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  Beijing Scene


Hey Ayi,
What do the five yellow stars on the Chinese flag symbolize? Why does China's national emblem have ears of corn on it? And why is the song The East is Red not the national anthem when every single Mao lighter you buy plays that tune? (For that matter, what is the national anthem?)

Dear Star
If I had a kuai for every time I've been asked that question, I'd be retired and gambling in Macao. But as your patriotic Ayi has never been one to shirk revolutionary duty, I am more than happy to instruct you.

No doubt you are aware that China's national flag is a red rectangle with a large yellow star in the left hand corner surrounded by four smaller yellow stars. After Liberation in 1949, the Communists came to power and they decided they needed a new emblem more in keeping with their revolutionary image. So in July 1949 the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) released a nationwide circular calling for designs for a new national flag.

It had to have Chinese characteristics, show "vigor," be rectangular and the color should be mostly bright red, according to the flier. By August 1, the committee had received thousands of designs from all over the country. It seemed everyone had an idea, from factory workers to prominent literary figures.

The committee took over a month to decide which design they felt most accurately represented New China. After much debate, the wuxing hongqi (five-star red flag), was chosen. The decision was made just in time for October 1, when the flag was unfurled and hoisted above Tiananmen Square for the first time.

The man responsible for the design was Zhejiang native Zeng Liansong. The story goes that Zeng spent many sleepless nights thinking, and one particular starry night he gazed out of his window and became inspired. As the Party was widely known as the dajiuxing (literally 'savior star') Zeng decided to place a large yellow star in the left hand corner of the flag. He then chose to put four smaller stars around the large one, each representing the four classes as dictated by Chairman Mao: workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie. Yellow was the obvious color to choose for the stars, according to Zeng. For starters, the colors red and yellow are traditionally regarded by Chinese as auspicious and happy. Yellow also symbolized the children and grandchildren of the Yellow Emperor, i.e. the yellow Chinese race.

Then the Communist Party needed a national emblem. Many designs were created and rejected before one was finally chosen. It consisted of a golden Tiananmen illuminated by five stars encircled by ears of grain and a cogwheel. All these were painted gold, except the inner part of the circle and the hanging ribbons which were red.

Tiananmen symbolizes the unyielding national spirit of the Chinese people. The ears of grain and the cogwheel represent the working proletariat and peasantry; and the five stars stand for the great unity of the Chinese people under the leadership of the Party. On September 20, 1950, Mao ordered the public release of the emblem and on May 1, 1951 a mammoth International Labor Day Parade was held in Tiananmen. The enormous metal emblem was officially hung on the rostrum where it remains to this day.

Finally, the tune that is heard accompanying all Mao lighters is not the national anthem, but is in fact a catchy ditty called The East is Red, which was a popular paean to the Great Helmsman. The official anthem is actually a song born in 1935 as the theme to the film Young Heroes and Heroines in Stormy Years called March of the Volunteers (Yiyongjun jinxingq). The film depicts the young volunteers who went to the front to defend China against the Japanese invaders in the 1930s.

Popular for its highly emotional melody arousing a sense of patriotic spirit among China's people, March of the Volunteers contains such inspiring lyrics as "The peoples of China are in the most critical time, 10,000 voices must shout as one: Arise! Arise! Arise!" For this reason the Party decided to adopt it as the national anthem of the People's Republic.

It also continues to be an effective way of rousing people out of bed every morning. Invariably blasted out of loudspeakers at six in the morning in local schools and factories, it is enough to wake anyone within a several-mile radius.

So starstruck, now you are familiar with the Holy Trinity of PRC emblems and anthems. Spread the gospel to your laowai friends, and in the motivational words of the national anthem: "Rise up, throw off your chains - Defy the enemy's artillery. March forward! Forward! Forward!"

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