An analysis of the factors affecting the evolution of a symbol’s signified on the connotative level

For a number of historical symbols, their signifieds on the connotative level were formed in particular historical contexts, and they effectively reflect the evolution and development of the Chinese society at different stages of history.

The multi-dimensional determinants of the historical context imposed by the epoch, region, culture and other factors

The connotative signification of the same symbol would produce different signi- fieds due to the differences in the background of historical eras. It may even be possible for those signifieds to be mutually conflicting and repulsive. For example, during the Qing Dynasty, the custom of keeping long braids or queues (long strands of hair interwoven, sometimes also called ‘pigtails’) by male adults was a tradition that fully conformed to the culture of the Qing Dynasty under the reign of the Manchu, and the “braids” served as a political symbol signifying the rule of the Qing regime. However, with the decline of this government, the pigtails dragging along at the back of the head of the Chinese people became the standing joke, a token of the backwardness and extreme conservativism of the Qing Dynasty under the reign of the Manchu. Similarly, “Confucius,” as a symbol deeply rooted in the mind of the Chinese people and equipped with tremendous social influence, has been exploited by the monarchs throughout the dynasties in Chinese history. Susceptible to a multitude of interpretations, this symbol has experienced incredible ups and downs as well as untold changes in the currents of social and historical developments. What is particularly noteworthy is that the communication of those symbols that represent a nation tends to demonstrate a conspicuous Matthew Effect. When China was very powerful and prosperous, symbols with positive meanings would keep emerging whereas when China’s strength declined and the economy was sluggish, negative symbols would be extensively communicated. For example, the “Opium War” and the “Fixed-Format Writing” (the so-called “Eight-Legged Writing”) were primarily associated with the late Qing Dynasty as symbols of military humiliation and cultural stagnation. However, with regard to the Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty, the symbols that most readily come to our mind are mostly positive, such as the Empress Wu Zetian, the Japanese diplomatic and academic missions to China to assimilate Chinese learning and famous poets like Li Bai. All those symbols stood for the prosperity and glories of the period.

If the background of an epoch can be regarded as the diachronic determinant of the meaning of a sign in a particular historical context, then the differences in regional and cultural backgrounds constitute the synchronic determinants of the meaning of the symbols. The regional and cultural determinants make it necessary for the relationship between various agents, or the subjects, to have a certain “similarity” in order for them to be mutually attractive. Otherwise, there would be no foundation or possibility to make interpretations of the text of another party, and the meanings would be difficult to merge and no dialogues would happen between the two sides.1 People located in different regions and cultural backgrounds are bound to be different in their understanding of the same symbol and in their interpretation of its connotative signification. Different regions, different cultural backgrounds and people with different political leanings would create differences in the cognition of the same symbol, and the understanding of the connotative meaning of the symbol would also be different.

The variations in the interpretation of a symbol as a result of the differences in the cultural background often happen in cross-cultural communication. We can take “dragon,” the Chinese symbol of luck, as an example. In Chinese tradition, the dragon has always been a symbol for the imperial dignity and solemnity and for good fortune and blessings. All the Chinese people feel proud of themselves for being the descendants of the dragon. But during the historical evolution of Western culture, the dragon has come to represent the idea of evil. The communication barriers caused by the differences in those two cultural backgrounds can essentially be attributed to the fact that the same symbol has established different signifying relationships in different cultural contexts and produced different signifieds. In order to obviate such a conflict, it is imperative that during the communication process the communicator choose a symbol whose connotative signification has received interpretative consensus by both sides. For example, the organizing committee of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games demonstrated considerable discretion in choosing the totem that was to appear on the Olympic torch. In view of the fact that dragon has evil implications in the Western context, the organizing committee gave up the most typical Chinese symbol “dragon” in order to prevent any potential distortions of interpretation in the international community. Instead, the phoenix was chosen as the totem to decorate the Olympic torch because the phoenix is endowed with positive symbolic meanings in both the Eastern and the Western contexts. The mythical bird, capable of nirvana and resurrection, signifies good fortune and immortality in both the Eastern and the Western cultures. In terms of the encoding of the symbol, this rare universality in cultural cognition eradicated potential communication barriers and successfully stroke a balance between the Western culture and the Chinese culture by communicating the common culture of good luck and good will.2

I n international communication, the differences in historical contexts are a major factor that could result in communication failures. Good communication outcomes are always produced on the basis of an insightful understanding of both the Oriental and the Occidental cultural contexts. This requires Chinese communicators to search for symbols which are embedded in the cultural traditions of the Chinese nation and are also equipped with universal significations that can help promote the dissemination of the Chinese culture across the globe.

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