host asked: “Besides being moved by your emotions, you also had a sense of belonging?” Priscilla Abby replied: “I'm home!” The host went on to say: “In fact, this phrase is very fitting for your situation, because you really have returned home.”


Photo Credit: Reuters / Stringer

Viewers watch a morning flag-raising ceremony at Beijing's Tiananmen Square on July 1, 2018.

This language, applied to a Malaysian Chinese singer visiting the PRC, stems from the influence of racialized Western ideology. The historic meaning of the term “China” has, every so often, been debated within the wider Chinese circle – and scholars have concluded that analyzing the term from different perspectives, such as lineage, culture, left-wing theory, multi-ethnicity in relation to social infrastructure, and political ideology will result in various depictions of “China.”

The host asked: ‘Besides being moved by your emotions, you also had a sense of belonging?’ Priscilla Abby replied: ‘I'm home!’ The host went on to say: ‘In fact, this phrase is very fitting for your situation, because you really have returned home.’

Taiwanese scholar Lin Chi-hung’s (林志宏) “The Chinese Republic Is the Enemy: Qing Loyalists in a Shifting Political Culture” is a pertinent read for further insight. The book's title draws inspiration from “The Chinese Republic Is the Enemy,” by Zheng Xiaoxuan (鄭孝胥), a reformist politician during the Qing Dynasty who was born in Fujian Province.



The cover of Lin Chi-hung's 'The Chinese Republic Is the Enemy: Qing Loyalists in a Shifting Political Culture'

After the 1911 Chinese Revolution, Zheng was a pivotal figure in the founding of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo and became an important aide to state affairs. He advocated the traditional Chinese ideals of a benevolent government as opposed to the political and social development presented by the “Republic.” Zheng, a Qing loyalist, did not view the Republic of China as the “motherland,” summarily rejecting any notion that its territorial hold constituted a right to Chinese cultural identity.

Equally interesting were other diehard supporters of the Qing Dynasty such as Chen Botao (陳伯陶) and Dr. Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙). Their image of “China” was concerned with the discourse between the “center” and the “outskirts.” They concentrated on banding together with the British colonial government of Hong Kong to shape a Chinese consciousness that was different from China’s. Their efforts escalated after the May Fourth Movement in 1919, which sparked a wave of anti-imperialist, anti-Confucian sentiment.

Chen Botao (陳伯陶) spent time studying the Terrace of the Song Emperors, a historic site left by the Song Dynasty’s final two emperors, and invited other intellectuals to produce literary works about this terrace in Hong Kong’s Kowloon. This work was later compiled by Su Zedong (蘇澤東) in “Autumn Chants on the Terrace of the Song Emperors,” published in Hong Kong in 1917 and widely regarded as Hong Kong’s earliest collection of Chinese poetry. In 2004, Hong Kong’s Wen Wei Po published an article to introduce Chen Botao (陳伯陶) and his perspectives on the “motherland”:

Chen Botao’s (陳伯陶) residence in Guanfuchang (now Kwun Tong District), was close to where the old Imperial Palace of the Southern Song Dynasty, the Terrace of the Song Emperors, was located. Chen Botao spent 20 years in Hong Kong, and often invited the likes of Dr. Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙), Su Zedong (蘇澤東), and Wu Daoxuan (吳道鎔) to the Terrace of the Song Emperors to hang out and admire its beauty. Their literary works were even compiled into “Autumn Chants on the Terrace of the Song Emperors,” which has survived until the present, and will also be relished by many future generations. Poems such as “Lamentations of the Past at the Terrace of Song Emperors” and “Ascending Kowloon City to Play Music” were his way of reflecting on the hardships of life, and the rise and fall of the dynasty, while expressing integrity in his adherence to the former dynasty and disavowal of the new one.

During Hong Kong Governor Cecil Clementi’s tenure, the Qing Dynasty adherent Dr. Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙) was appointed Reader and Head of the newly founded School of Chinese Studies at the University of Hong Kong. Lai had traditional Chinese ideals and, once the dust had settled in China after the May Fourth Movement, he studied western ideology and started to consider how giving up the ‘burden’ of new nationalist ideals would be better for Hong Kong. The School of Chinese Studies has a brief introduction of Lai’s importance to its founding:

One year after the establishment of the University in 1912, the Faculty of Arts was established, with two Chinese Hanlin (翰林) scholars lecturing on Chinese. In 1927, with generous endowments from overseas Chinese in the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States, the Chinese Department was formally founded. Dr. Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙太史) was appointed Reader and became the Head of the Department, which was also known as the School of Chinese Studies.

In 1926, one year prior to Lai’s appointment, Hong Kong’s first British Colonial Chinese Secondary school, the Clementi Secondary School, was established with an emphasis on reflecting Hong Kong’s traditional Chinese culture. It thus attempted to distinguish itself from the path of governance in China and liberate Hong Kong from the influence of the former Qing Dynasty’s “Chinese Ideology.”

The Clementi Secondary School website briefly introduces of the school’s history:

Our school's motto was adopted from Ho Kachi (何家誌), who was a student at the University of Hong Kong in his youth, and studied under the masters Dr. Lai Tsi-hsi (賴際熙) and Ou Dadian (區大典) for four years, with a deep focus in Classical Chinese education. In March 1926, the late former principal, Li Jingkang (李景康), who was dedicated to the establishment of a Chinese Middle School, invited Ho Kachi (何家誌) to teach at the school and contribute to nurturing the grassroots. Not long after joining the school, Ho Kachi (何家誌) started imparting words of wisdom from Chinese literature to help give direction and meaning to the students’ studies. He then used the four principles of Confucius’ teachings to come up with the motto: “to strive for excellence; to have integrity, and to be dedicated and faithful.”

During the Cold War, the different interpretations of “China” were even more dramatic. Woon Swee Oan (温瑞安), a Malaysian Chinese novelist who writes in the wuxia (武俠, ancient martial arts) genre, regarded the Republic of China (ROC), now referring to Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan-based government-in-exile, as “China.”

However, Woon had a deep understanding of Cold War politics and believed that the influence of the United States meant that the ROC was no longer the “heir of Chinese culture.” Later, many of his wuxia novels were regarded by Taiwan authorities as being pro-communist, so he was forced to leave Taiwan and develop his career in Hong Kong.

Such cases of fraught identity, speckled through history, show that the debate from contrasting ideals in different regions of what constitutes “China” are not just imaginary concepts, but rather very authentic realities for those communities. This is why, when Priscilla Abby calls China the “motherland,” she sets into motion a centuries-old debate about what it means to be Chinese, or “of China.”

The debate is ever-present in popular culture. Take, for example, the recently released “Crazy Rich Asians,” which opens by quoting Napoleon Bonaparte as saying “China is a sleeping giant” – despite being primarily about Chinese Singaporeans. This insinuates that the PRC is indeed the “motherland” for overseas Chinese.

On “Our Chinese Heart,” the host was more than happy to indulge Priscilla Abby's willingness to use this terminology. When asked if she wanted to return to the “motherland” to develop her career, she excitedly said yes. The host followed by asking: “Why does the mention of this make you so happy? Is it because, in terms of the Mandarin music industry, your career will develop faster here in the motherland?”

Priscilla Abby nodded and said: “I can also develop my career in Malaysia, but it will be even better if I can come to the motherland.”

9527n4tsb95erfz8k7nyj01r62i4wsPhoto Credit: Reuters / TPG
Read Next: The Worrying Cross-Strait and Linguistic Messages of 'Crazy Rich Asians'

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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