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The ancient origins of the latest buzzword

What does ‘Remain true to our original aspiration’ mean?

The weeklong 19th CPC National Congress is over, but the analysis has only just begun. On October 18th, President Xi Jinping delivered a report to the National Congress of the Communist Party of China on behalf of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC. In the report, the term “不忘初心” was used repeatedly, and its translation caused wide discussion.

The term firstly appeared in the theme of the Congress, which says: “不忘初心,牢记使命,高举中国特色社会主义伟大旗帜,决胜全面建成小康社会,夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利,为实现中华民族伟大复兴的中国梦不懈奋斗.” Its official translation is “Remain true to our original aspiration and keep our mission firmly in mind, hold high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and work tirelessly to realize the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.

Then, in the official text of the report, the term appeared another few times and each got a slightly different translation, like:

  • 不忘初心,方得始终。 Never forget why you started, and you can accomplish your mission
  • 无论是弱小还是强大,无论是顺境还是逆境,我们党都初心不改、矢志不渝…… …whether in times of weakness or strength, whether in times of adversity or smooth sailing, our Party has never forgotten its founding mission, nor wavered in its pursuit.
  • 在全党开展“不忘初心、牢记使命”主题教育。 We will launch a campaign on the theme of “staying true to our founding mission.”

The term has actually been a buzzword on social media for a long time. Considered a “chicken-soup” (popular self-help sayings or articles) expression, it’s hard to find out how it began to go viral. But in terms of origin, the phrase can be traced back to the Tang Dynasty, when poet Bai Juyi wrote that “所以表不忘初心,也必果本愿也,” which roughly means that “if one can always remember where he started, he will definitely realize his wish in the end.”

Here, 初心, means “the original thought, aim or aspiration in the beginning.” This concept comes from Buddhism, referring to the beginning of its practices. Today, many people attribute“不忘初心 (Never forget why you started)” to the Avatamsaka Sutra. But in fact, the sutra just conveys an idea that the “the beginning of practices is one’s initial will, and becoming Buddha is its ending. From the beginning to the end, one’s mind should be consistent.”

Of course, this concept of 初心 is not only used by Buddhists. The book In Search of the Supernatural , published during the Jin Dynasty, included the sentence “We cannot realize our original wish and are separated by life and death (既不契于初心, 生死永诀).”

Su Shi, another literary figure in the Song Dynasty, also wrote: “If I insist on my original will and never change, my enemies will absolutely target at me and there is no chance for them not to create troubles. 若守其初心,始终不变,则群小侧目,必无安理.” In these examples, 初心 means original wish, intention or aspiration.

Today, in daily life, people usually use the concept of 初心 to remind themselves of their dreams, goals, principles or even life philosophy. Here is a post from China’s basketball player Guo Ailun, which is a typical example of the use of this expression.  Placed on top of Guo’s Weibo account, it says:

No matter what happens, insist on yourself, follow your own heart and never change for anything. Don’t forget why you started, and you can achieve your goal.”


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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