Soul and Root

Soul and Root

| Ryan Ho Kilpatrick
Once shorthand for Chinese history and heritage, “soul and root” has more recently taken on a new meaning tied to Xi Jinping’s push to merge Marxism with traditional culture, both of which have been assigned a place in the pantheon as the “soul” and “root” of the nation, respectively.

“Soul and root” has long been used as a metaphor for China’s rich cultural heritage. It is often invoked, for example, as the connective tissue tying both sides of the Taiwan Strait together. President Xi Jinping has for years used “soul and root” as a stand-in for cultural heritage, and as recently as summer 2022 likened China’s history and traditional culture to its “soul and root.”

A year later, however, the phrase acquired a new and more prescriptive meaning. At a Politburo study session in June 2023, Xi said, “We must not abandon Marxism as our soul or China’s excellent traditional culture as our root.” Just weeks after this new framing of “soul and root” was presented to the nation, bringing Marx into the picture, transportation workers across the northeastern province of Jilin participated in an array of activities to mark the 102nd anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party themed around “safeguarding the soul and root.” 

This new designation of Marx as the source of China’s soul and traditional culture as its root is a visual representation of Xi’s theory of the Two Combines (兩個結合), which adds a new prerogative to “combine Marxist theory with China’s outstanding traditional culture” to the one long established by Deng Xiaoping that Marxism must bend to China’s material conditions.

In the words of the state-run China Daily: “The Two Combines, as the path that must be taken (必由之路), emphasizes the organic integration of soul and root, consolidating cultural subjectivity.” The Dazhong Daily (大眾日報), a newspaper published by the CCP’s Shandong Provincial Committee, further identified Marxism and traditional culture as the “soul and root” of Chinese-style modernization (中國式現代化), another of Xi’s favorite catchphrases. It’s a simple enough equation, but the metaphor can still get muddled. In an official commentary published in June, the People’s Daily wrote that “the tree of Marxist truth can flourish only if it is rooted deeply in the fertile soil of a nature’s culture and history.”

A poster from Hunan Satellite TV promoting When Marx Met Confucius.

Soul or root?

This confusion begs the question: Why one is the soul and which the root? In the language of recent propaganda around the phrase, the root is conceptualized as something unchanging but remote. It is the “fertile soil” from which China’s “civilized genes” sprung, nourishing the trunk and the branches of the nation without determining their current course. A soul, on the other hand, is as pervasive and ever-present as the air we breathe. It is “the fundamental guiding ideology” without which “the nation will not be able to stand up.” 

Ultimately, however, both converge on a common point: the centrality of CCP leadership and Xi Jinping’s ideas. “To be firm in faith in Marxism” — that is, to have a soul — is to adhere to the “core leadership” of the Party and push forward Xi’s goal of creating a “new civilization” for China. “To protect the root,” too, “the fundamental thing is to adhere to the leadership of the [Communist] Party.” In practice, the CCP, with Xi at its helm, is both soul and root.

Soon after the initial flurry of state media articles on Xi’s “soul and root,” a new show premiered on Hunan Satellite TV titled When Marx Met Confucius. The five-part series sees the ancient sage and his newfound German comrade bond over a shared reverence for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era — a premise met with widespread mockery online.

Although already in planning a year prior to the rebranding of “soul and root,” the program has been seen as a visual representation of its dynamic. As it draws to a close, the two “reconcile their respective thoughts into a new synthesis, where Confucianism is ‘the root’ and Marxism is ‘the soul.’”

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

CMP Managing Editor

The CMP Dictionary