By Lora Xie, V Form
National Identity in The Golden Fish Hook
Research and write about a foundation myth that has influenced the country’s national identity or that continues to influence its identity.
On April 24, 1970, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) used the Long March 1 rocket to launch its first satellite into Low Earth orbit, becoming the fifth nation to achieve independent launch capability.Long March 1 belonged to a family of rockets named after the “Long March” (长征), a year-long military retreat is undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China (CCP) from 1934 to 1936 to escape from the pursuit of the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) army.The trek was apotheosized by the American chronicler Edgar Snow in his 1937 officially endorsed “Red Star over China.”When the Communist Party founded the PRC in 1949, it adopted the legends about the tribulations and demonstrations of heroism that took place on the Long March as some of its most important foundation myths. These legends are taught in schools and broadcasted through media to promote the so-called “Spirit of Long March,” summarized by Jiang Zemin, the fifth president of the PRC, as “loyalty,” “sacrifice,” “practicality,” “collectivism,” and “popularism.”This essay will analyze how one specific myth, “The Golden Fish Hook,” promotes those ideologies, offers citizens consolation and motivation for adversities, and cultivates patriotism through pride and gratitude.
“The Golden Fish Hook” is an autobiographical account of an extraordinary experience during the Long March that appears in all major versions of elementary school Chinese textbooks. In the fall of 1935, when the Red army was traversing the Songpan alpine grassland, the author and two other young comrades, encumbered by sickness, lagged behind, so a squad leader, was commanded to accompany and take care of them. As they ran out of highland barley in half a month, the squad leader, the heroic protagonist, resorted to fishing at night with a makeshift fish hook from a needle. While the three young soldiers, though enfeebled, survived on the meager diet, the squad leader, who secretly saved nothing for himself except for grassroots and leftover fish bones, eventually died on the eve of reaching the end of the grassland. Even in his last moments, he refused to eat the life-saving fish the author caught and cooked for him so as to increase the others’ chance of survival.The account is full of vivid details, such as the squad leader painstakingly groping in the dark for earthworms as fish baits, concealing his hunger and lying to his comrades about having had fish before he served others, and his gaunt look when he died of malnutrition. The makeshift fish hook was seen as “golden” because the heroism it symbolized would shine through the ages.
First, the myth epitomizes four aspects of the “Spirit of the Long March:” loyalty, sacrifice, collectivism, and practicality. Faced with prolonged and severe adversities, the squad leader was fueled by his loyalty — loyalty to the task with which he had been charged, to the Party he served, and to the revolutionary ideology he believed in. This unequivocal faith and devotion led him to sacrifice his health and even his life without hesitation. Furthermore, the last decision he made — to save the fish for others who have a better chance of making it out of the grassland — exemplifies the principle of placing collective interests over personal desires. Lastly, he was innovatively practical about the available resources and improvised a fish hook out of a needle when he noticed ponds in the surrounding. Thus, the myth promotes the “Spirit of the Long March” and exalts the squad leader as a model communist to emulate.
Apart from the officially endorsed “Spirit of the Long March,” the myth has also been used to provide consolation and motivation for overcoming the difficulty. Tribulations are a central theme in legends about the Long March, which purportedly took the lives of nine-tenths of the soldiers. According to the official history, the Red Army traversed 25,000 li (about 7800 miles), conquering 18 mountains, 24 rivers, barren grasslands as well as snow-capped mountains and marshlands — with hardly any provisions and while fighting the KMT army, who had much better weapons and outnumbered them by far.Therefore, the dire privation in The Golden Fish Hook is not to be understood as a tragic accident but as representative of the everyday struggles of the Red Army and their inspiring fortitude. As the Chinese author Sun Shuyun puts it, when the Chinese find a task difficult or feel tired, they are told to “think of the Long March” and their “revolutionary forebears,” so they can “accomplish any goal set before [them] by the party,” whether it be to industrialize China or to catch up with the West, “because nothing compares in difficulty with what [the Red Army] did.”In time, the ability to “endure hardships and work hard” has become highly valued across the board, appearing more frequently than any other phrase in hiring notices and matrimonial advertisement.
Finally, the myth promotes patriotism by instilling pride in the national history and gratitude for the Red Army and the founding fathers. In regard to pride, the noble thoughts and deeds of the squad leader, and more generally of all the soldiers in the Red Army, are constantly cited as proof of the mental and physical strength of the Chinese people. As for gratitude, school children are encouraged to become honorable Young Pioneers and wear a red scarf which symbolizes the blood of the martyrs so they can be constantly reminded that they owe their peaceful and comfortable lives to countless sacrifices in the past. Most noticeably, Chinese people’s desire to defend the hard-won sovereignty for which their forebears paid dearly translates into extreme sensitivity in territorial disputes and secession attempts. For example, even without government censorship, all it takes for a formerly popular company or celebrity to be boycotted nationally and unconditionally is a remark that seems to indicate the advocacy for Taiwanese independence.Infused with a kind of protective patriotism promoted by this and other similar myths, Chinese citizens tend to feel strongly about their national identity and regard any threats to it as “bottom line” issues.
The argument of this essay, combined with pre-existing Western stereotypes about Communist China, risks leaving an inaccurate impression that Chinese people are unthinking puppets who believe whatever their government feeds them. It is important, therefore, for the reader to recognize that many Chinese citizens today do perceive such morally immaculate figures as the squad leader as unrealistic or boring, question the extreme collectivistic or self-sacrificial values, and doubt the authenticity of the official account of national history. Therefore, a myth like “The Golden Fish Hook” is most likely read with reservation. However, these misgivings do not render the story irrelevant to them. Just like many Americans believe in the merit of honesty despite dismissing Washington and the Cherry Tree as mythical, many Chinese people still resonate with the aforementioned messages of “TheGolden Fish Hook” despite believing the story is fictitious and over-embellished. This is especially true because the myth respects long-established traditions, such as valuing pain endurance and hard work, and because its more politically-charged messages are confirmed and reinforced in many other aspects of life, from school teachings to news. Thus, the myth fits neatly into a comprehensive and self-consistent web of both traditionally and politically oriented values. These values compose the modern Chinese ideal identity: a self-sacrificial, practical, collectivistic, patriotic, and proud people who draw fortitude from their ancient culture and rich history.
Lora Xie is a V Form boarding student from Chengdu, China. She likes eating breakfast and learning about self and the world.
An, Baijie, and Xiaokun Li. “Sovereignty of China Is ‘Bottom Line’.” China Daily, China Daily Information Co, 15 July 2016, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2016-07/15/content_26095017.htm.
“Chang Zheng.” Baidu Baike, Baidu, baike.baidu.com/item/长征/22312?fr=aladdin.
Formosa Taiwan. “Taiwanese K-Pop Celebrity Apologizes for Claiming to Be Taiwanese.” Blog for Taiwan, Medium, 15 Jan. 2016, medium.com/blog-for-taiwan/taiwanese-k-pop-celebrity-apologizes-for-claiming-to-be-taiwanese-c89469446fbd.
Jiang, Zemin. “Address Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Long March.” News of the Communist Party of China, People’s Daily, dangshi.people.com.cn/GB/151935/176588/176597/10556548.html.
“Long March (Rocket Family).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_March_(rocket_family).
“Long March.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_March.
Lu, Dingyi. “The Golden Fish Hook.” Yuwen Fifth Grade Reader II, People’s Education Press.
Marquand, Robert. “Modern China’s Founding Legend: Heavy on Myth?” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 22 May 2006, http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0522/p01s02-woap.html.
Sun, Shuyun. The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth.Anchor, 2008. P304.
“Long March (Rocket Family).”
Jiang, Zemin. “Address Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Long March.”
Lu, Dingyi. “The Golden Fish Hook.”
Sun, Shuyun. The Long March: The True History of Communist China’s Founding Myth.
Formosa Taiwan. “Taiwanese K-Pop Celebrity Apologizes for Claiming to Be Taiwanese.”
An, Baijie, and Xiaokun Li. “Sovereignty of China Is ‘Bottom Line’.”