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The distorted symbols about China

In the mid- and late 1990s, my job required me to travel all over the world to have academic exchanges with my international counterparts, taking me to dozens of countries in five major continents. At that time, I was young, enthusiastic, curious and energetic, and no matter where I was, whether on board of the plane or the train, or in a restaurant, at a tourist resort or simply on the street, I was most eager to strike a conversation with anyone whom I found to be citizens other than the Chinese. In full confidence and pride, I would identify myself as a Chinese, and I would ask the other partner of conversation, “What do you know about China?” However, to my disappointment, most of the answers I received were confined to “the Great Wall,” “silk,” “Chairman Mao,” “Premier Zhou,” “Chiang Kai-Shek,” “Deng,” “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” or “The Last Emperor’’ (a 1987 British-Italian epic biographical film about the life of Puyi, the last emperor of China, produced by Jeremy Thomas and directed by Bertolucci). What made me most dismayed was that a large number of people answered, “Almost nothing.” To this same question which I kept raising for dozens and even over a hundred times, the most surprising one I received was “Genghis Khan,” the founder and Great Khan (Emperor) of the Mongol Empire. Of course, despite my disappointment and frustration, I would endeavor to give long accounts, albeit my broken English, about the culture of China, a country of over 5,000 years of history and with a territory of over 9.6 million square kilometers. Although my conversation partners would invariably be stunned by my accounts, I remained as exasperated as ever by one essential fact - whereas most Chinese people know so much about the art, literature, history, social revolutions, distinguished individuals, science and technology of the Western world, our Western counterparts tend to have such a pathetically limited knowledge or even total ignorance about the Chinese history and about the realities of the Chinese society.

Prior to my travel to any of the western countries, I was most favorably impressed by Australia among all the Western countries. That was because, as an undergraduate, I had the chance to be exposed to the instructions of several Australian professors and develop very wonderful impressions and fond memories. As a matter of fact, those professors were the only people I knew from Australia, and such a limited number of people could by no means represent the totality of that country. Nevertheless, why was it possible that those several Australian professors could leave me such wonderful impressions about the overall image of Australia? It was only after I started to take up the study of semiotics that I came to realize that, although a proportion can never be equated with the whole, that proportion is sufficient to represent the whole. This relationship of representation is what is often called the metalanguage system, one of the important ways in which mankind arrives at an understanding about the world. In semiotics, we also call it a form of metonymy, the mechanism of generalization or gestalt psychology.

During one of my travels, I was on board a plane of Singapore Airlines. The passenger next to my seat was prevented from listening to music due to a technical disorder in her earphone. She asked a stewardess to help her fix the earphone. When the stewardess herself failed, she offered to let the passenger fill out a form to claim compensations, informing the passenger that she would in the due course receive 50 U.S. dollars as the sum of compensations. A proffered compensation of 50 U.S. dollars, it soon became the tale of the journey among all the passengers on that flight. Indeed, 50 dollars did not amount to much, but this minimal cost undoubtedly succeeded in producing a cognitive and communicative effect far more significant than that produced by any exorbitant advertisement or publicity video clip. Ever since this experience, whenever opportunities presented themselves for me to take an international flight, my first priority would be to choose the Singapore Airlines. That particular flight which I took, along with that minor incident during that flight, sowed the seed of an unswerving trust, deep inside me, in that particular airline company, in that particular country it belongs to and in the people of that country who created that airline company. As I delved into my research on semiotics, I achieved yet another epiphany - that an ordinary individual or a minor incident could be turned into a powerful and “colossal” symbol with which to communicate vital meanings about a given corporate organization, a given sector, a given country and even a given nation.

While in Venice, wandering around in a residential compound, I came into a dead end inadvertently. Before I turned around to make my departure, I took another look at that small and quiet lane. It was a lane as ordinary as any other lane, neat and orderly. What truly surprised and impressed me was that I found a vase fastened to a wall, and there was a fresh flower in it! The moment I saw the flower, I no longer held my visa and my wallet tightly in my hands. That was my very first visit to Europe, and, due to cultural and ideological differences, I had always had some kind of fear of a Western country since my childhood. But, exactly at that moment, all my feelings of estrangement and misgivings were dissipated, replaced by the friendliness, cordiality and trust brought about by that unassuming flower. I stood there motionless for a considerable while, reflecting as I stared at the fresh flower. I wondered: who could be that person who would go to such great lengths as to place a new flower into the vase every single day, in a lane of dead end which was virtually deserted and deprived of its normal function of passage? What would be that person’s attitude toward life? Could that person be a beautiful young girl, an affectionate married woman or simply a senior citizen who managed to hobble along on crutches? As my speculations turned into imaginations, the symbolic value of the flower loomed large in my mind - that insignificant, small flower on the wall of a dead-end lane came to acquire a symbolic value far exceeding that of a carefully selected noble flower that represents a city or a nation. To me, that flower on the wall, compared with the so-called municipal flower or the national flower, possessed far greater “power of cultivation,” as George Gerbner would call it. The emotional impact produced by that flower could be legitimately regarded as what Joseph S. Nye called “soft power” in every sense of that phrase. Of course, Europe, which went through two unprecedented world wars, was far too complicated to be represented by just one single flower. Nevertheless, the understanding that we reach about Europe could be as simple as it is complicated. This is fully in keeping with the laws underlying the communication and the reception of symbols. Symbolic communication, then, is a fundamental way of human cognition that is congruent with the man’s intellectual habit of interpretative simplification. Apart from certain general rules, it is informed by many hidden tricks.

On September 2, 2012, on a plane carrying 200 passengers from Zurich to Beijing, two Chinese passengers had a violent fight due to a seat dispute and, after six hours in the air, the plane had to turn back to Zurich Airport. This incident triggered extensive heated discussions about the conduct of the Chinese people, in response to the question of “whether every Chinse person represents China.” A survey released in 2008 by Blue Ocean Network International Communication Company (BON-ICC) indicated that, regarding the question “what do Americans believe is the symbol that best represents China?” the reply given by 34% of the interviewees was “rice.” Obviously, it was quite absurd that “rice” was taken to be the symbol that could best stand for China. Similarly, it would be equally absurd to regard the two people involved in the seat fight as representing all the Chinese people. However, as has been pointed out, to infer about the whole on the basis of the part is one of the fundamental ways of human cognition. This pattern of cognition is necessary because it is indeed a tall order for all human individuals to understand the world in a “comprehensive, objective and historically dialectical manner.” Then, since we have to acknowledge that man will continue to be dictated by the cognitive habit of using the part to represent the whole, are we prepared to allow “rice” and the two fighters involved in the seat dispute to represent China and all the Chinese people? Is such a way of representation justified, objective and true? In the exceedingly long history of China and in the richly colorful and diverse Chinese society, what indeed are some of the most representative individuals, artifacts, events and commodities that can be the proper symbols for truly representing China? Admittedly, it is very important to create history, but isn’t it equally important to have history properly represented? If we acknowledge that both the “Great Wall” and “Yao Ming” are symbols that can represent China, we may well ask which of those two categories of symbols can produce more poignant communication effect and how those most typical symbols have evolved and have come to be highlighted, communicated and accepted. Those are precisely the questions that this book seeks to reflect on and to tentatively explore through an in-depth study of the signifying relationships and communication mechanisms of symbols.

Sui Yan September, 2015

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