The phrase “not forgetting the original intention,” or buwang chuxin (不忘初心), generally appears today as part of the eight-character phrase “not forgetting our original intention, staying true to our mission” (不忘初心，牢记使命). But use of the four-character phrase buwang chuxin developed over the first few years of the Xi era, gradually becoming by 2016 a term of greater importance within the CCP discourse.
One of the earliest appearances of “not forgetting the original intention” in the Party’s official People’s Daily came on December 26, 2013, marking the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong. In an essay in the paper, Huang Huilin (黄会林), a film studies scholar, wrote: “On the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the birth of Comrade Mao Zedong, I have gained new insights from revisiting Mao’s cultural thought, especially the fundamental principle and direction of ‘for the people’ in the creation of literature and art.” Further down in this reflection, Huang wrote, “Never forget the original intention, so that we can reach ultimate success” (不忘初心, 方得始终).
This particular eight-character phrase originates from an interpretation of the Avatamsaka Sutra (华严经), an influential Buddhist sutra referring to the adherence to the original intention of Buddha. The secular interpretation of the term serves as a reminder to people to remain true to their ideals as they journey toward a final goal. Huang’s essay anticipates the eventual CCP phrase in its application of this idea to the CCP’s intention of serving the people.
From 2013 to 2015, there were scores of articles mentioning “not forgetting the original intention” in the People’s Daily, but these were largely applications of the original Buddhist phrase to the arts, or expressing a broader philosophical view of life – the general gist the need to stay true to one’s values. One July 2014 article in the People’s Daily applied the phrase to describe the relationship between financial leasing and the real economy. In this context, the real economy was treated as the original intention, and the full phrase used was again the reference to the Buddhist sutra.
By 2016, however, the phrase had clearly crept into more overtly political contexts, including the need for journalists at Party-run media to stay true to the mission set for them by Xi Jinping. In a June 2016 article, the People’s Daily stressed the importance of “Marxist journalism education,” which it contrasted with journalism education in the West. “[We must] strengthen education and guidance,” the article said, “leading students to not forget the original intention, to not forget the roots, to not deviate from the direction [of the Party], and to stiffen the ‘backbone’ of a more determined army of news reservists” (新闻后备军).
A number of pieces in the People’s Daily also emphasized the need for officials to uphold the mission of serving the people, which included maintaining good character and conduct, and explicitly avoiding corruption.
The phrase “not forgetting the original intention” first moved to a central position in the CCP discourse following Xi Jinping’s July 1, 2016, speech to commemorate the Party’s 95th anniversary. In his speech, Xi Jinping spoke of the need to adhere to the “firm belief that the Party’s foundation is in the people, and the party’s strength is in the people.”
The main idea (主旨) of the July 1 speech, as widely reported in the Party-state media, was “not forgetting the original intention and continuing to move forward” (不忘初心, 继续前进). This, according to state media, was the demand that “the Party always maintains the original intention of the people (赤子之心), always adheres to the people’s position (人民立场), and always maintains the spirit of struggle [enshrined] with the CCP’s founding.”
This permutation of the eight-character “not forgetting” phrase persisted through much of 2017, in the months ahead of the 19th National Congress of the CCP. The phrase, for example, was given some prominence by Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) in government work report to the National People’s Congress in March 2017.
The first hints of the current phrase “not forgetting our original intention, staying true to our mission” (不忘初心，牢记使命), appeared in May 2017, as the People’s Daily reported on the central Party leadership’s message of congratulation on the first successful flight of the C919, China’s domestically development commercial airliner. The message read:
The successful maiden flight of the C919 large passenger aircraft is only a key step in the large passenger aircraft project, the follow-up task is still arduous and heavy. We hope you will unite more closely around the Party’s Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, holding high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics . . . . [We hope you] do not forget the original intention, that you stay true to the mission, rolling up your sleeves and working hard, striving to make the large passenger aircraft project a landmark project of reform and opening up in the new period . . . .
The coming of age of the eight-character phrase “not forgetting our original intention, staying true to our mission” came with Xi Jinping’s political report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP in October 2017, where the theme was formally given as a formidable train of official terms: “Not forgetting the original intention, staying true to the mission, holding high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, decisively building a moderately prosperous society, seizing the great victory of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the New Era, and making unremitting efforts in realizing the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Now the phrase most closely associated with “not forgetting the original intention,” this eight-character version appeared in headlines in the People’s Daily on October 20 and 21, in the midst of the National Congress. Both headlines read: “Not Forgetting the Original Intention, Staying True to the Mission.” The first article included remarks from various provincial and municipal CCP secretaries on Xi’s political report, including Shanghai’s Han Zheng (韩正), Heilongjiang’s Jiang Qingwei (张庆伟) and Jiangsu’s Li Qiang (李强).
The next day an identical page appeared in the paper with the “views” of other provincial secretaries, including Guangdong’s Hu Chunhua (胡春华), Fujian’s You Quan (尤权) and Shandong’s Liu Jiayi (刘家义). Though these views from regional leaders were presented as “impressions” (体会) on the 19th National Congress and Xi’s political report, they were in fact expressions of loyalty for Xi and his political program.
In 2022, “not forgetting the original intention” has continued to appear alongside expressions of loyalty to Xi Jinping. When the CCP announced the release by the Central Propaganda Department on April 16 of its Study Guidelines for Overall National Security (总体国家安全观学习纲要), which laid out the inclusion of national security education in the higher education curriculum nationwide, “not forgetting the original intention” was included immediately after mention of the so-called “442 formula,” a denoting of Xi’s power and dominance that comprises the “Four Consciousnesses” (四个意识), “Four Confidences” (四个自信) and “Two Protections” (两个维护). Also included was the demand that all within the Party “maintain a high degree of uniformity in ideology, politics and action with the Central Committee of the CCP with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.”
Xi Jinping, then, has been positioned as the “core” leader maintaining adherence to the “original intention” and the Party’s “mission,” so that by definition it is Xi who upholds the will of the people in moving China forward toward the achievement of the “Chinese dream” of the “great rejuvenation.”