“Footprints” in Chinese popular culture


Footprints in the sand (image credit)

During a live broadcast in 2007 to announce the launch of CCTV’s Olympics channel, TV host Hu Ziwei interrupted the presentation and publicly accused her husband Zhang Bin, a CCTV-5 announcer, of carrying on an affair.

For CCTV, the episode was a black mark against its carefully-planned Olympic strategy. Hu herself dropped out of sight for a while, and although crazy rumors circulated about a house arrest, she later resurfaced, back together with her husband.

Yesterday, The Beijing News published an interview with Hu. After talking about Hu’s recent move to Hunan TV, the reporter carefully broached the subject of Hu’s marital issues:

The Beijing News: There’s one other question I’d like to ask, but I’m not sure if you’ll mind. What effect did that incident two years ago have on you?

Hu Ziwei: I feel that everything I’ve been through in my life has had an effect on me. Things always leave traces behind. Just like it says in the Bible, wherever we’ve been, traces are left behind. Sometimes, maybe it’s the pain of growing up.

What is translated here as “wherever we’ve been, traces are left behind” (凡走过必留痕迹) is often rendered “Footprints in the sand show where one has been,” a formulation that appears almost exclusively on Taiwan-based websites and English-Chinese glossaries. Occasionally it’s called a “Chinese proverb”; other times its attributed to “God” or “the Bible.” A typical example is contained in the 2006 book, Believe in China, by Liang Dong, vice-president of Baidu: “The Bible says, ‘footprints are left behind wherever we’ve been.’ The paw-print of a bear in Baidu’s logo carries the same significance.”

Back in 2007, a Baidu blogger called Spirangel grew curious about the Biblical citation:

I searched for it in Chinese, but the results were less than ideal. Maybe there are too many translated versions?

I searched for one of the English renditions, “Footprints in the sand show where one has been,” and then went on to try international Bible websites. I found that the most common line was “There has only been one set of footprints in the sand,” and that wasn’t uttered by our Lord Jesus 🙁

Web searching with the two major search engines as well as library searches, there were still no results after half an hour.

Perhaps the attribution to the Bible is just a mistaken myth?

Search enthusiasts took up the challenge. They quickly traced the line to Taiwan TV personality Jacky Wu, who used it in an episode of his popular variety show, then to bilingual instructional materials used in Taiwan, then to the lyrics to a song sung by Taiwanese pop star Pu Hsueh-liang, and finally to a book of poetry published in Taiwan in 1990.

Other uses were discovered, and after considering and discarding such possible sources as the Bible and Tagore, the investigators eventually decided that the line had been inspired by “Footprints,” an inspirational poem that is quite popular among Christian circles in the United States. Paperfish, the blogger who headed the search, summed up the results as follows:

In 1936, Mary Stevenson, a devout Christian, wrote down a dream she had about God into a story, “Footprints in the Sand.”

After 1936, the story made its way to Christians in Taiwan and was summed up by Taiwanese Christians who could speak English in an awkward sentence that could only have been thought up in Taiwan: “Footprints in the sand show where one has been.”

After 1949, “Footprints in the sand show where one has been” was taken to be an English-language aphorism and was incorporated into English textbooks in Taiwan. It was translated as 凡走过必留下痕迹. The identity of the translator and date of translation remain unknown (further investigation is required, but the possibility for success is very low). (Citation to an elementary school curriculum file now unavailable.)

In 1982, Lo Ta-yu quoted the Chinese translation in the liner notes to his album, Zhi Hu Zhe Ye (之乎者也).

Of course, [thanks] also to the one who has promised “Footprints to show where we been, and help for those who toil.” (当然,还有向我们预示”凡走过的, 必留下足迹,凡努力过的,必将收获”的那一位)

In 1990, the Taiwan poet Wang Zhi-kun published the collection Records of Loneliness (孤寂记事), which was subtitled 凡走过必留下痕迹.

In 2000, when long-time lyricist Wang Wu-hsiung (王武雄) wrote Pu Hsueh-liang’s “Super Mission,” he incorporated the line into the lyrics, and Pu performed “Super Mission” on the Super Sunday program.

Prior to 2005, on his variety show Guess, Jacky Wu quoted and adapted the line, and then mainland audiences who watched Jacky’s show on the Internet took up the line, and it began to circulate online.

Wherever we’ve been, footprints are left behind; whatever we’ve eaten, KFC is left behind. (凡走过,必留下痕迹;凡吃过,必留下肯德鸡)

Since 2005, the line has become corrupted in transmission so that its source has been lost.

On September 11, 2007, tracked down by the efforts of search enthusiasts, the provenance and spread of the line 凡走过必留下痕迹 have at last been deduced.

This chronology attributes the poem to Mary Stevenson, but the authorship of “Footprints” is actually disputed among several different poets. Rachel Aviv described the poem’s history in her essay, “Enter Sandman,” published at The Poetry Foundation:

Usually “Footprints” was signed “Author Unknown,” but other times the credit was given to Mary Stevenson, Margaret Fishback Powers, or Carolyn Joyce Carty, who have all registered copyrights for the poem. (Registration does not require proof of originality.) The three versions differ mostly in tense, word order, and line breaks….

In the realm of Christian poetry, the process of distinguishing which ideas are original is significantly harder-the same body of collective epiphanies has been passed down for years. When artists open themselves up to the inspiration of the Lord, it’s not surprising that sometimes they produce sentences that sound as if they’ve been uttered before. The first line of “Footprints,” which varies slightly among versions, seems to announce the authors’ access to the collective unconscious: “I had a dream,” “One night a man had a dream,” “One night I dreamed a dream.”

In Andrew Keen’s 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur, he writes that the Internet has induced a state of communal amnesia; we’ve lost “our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard.” Perhaps the “Footprints” writers are living a version of this peculiar situation. There’s not only an abundance of amateur authors, but they’ve all written the exact same thing.

A few readers who commented on Paperfish’s summary of the investigation disputed the conclusion. The identification of “Footprints” as the source of the Chinese line is not entirely convincing, particularly because the history of the poem becomes murky before the 1970s. Aviv suggests in her essay that Charles Spurgeon and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others, referred to “footprints in the sand” in their writings, so perhaps it was a translation of Spurgeon’s sermon or Longfellow’s poem that gave rise to the line.

The image is common enough in Chinese as well. The noted May Fourth poet Guo Moruo published “Footprints in the Sand” (沙上的脚印) in 1920, which speaks of looking back along the beach at footprints left in the sand. However, that poem uses a different word for “footprints” and, unlike the line in question, explicitly mentions the sand.

And unlike Guo’s poem, the predominant interpretation of the line these days clearly inclines to the religious. The first concrete example that Paperfish and company found, a short note inside Lo Ta-yu’s first album, quotes the line in an implicitly religious context.

Lo uses “footprint” (足迹) rather than the “imprint” or “trace” (痕迹) used in later versions, and ties the line to an earlier image about his own musical journey:

This musical road is a hard one to travel. Between East and West, traditional and modern, serious and popular, I’ve been basically stumbling and groping my way along. Because there are no footsteps to find. But now I think that I have indeed grown. So open up the ears to your you soul – at least there aren’t any perfunctory songs here. Let those who dislike them return to the sound of their own songs, because there will be no compromise.

Music has grown slowly for us: “Songs must be censored; will they pass? The songs that do pass will get bootlegged and pirated.” Think about it. We’re on guard everywhere, stingy and stubborn, like a child sitting in a corner throwing a toy as he bawls in a fit of temper, all of us powerless.

There are too many people to thank, but I know I don’t have to list them all out, because they know my heart-felt gratitude even though I’m not good at expressing it. But I must mention my parents. They have endured so, so much because of my rebellion. Of course, also the one who has promised, “Footprints to show where we been, and help for those who toil.”

That’s probably as far as the investigation can go based solely on a general Internet. The ultimate source of 凡走过必留下痕迹, and how it came to be attached to the stilted English sentence “Footprints in the sand show where one has been,” may only be present in an offline archive, if it exists at all.

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