Heirs to the dragon / cage

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Circulating on social media:

The characters in the top left of the picture say:

lóng de chuánrén
"heirs to the cage"

Virtually any Chinese who sees that phrase, however, will instantly think of

lóng de chuánrén
"heirs to the dragon"

That is the title of what is arguably the most popular Chinese song of all time.  It is obviously homophonous with "lóng de chuánrén 笼的传人" ("heirs to the cage") which already creates an atmosphere of irony around the picture.  However, the famous song itself is surrounded with ambiguity (to be explained momentarily).  When we combine the irony of "lóng de chuánrén 笼的传人" ("heirs to the cage") with the ambiguity of "lóng de chuánrén 龙的传人" ("heirs to the dragon"), the layers and levels of paradoxical equivocation are so deep and intense that they call into question the whole matter of what it means to be Chinese.

To better understand the profound ambiguity embodied in the title of the song and its relevance to the problem of the essential nature of Chineseness, we must spend some time exploring its background:

The song was written in late 1978 by Taiwanese songwriter Hou Dejian while still a student, initially as a protest against United States' official diplomatic recognition of People's Republic of China, a decision first announced on December 15, 1978. The song was first recorded by Lee Chien-Fu while he was a second-year university student in Taiwan. The song was released in 1980 and became highly successful in Taiwan as a nationalistic anthem. It stayed top in the list of the most popular songs of Minsheng newspaper for fifteen weeks.

Hou later emigrated to mainland China in 1983, where the song also became popular, and it was interpreted as a pan-Chinese call for unification. It became at one time the most popular pop song ever released in China. Hou however was surprised that the song was used as an expression of pro-China sentiment, and said: "You have totally misread my intention!" In 1989, Hou supported the students during the Tiananmen Square protests. The song became popular with the protesters, and it was adopted as an anthem for the movement together with "The Internationale" and Cui Jian's "I Have Nothing".

Hou was later expelled from China for his support of the protests, his song was nevertheless praised for its expression of patriotism in China and continued to be used in state broadcast and official occasions. The song was promoted by both the governments of Taiwan and mainland China. It has been noted in its assertion of racial and cultural identity of Chineseness.

The song states that China is the dragon, and Chinese people the "Descendants of the Dragon". Although the use of Chinese dragon as a motif has a long history, using dragon to represent the Chinese people only became popular since the 1970s. During the pre-modern dynastic periods, the dragon were often associated with the rulers of China and used as a symbol of imperial rule, and there were strict stipulations on the use of the dragon by commoners since the Yuan dynasty. Although the Qing government used the dragon as its imperial symbol on the flag of China, it was only during the early Republican era that the dragon began to be used to represent Chinese civilisation.

The song begins by mentioning the great rivers of China, Yangtze and Yellow River, and that they are part of the cultural memories [of] the songwriter. It relates that while the songwriter was born "under the feet of the dragon", he shares with the people of China the same genetic and cultural heritage and identity. The original lyrics contain a reference to the Opium War, and convey a sense of grievance against unnamed outside enemies. Originally the lyrics described "Westerners" (洋人) as the enemy, but this was changed to "appeasers" (姑息) on publication. The song ends by exhorting the "great dragon", i.e. China, to open its eyes to see and regain its greatness.

Hou made two changes to the lyrics at a concert in Hong Kong in support of the students during the Tiananmen protest of 1989: in the line "surrounded on all sides by the appeasers' swords" (四面楚歌是姑息的劍), "appeasers" (姑息) was replaced with "dictators" (獨裁); and the line "black hair, black eyes, yellow skin" (黑眼睛黑頭髮黃皮膚) was changed to "Whether you are willing or not" (不管你自己願不願意) to reflect the fact that not all Chinese people have such physical characteristics.


A final layer of uncertainty enveloping the illustration has to do with just who is inside the cage.  Most people who see it say that the figure stands for "any Chinese person".  I agree, but with the added stipulation that the particular representative of the Chinese people in this case may be a reflection of Dr. Li Wenliang, the doctor who in late December first blew the whistle on the emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, was censured by the government for having done so, and soon (2/7/20) died of the disease himself, but not before having taken an immortal selfie of himself:


This photograph from the New York Times shows the good doctor near death.

Selected readings


  1. ardj said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 5:34 pm

    Thank you Professor Mair for this fascinating exegesis.For what it's worth (and I know nothing of China or its languages) my first reaction was that the encaged person was, if not a doctor, then at least a scientist. (Suppose it could have been, say, a butcher, but that's an afterthought.) Given the difficulties that 'science' has faced in, for instance, most of the larger countries afflicted by Covid-19, the picture struck home immediately And, thanks to your explanation, the ambiguity of cage and dragon in the context of the changes Hou made is remarkable.
    One small query: in British usage, 'momentarily' would not normally mean 'in a moment', very 'shortly' – is your usage American or idiosyncratic or hasty ?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 6:36 pm


    Thanks for your appreciative remarks.

    As for "momentarily", it is now all right to use it the way I did:


  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 6:37 pm

    The illustration is featured in this video:


    Here's the caption: 【辱包】习近平原声献唱 笼的传人 原曲:龙的传人 (王力宏版本) 这首歌大概过不久就变辱华被禁了, 以下开放笼的传人对号入座。

    Here are the lyrics (traditional characters, like in the video) [BTW, it hooked me at Chóng guó虫國 ("Insect / Bug Country")]


    [Thanks to Mark Metcalf]

    That first stanza is about the Great Wall and tanks that prevent people from seeing outside

    The third stanza is similar to the first, but more bleak and truncated.

    Here's another version, where Communist China is more explicitly compared to a cage.


  4. KevinM said,

    May 26, 2020 @ 9:51 pm

    It's their "Born in the USA."

  5. Doreen said,

    May 27, 2020 @ 5:10 am

    FWIW, the illustration looks like it was done by Joan Cornellà.

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