Metalanguage’s selection of symbols

When everything is labeled as a symbol, it becomes particularly important as to which symbols to select, among such a plethora of symbols, and to use them to perform communication.

The non-governmental cultural symbols, with their de-politicalized status, become a category of symbols that are more acceptable to the audience. Those symbols are “non-governmental” in the sense that they are “non-official” and they are the symbols that represent the general public and they articulate the voices of this general public. They can be the ordinary stories that the media tell about the ordinary people, or they can refer to the transmission of information between ordinary people. For example, in conducting its cultural exchanges with China, Japan primarily resorts to the exportation of their cartoon and animation products. Millions of Chinese people grow up by watching such comic works as Doraemon and Slam Dunk during their childhood. As a matter of fact, those cultural products, along with many of their characters with which we have become so familiar, do carry ideological and cultural values. As those values are implicit, they produce their influence in an unobtrusive and imperceptible fashion and are hence more likely to develop into metalanguage that helps project Japan’s national image.

Universality is the fundamental reason why non-governmental cultural symbols are more likely to be accepted. In the communication process, there exists an “audience satisfaction paradigm,” which means “the multiple possibilities for the audience to develop and improve their media-related interests, demands and preferences.”12 This implies that, during the communication process, it is imperative for the media to make careful design concerning the content and the approach of communication in accordance with the audience’s preferences and needs; that is, the media should abide by the “audience-centered” principle. The audience is the ultimate locus of the source information, and how the information is received by the audience is an important criterion for measuring whether an act of mass communication is successful or not. In international communication, the composition of the audience is indeed very complex, with considerable differences in cultural backgrounds, ideology, value orientations, etc. Those disparities would create important difficulties in terms of designing the contents and the targets of communication. Nevertheless, differences, however significant, are not sufficient to prevent different cultures from developing common human pursuits and cultural identities. Therefore, in selecting the metalanguage for international communication, it is advisable to pick those symbols that share much in common with the target audience, symbols which are easier to communicate and more accessible to the audience. Such symbols can significantly bridge the gap with the audience by conforming to or coming close to their preferences. As the audience finds them more accessible and more acceptable, they will yield more satisfactory communication outcomes.

Hollywood blockbusters have always been regarded as the primary means for spreading American values, as embodied either in countless “super heroes” who are the saviors of the world or in ordinary characters like Forrest Gump who always entertains a positive and optimistic attitude toward life. The United States spreads its cultural and ideological values to the rest of the world by creating many appealing movie characters and stories. As those cultural and spiritual values are what all of us aspire to and identify with, they would not be rejected by the audience in other countries. Even when Hollywood filmmakers make use of the storylines and characters that are deeply embedded in the cultures of other countries, they can adapt them to their own purposes by recounting the story, re-organizing the codes, re-selecting the icons, and re-creating the culture, all for the purpose of effectively communicating the American values. In this regard, Kung Fu Panda is a case in point. In this film, the storyline, the characters, the landscape and scenery, the stage property and even the costumes are filled with Chinese elements. As an exciting inspirational film, Kung Fu Panda was shown in more than 40 countries and was a phenomenal success.13 We have watched too many movies about how a small potato, a nobody, manages to achieve a major success through his or her unremitting efforts. But Kung Fu Panda has still managed to storm the imagination of the audiences worldwide simply because the message that the film delivers accords perfectly with the dream for success that everybody cherishes in his or her daily life. Po, the central character of the movie who is somehow low-witted but always persistent, is a reflection of each and every one of us. This emotional and intellectual commonality is what prompts the audience to resonate with the film’s protagonist and to develop a strong emotional empathy. In terms of the selection of symbols with a universal appeal, Kung Fu Panda can be viewed as a perfect example from which we can derive important inspirations.

On February 16, 2010, an Internet user posted a succinct but soul-stirring message on the microblog of, entitled “the best subject matter for a video of national image.” The message is about a young couple, apparently two migrant rural workers, at Jiujiang Railway Station in Jiangxi Province trying to return to their hometown in Fuzhou to celebrate the Spring Festival. “This young couple,” the message says, “showcases optimism, stamina, hardworking spirit, respect for tradition, and the emphasis that all the Chinese people place on family reunion - this is a true picture of the ordinary Chinese people, and they are our admirable fellow countrymen!” The photo attached below the microblog text shows the young couple carrying heavy luggage on their back and walking in freezing winds and snow, but with hearty smiles on their faces at the prospect of a family reunion. The wife carries a plaque in her hands, with the inscription “Great Prosperity for A Harmonious Family.” Despite the briefness of the text and the simplicity of the picture, the message resonated with the yearning of all the Chinese people for family reunion during the Spring Festival, and it was precisely this nostalgia and homesickness that ended up in the re-transmission of this microblog for 9686 times. It is therefore evident that the shared emotions and values are everywhere in our life.

In late February 2011, there occurred serious political upheavals in the capital of Egypt and some other parts of the country. The escalating conflicts led to increasing civilian casualties. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs attached great importance to the safety of Chinese citizens in Egypt, quickly initiating the emergency response mechanism, opening the 24-hour hotline, and making maximum efforts to help the Chinese citizens in Egypt to return to their home country. In addition, the Chinese government sent 4 chartered planes to Egypt to bring back the Chinese citizens stranded in Cairo Airport. Although this operation was an official action by the Chinese government, its effective organization and speedy implementation were seen by the international community as a successful construction of China’s national image. While waiting for evacuation at the airport, the Chinese citizens trapped at Cairo Airport also behaved nobly and heroically. There was an article in the microblog on that the Chinese embassy in Egypt brought lunch, packed in boxes, to the Chinese citizens at the airport and some of those Chinese citizens shared the food that they received with some other foreign nationals who were also stranded at the airport. In doing so, this group of Chinese citizens created a very positive image on behalf of the Chinese people. A commentary carried by a Hong Kong media outlet says, “This can become the best publicity video of China’s national image - the government was quick in providing rescue, and the Chinese citizens knew how to share. We feel most proud of our country and our countrymen.”

Only by communicating those symbols that carry the same emotional basis and the same value orientations can we find a convergence of interest with the target audiences and reach out to their preferences. If this young couple, who were returning home on a snowy day for family reunion, appear in the publicity video designed to project China’s national image, they might be much more effective than the so-called grand narrative by the government in producing cross-cultural impact. A fundamental principle of communication is that the communication of information and the incidence of influence are based on a certain kind of overlapping of the experiences between the two sides involved in the communication process. In other words, “all communication products that can produce realistic values must be geared to people’s existing experiences, preferences and patterns of information consumption. Any displacement would reduce the communicator to a ‘preacher in the desert’; that is, no matter how great your doctrines might be and no matter how much money you can pump into your publicity campaign, you won’t be able to produce any practical results.”14

In the vast and profound Chinese culture, there is an extremely wide range of symbols from which we can select to meet the complex needs of communication and to handle the challenging communication objectives. What kind of symbols can be communicated by means of metalanguage, what kind of symbols are geared to existing viewpoints and cultural backgrounds of the target audience, and what kind of symbols are most likely to produce resonance in the heart, those are the issues that deserve our serious and deep reflections.

The method of constructing overall image by means of individual symbols based on the communication mechanism of metalanguage can indeed have the advantage of maximum output at minimum input and yield the communication result of using the part to represent the whole. Nevertheless, the construction of the overall image of a country ultimately depends on a whole spectrum of correlated factors ranging from economic foundation, military strength, cultural progress and democratic development to government achievements. Although the metalanguage mechanism can contribute to the communication effect of using the part to stand for the whole, any practice that solely employs fragmentary communication while ignoring the key strength of a nation is bound to be bogged down in the abyss of fragmentation. The image of a nation is never discrete or isolated; it is built on the concerted efforts and common pursuits of both the government and the population at large, and between the official and the non-official sectors. The construction of a national image involves the combined efforts between the government and the general populace as well as the official and non-official sectors, working together on all levels and from different perspectives. When individual parts and the whole are unified in an integral manner, a new national image of China can be most powerfully shaped.

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