Earlier this month on state television in China, Swedish national Peter Dahlin, the co-founder of a non-governmental organisation assisting Chinese rights lawyers, admitted to having assisted criminal activities in a “confession” that was almost certainly coerced. “I have caused harm to the Chinese government, and I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” said Dahlin. The Swede joins a long list of parties who have offended Chinese “feelings” over the past six decades. But what does this phrase really signify?
The feelings of the Chinese people are the strangest things in the world. When these [feelings] are truly upset, the government cares nothing for your unhappiness. The nerves that govern our feelings, they sprout through the bodies of the Chinese people themselves — but they are pinched between the fingers of those in power.
Far from being the product of some generalised Chinese cultural context, the “hurt feelings” phrase first emerged in 1959 in the pages of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily. The phrase was regularised after 1978, becoming a permanent feature of the Party’s political discourse. Its proper “native” context, therefore, is the political culture of mainland China.
Power is the deeper question at the root of these “feelings.” And the people, the abstracted renmin (人民), are upset when the Chinese Communist Party wills it.
On January 11, political scientist Qiao Mu (乔木) wrote on his own blog that the recently minted phrase “Zhao Family,” which has come to stand for China’s power elite, was a skeleton key that could unlock phrases like “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” and “old friends of the Chinese people.”
“Now,” Qiao wrote, “all you need to do is replace ‘the people’ with ‘the Zhao family,’ and everything becomes clear all at once.”
Qiao is by no means the only one to feel this way. Following the nationally televised “confession” of Swedish national Peter Dahlin on January 20, in which he said he had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” one Weibo user rejoined:
To those foreigners saying on TV that they hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, let me just say that I am one of these Chinese people, and my feelings haven’t been hurt at all. I think the only feelings you’ve hurt are those of the Zhao Family.
The question of power and legitimacy also unlocks the mystery of why tiny Saint Lucia was able to rattle China’s nerves.
In March 2007, Saint Lucia resumed its “diplomatic relationship” with Taiwan, which China regards not as a sovereign nation but a “runaway province.” China’s foreign ministry announced at a press conference that it “adamantly opposed” Saint Lucia’s decision to allow a visit by a “so-called ‘foreign minister’” from Taiwan. Saint Lucia, it said, had “gone against the communique establishing diplomatic relations between China and Saint Lucia, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Naturally, the “Zhao family” takes umbrage at anything calling into question its claim over the integrity, identity and, yes, the “feelings” of the Chinese people.
SLIDESHOW: A HISTORY OF “HURT FEELINGS”
The following interactive timeline plots the bulk of the 143 articles in the official People’s Daily between 1946 and 2015 using the phrase “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” (伤害了中国人民的感情). NOTE: We’ve included in our timeline the first pre-mention of the phrase, a 1959 reference to India. The article in question used only the character shang (伤) for “hurt,” as opposed to the two-character shanghai (伤害) seen later.