The impact of the mechanism ofpsychological intervention on the selection of symbolic signifiers that represented modern China
In his book, The Effects of Mass Communication, J. T Klapper proposed his idea of “selective psychology” which refers to phenomena of active thinking and behavioral outcome on the part of the recipient in response to the information and to the media and the means of communication in communication activities. More specifically, the selective psychology consists of selective exposure, selective perception, and selective retention. At the same time, selection itself is influenced by the environment and the group in which the subject is located and by the subject’s own psychological traits and emotions. Therefore, the image fabricated by the
Western world about the modem China is ineluctably informed by a selective propensity.
Daniel Defoe’s deliberate criticism and extreme disparagement of the image of China are totally in line with his political stance of treating “foreign countries and nations as potential targets of colonial trade.” On the other hand, Montesquieu’s use of “horror” as a signifier to construct an icon of China was somehow related to his political principle of combating tyranny. In the 19th century, the efforts by the Western world to construct unilateral labels about non-Western countries in which the culture of such countries were treated as belonging to an inferior and negative system of knowledge are also inextricably connected with historical and cultural backgrounds formed by Western-centrism.
It is apparent that Western thinkers and politicians, starting from their own intellectual and ideological premises, examined and selected what interested themselves. When they brought China into their domain of perspective, they chose a pragmatic posture, driven by the need to construct their own theoretical and ideological schemes.18 In projecting a negative image of China, they reconstructed and re-created a China as they conceived it rather than as what China actually was.
Indeed, the selection of a negative image of China and the recurrence of that image in the Western culture was apparently not designed to illustrate a deficiency in the Western culture but to highlight the excellence and superiority of the Western culture. With its seeming “truthfulness,” such a discourse about China endeavored to perpetuate its dominance over all the articulations about China. “By providing the texts that are generated on different occasions with the vocabulary, imagery and various rhetorical devices for articulating about China, this Western discourse exemplifies how ideas and the power structure in culture and history keep penetrating into the political, economic and moral power.”19
Classical semiology focuses almost exclusively on uncovering the semantic multiplicity of the signified at the expense of revealing the rich diversity of signifiers. However, while we come to notice the rich variety of signifiers that depict the image of China in modern times, we become aware of the alarming uniformity of their signified - that is, a negative rejection of China characterizes all those signifiers. Of course, this is not the problem of this semiotic study itself, but the result of the cultural legacy handed down to us by the humiliating history of the modern China, a legacy permeated with signifiers that point to weaknesses and deficiencies. Underneath this somewhat weary conformity lies the fact that, in the process of communicating information, signifiers do not merely play the passive and inflexible role of a physical medium but act as a contributing factor, on the basis of being selected and constructed, to the achievement of those signifier’s identity and self-identity. The successful construction of the signifier does not merely depend on political and economic conditions as well as military and cultural strength; it is also inescapably connected with historical and social milieus and to the deeply entrenched conventional patterns of cognition. In the case of a complete stripping or suspension of the signified, the diverse ways of expression of the signifier, either in a one-dimensional or in a multi-dimensional manner, make us further aware of the complicated relationship between the world of virtual signs and the world of reality, and of the impact that such a relationship produce on both the Eastern and the Western perspectives about China in modern times. The study of this relationship gives us a clear idea about how the deliberate eclipse and selection of information happened and evolved in the Western discourse about the history of China in modern times.