The disaster-relief volunteers equipped with the metalanguage mechanism: citizens in contemporary China united as one

The major earthquake which happened in Wenchuan in Sichuan Province on May 12, 2008, measuring 8.0 in magnitude, allowed many people who were not quite familiar with China to develop full knowledge about this small town located in an unknown corner of the world and allowed those who knew China to update their understanding about the Chinese people. In the disaster-relief campaign in the wake of the earthquake, countless Chinese citizens presented themselves as volunteers to participate in rescue efforts, playing an active role in every step of the disaster-relief campaign. Their bravery and unrelenting efforts made many of them the most admirable and memorable heroes. This group of volunteers who risked their lives and worked with concerted efforts captured the serious attention of the people across the globe and allowed the entire international community to gain a new understanding about the citizens in the contemporary China. For their selfless contributions, a brand-new image of Chinese volunteers came into being. More important, the moral nobility was regarded as not simply confined to the entire community of Chinese volunteers but, more generally, the entire Chinese nation which, united as one, is committed to building a progressive society.

From a semiotic perspective, the volunteers working for the earthquake relief can serve as signifier E1, pointing to all those relief workers who participated voluntarily in the Wenchuan earthquake rescue C1. In this way, a denotation (E1-R1-C1) is constructed. Working at the forefront of the disaster-relief campaign, they have risked their lives and defied all the dangers for the sake of saving the catastrophe-stricken local people. As a result, they come to acquire a symbolic meaning, exemplifying the spirit of unity and an indefatigable will, which might be called the signified 2 (C2), which replaces the denotation (C1) that consists of all the disaster-relief volunteers. Thus, this signified becomes the connota- tive meaning of the entire volunteer community (E1) and the moral relationship between the volunteers and the spirit of unity and undaunted will comes to be constructed.

The connotations of unity and indefatigability have only brought into play a symbol’s first layer of function. In order for any symbol to be communicated more extensively, the metonymic function, that is, the metalanguage mechanism,

The Connotative Signification of the Volunteers during the Wenchuan Earthquake Relief

Figure 4.1 The Connotative Signification of the Volunteers during the Wenchuan Earthquake Relief

must be evoked. In the massive media coverage about this symbol, the generalization mechanism of the metalanguage plays its due role, thus facilitating the construction of the overall image of the Chinese citizens in the aggregate. In other words, as those volunteers are one proportion of the Chinese citizens as a whole, they acquire a high level of relevance, equivalence, and metonymic relationship by virtue of the metalanguage mechanism or by what John Fiske calls the mechanism of equating “the part with the whole.” In this logic sequence, by means of a metonymic mechanism, the community of volunteers constitutes an epitome of the Chinese citizens. In this metalanguage grouping, a signifying grouping (E3-R3-C3) becomes the layer of expression in the signified of another signifying grouping (E1-R1-C1). This means that Chinese citizens become the layer of expression in the signified of the signifying grouping (E1-R1-C1). As a result, E2-R2-C2, as E1-R1-C1’s connotative signification, is transferred onto E3-R3-C3, thus forming a complete process of metalanguage communication. The ultimate message is that those disaster-relief volunteers are not the only group of people who worked in great unity and with undaunted will; rather, at those moments, all the Chinese citizens stand for the unity, the solidarity, the inexorable will, and the spirit of the Chinese nation which is ready to face whatever challenges. They are the powerful reserve forces behind the volunteers who were working at the very forefront of the disaster relief. All the Chinese citizens, as individuals, partake of the spirit as personified by the volunteers.

After the earthquake occurred, a large number of international media gave extensive coverage of China’s efforts to fight against the devastations brought about by that unprecedented earthquake. It was surprising that the Western media, which have largely been fastidious and harsh about China, kept lavishing praises about China’s disaster-relief efforts. Not only the governments but also the media and the general public in Western countries showed their unanimous appreciation. During that particular period, the Chinese people as a whole were interpreted as a nation of “great unity, solidarity and cohesion.” There were a number of reasons that contributed to this national image of China, but the icon created by the earthquake- combating volunteers definitely played a significant role in this regard.

The disaster-relief efforts by the volunteers in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake serve, once again, as an unmistakable testimony to the communication

The Merging between the Connotative Signification of the Wenchuan Earthquake Volunteers and the Metalanguage

Figure 4.2 The Merging between the Connotative Signification of the Wenchuan Earthquake Volunteers and the Metalanguage

effects of the metalanguage. The symbolic significance of their deeds was more than self-evident. The rallying of the non-governmental forces can truly play an important symbolic impact, which is exponentially amplified by means of the metalanguage communication mechanism. The spread of the nongovernmental icons exposed the people around the world to the great cohesive power that unites all the Chinese people. The citizens of the contemporary Chinese society, with their unity, solidarity and indomitability, have since become a powerful symbol which will remain indelible in the minds of the people across the whole world.

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