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Characteristics of strong symbols

Communicating the mainstream but not strong contemporary ideology

Liu Hulan is surely a strong symbol, as it highlights the spirit of sacrificing one’s life in the service of the nation and the country during the period of the AntiJapanese War, a spirit which was exalted as “a great life and a glorious death.” Wang Jinxi, the iron man, is another strong symbol because it represents the spirit of hard struggles and self-reliance in the age of dire physical scarcity, the spirit of “prioritizing industrial production before the enjoyment of life.” Lei Feng is also a strong symbol, as it embodies the spirit of being thrifty in the age of scanty commodities. Although those strong symbols used to play a positive role in shaping our values and influencing our life, they do not possess, in the context of current international communication, significant cross-cultural distinctiveness or communicative value. As symbols, they are significantly dwarfed by other symbols like Yuan Longping, Zhong Nanshan or the idea of low-carbon life which not only embody contemporary society’s shared value and mainstream awareness but also exemplify the ethos of the age and the concepts of innovation and developments. This means that the mainstream is what epitomizes the present epoch. For international communication, that which is contemporaneous has the most powerful communicative effect and the impact to lead the public opinion. The first tape recorder which we used during the 1980’s to learn foreign languages, the first Walkman which we used to listen to the pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan, our first television set and our first refrigerator which we had at home, all those appliances rendered “Made in Japan” and “Made in Germany,” as strong symbols representing high-quality, household names without us ever being aware of it. To some extent, those strong symbols have changed our understanding about those two countries and the nations that they represent. If “Made in China” can also become a symbol for high quality and the “low-carbon” can stand for the contemporary Chinese lifestyle, then this category of symbols that abound in the ethos of the present-day Chinese society will produce significance far greater than those strong symbols like the dragon, kung fu and the Great Wall, which have long existed in the Chinese history. Although they also belong to the category of strong symbols and represent the same meaning (the signified), “Made in China” and “the low-carbon lifestyle,” both as signifiers, obviously produce much more influence and impact that are characteristic of the present-day Chinese society than China’s four great inventions (the compass, the gun powder, the art of printing and the art of paper making) in Chinese ancient history. In other words, in the international communication, the symbols that can be used to refer to China should not always consist of those conventional ones - the Great Wall, Confucius, silk, porcelain, or the Peking Opera. Those symbols only belong to the past - to the traditional culture. What we really need is to create symbols like “China Speed,” because the term, used as a pun, not only gives an accurate description of the new world record set by the Chinese athlete Liu Xiang in the 110-meter men’s hurdle event but also captures the status quo and the future scenarios of the rapid economic and social development of contemporary China. In addition, it represents a situation in which China’s economy, sports and others fields of social civilization have been achieving harmonious development.

Of course, being contemporaneous is not the only characteristic of a strong symbol. Although some symbols have very prominent trait of being contemporaneous, they do not have the power to actively communicate the mainstream values of the contemporary China. For example, although Lotus Babe, Little Yueyue, Brother Sharp or Sister Feng gained wide popularity as strong symbols, their popularity was all too fleeting, and they were soon passed into oblivion, vanishing without a trace in the vast universe of symbols. Their span of life as symbols ended no sooner than they commenced. Therefore, what is essential about being contemporaneous is that the symbols should not only conform to the mainstream value but also accord with the direction of the social development of the particular era in which those symbols appear. To conform to the mainstream value does not necessarily mean being political or ideological. “China Speed” as a term is obviously related to the mainstream, but it does not carry strong ideological implications. On the other hand, Yuan Longping, Zhong Nanshan and the low-carbon lifestyle are also the symbols that belong to the mainstream; nevertheless, they are non-political. Despite their apolitical nature, those symbols have been more highly accepted than many political symbols. On the other hand, it is true that those symbols do not have strong ideological implications, but this does not mean that they do not contain serious ideas or national moods. On the contrary, they can produce far greater communication impact. For those symbols, being contemporaneous and mainstream does not run counter to being apolitical and non-ideological. The relationship is a dialectical one instead of a mutually repulsive one.

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