Arriving in Taiwan in the last few years of the martial-law era (1949–87), I encountered a kind of formal nationalism that I had never known growing up. There were pictures of the President (Chiang Ching-kuo [Jiǎng Jīngguó] 蔣經國) in all school classrooms and you could buy them in many stores. There were also pictures of his late father (Chiang Kai-shek 蔣中正) and of Sun Yatsen in many of the same places. The flag was called the “national flag” (guóqí 國旗); the standard language was called the “national language” (guóyǔ 國語); and there were other “national” arts and practices, also so labelled. This sort of labelling was not unique to Taiwan — it was seen all over East Asia in the late nineteenth century. Under Manchu rule of China, my teacher used to say, guóyǔ actually meant Manchu rather than Chinese.
Most of those things had no great effect on me. But I was deeply moved by the national anthem of the time, both words and music. It is rather in disfavor now for a variety of reasons. For one, thing, it was originally the anthem of a political party. For another, it is associated with the Nationalist government of China, which both Taiwan progressives and China-leaning people today find objectionable. Many people in Taiwan seem to find the old national anthem a little embarrassing.
Taking it on its own merits, though, and ignoring its associations, I find it more appealing than many other national anthems I’ve examined. The melody is majestic, and it doesn’t run for long. The text is not militaristic, nor does it celebrate a ruler or even the nation itself. It exhorts the listener to improve society:
三民主義 The Three Principles of the People 吾黨所宗 are the founding ideals of our party. 以建民國 May a democratic republic be founded upon them, 以進大同 and through them may social harmony be advanced. 咨爾多士 O you many men and women of ability, 為民前鋒 act as vanguard to our people, 夙夜匪懈 work without rest, day and night, 主義是從 taking these Principles as your guides. 矢勤矢勇 Swear diligence; swear bravery — 必信必忠 never abandon your trust, and never your loyalty. 一心一德 Let us be united in heart and in our sense of goodness 貫徹始終 and carry out our mission from beginning to end.
As these things go, I doubt I can imagine much I would take less exception to from a national anthem. The reference to wúdǎng 吾黨 ‘our party’ certainly meant the Nationalists when the words were written. But it also means “fellows”, “comrades”, “confederates” — and I think the force of that meaning is entirely praiseworthy.
For some time now there has been a version in which the harmony has been revised, and the result seems to me to have rather lost the majesty of what I heard in the 1980s. Nearly all YouTube recordings I’ve examined this morning are of that setting.
Here is a performance of the harmonization I remember from the 1980s by Chang Hui-mei [Zhāng Huìmèi] 張惠妹 (another copy here). She came into some political disfavor because of this performance — the venue was the 2000 inauguration of President Chen Shui-bian [Chén Shuǐbiǎn] 陳水扁, a hero of the struggle against authoritarianism in the 1970s and deeply unpopular with some of Taiwan’s citizens.
Here’s a much older recording with still fewer modulations.