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A national anthem is arguably one of the most powerful symbols for a nation-state, with impact beyond its ceremonial purposes. One source of its power lies in the lyrical content, bearing imprints of the past and texts for potentially guiding future behavior.

In this paper we study the social foundations of national anthems with the Chinese national anthem as a case by analyzing its production through two changing texts—the lyrics of the anthem and key political documents from the period of 1949–2005. The current national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” adopted in 1949, was forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, and was restored in 1978, albeit with a new set of lyrics, and used until 1982 when the original lyrics were restored.

Drawing upon the literature on collective focus (as defined by Cerulo) and social relations (as informed by Weber), we build a theoretical model for understanding the changes in the Chinese national anthem. According to this model, the creation of collective memory in the form of a national anthem is conditioned by the cognitive and social context in terms of the type of collective focus (singular or multiple) and the kind of top-bottom social relation (rational or traditional). The changing fate of the Chinese national anthem illustrates the efficacy of the theoretical model.