The Interpretations of Key Words "Development" and "Harmony" in Slogan Views
Source:Artintern Author:Ni Weihua Date: 2008-12-03 Size:
In China, slogans are one of the most important scenic sights that evolve with time. My capturing of such sights started at the end of 1998 when I was doing a research named "Linear Cities” by seeking and sorting typical metropolitan indicators.

 Ni Weihua, Artwork

In China, slogans are one of the most important scenic sights that evolve with time. My capturing of such sights started at the end of 1998 when I was doing a research named "Linear Cities” by seeking and sorting typical metropolitan indicators. such as commercialization, transportation and population with an architect and artist Wang Jiahao. During the research, I found that the slogan “Development is the most important principle” had occupied many public spaces in Shanghai. So I decided to count it as an element under the category “address” among all metropolitan indicators and in the meanwhile, started photographing them to "make a scenic documentary”.

I. On Keyword “Development”

In fact, long before the shooting of the “development” slogan, I had deeply felt that slogans have long played an important role in Chinese people’s daily lives. In the vivid memory of my childhood, the abundance of slogans could be described as “all over the world”. The intensity of keywords like “Revolution”, “Vive”, “Dictatorship” was far more than today, which was obviously one of the most distinctive features in the time when everything centered around politics. After China’s adoption of “Reform and Opening- up” policy, it wasn’t long before the political slogans that had dominated half the landscape of slogan sights as symbolic "words” replaced by “advertising words”. Due to the drastic social changes characterized by booming economies and the rising of Mammonism which almost “enriched” every Chinese soul in the wake of a political craze, it seemed as if just overnight, China had gone through the path of commercialization and materialization which had taken western countries hundreds of years . Such social changes gave birth to many byproducts–--“contrabands" and “profiteer”, private business and national business rush, commercial campaign and pyramid selling, counterfeit and fraud----and among which the advent and flooding of all kinds of advertising slogans, is the most obvious external feature. Through repeating, spreading and infiltrating, “advertising words” forcibly took over beautiful and orderly natural landscape as well as human landscape such as architecture, public facilities and media and thus formed an indispensable scenery in people’s daily life.

At the end of 1990s, maybe due to the weariness and repulsion of an insubstantial political life, or due to certain agreement on the lifestyle since the reform and opening up, or due to the attachment to a national complex in building up a powerful country, or simply due to the respect for the wisdom, pragmatism and charisma of "chief designer” Deng Xiaoping, the whole Chinese society suddenly embraced a shining and decent saying, “development is the most important principle". As a result, this slogan that is the epitome of China’s historical characteristic was springing like mushrooms in every part of the country, especially in big cities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou which benefited most from the "reform and opening up”. This slogan can be interpreted as a clear and concise economy manifesto, a policy-related administrative order, or a suggestive clue of collective unconsciousness, and of course, the most appropriate explanation would be that it is like a long known “advertising pattern”, i.e. “XX is YY”, a typical statement structure in advertising wording, which works by guiding the consumers to accept a certain brand. To make things more interesting, in many cases, slogan “development is the most important principle” is placed on advertisement banners in various sizes as temporary alternatives before the outdoor ad space are sold out . For advertising companies, under most circumstances, displaying and promoting the “development” slogan will not cause the rise of operational costs as what incurred here is just “sunk cost” which involves only waiting cost (once the space is sold, it’ll be replaced by ads like “Coca Cola” b). In fact, since the alternative “development is the absolute principle” is “decent”, “appropriate” and “propitious” in public eyes and most importantly, it is favored by government bodies that control commercial resources, unexpected economic incremental results have come out.

Being a scenic sight, keyword “development” is like an explanatory “tag” embedded among soaring metropolitan skyscrapers, serving as the most epitomized evidence of the economic construction speed of China’s coastal open cities. With “development” as the main theme, all conflicting economic, political, social and cultural problems seem to be solved already because all social groups and every individual is “developing”, despite their pace and disparity in wealth, and that is the “most important principle” with universal application. Thus the slogan is undoubtedly correct and extends the mindset of collectivism and egalitarianism that people are used to in a most delicate and strategic manner. And in this situation, the wealth “cake” in front of all economic interest groups is still quite big so that with some diligence or other “means”, one can sure cut a good slice. It is with such background that “allowing some people to prosper first before others” made its historical debut. Therefore, “development”, as the pioneering spiritual guide leads to the explosive expansion of cities: city borders quickly expanding, satellite cities and small cities taking shape, various circulation links forming large webs and commercial facilities springing up like bamboo shoots. As competition intensifies, business models are also undergoing continuous upgrading, with the successive appearance of various commercial operations and modes such as large department stores, shopping streets lined with private stores, boutiques, flea markets, chain supermarkets and shopping malls. Accompanying such changes is the arrival of multinational business giants, international brands and services of brand-new concept, which are settling down in China on a massive scale. Take Shanghai for example, the downtown area is dotted with franchised stores of almost every international brand as well as well-designed shopping centers; a bit farther away from downtown are urban areas interwoven with crisscrossed complexes of business streets; at the junction of urban areas and suburbs are situated gigantic GMS’ and their logistic facilities that supply for shops of all sizes. Besides, the prosperity of commerce has also stimulated a straight climb in industries. At the outskirts of the city, manufacturing and processing businesses are constantly emerging and expanding along the city ring and suburb ring roads into neighboring satellite cities. Many OEM factories from global 500 companies are settling down in Shanghai suburbs and outlying cities such as Kunshan and Suzhou, driving the business prosperity of these areas. Such developments are fresh and exciting to most Chinese. As a consequence, for a rather long time, people seemed to have overlooked the impact of ideology on lives, the widening wealth disparity and escalating conflicts between various economic interest groups, especially those between advantaged and disadvantaged groups, and the irreversible damage on living environment caused by over-development. Under the label of “development”, people, sceneries, objects and the collage visual style that fit this particular phase of development have taken on a look that is serious and comical at the same time, rational but unmatchable, commercialized yet still decorated with political totems, turning into a typical “slogan sight” that has incorporated both diachronism and synchronism.


II. On “Keyword Harmony”

Henri Lefebvre, a representative Neo-Marxist, holds that human living space "Not only results from various historical and natural factors, but also society & ideology it is a social structure composed of social and materialistic practices.” After the reform and opening up, China experienced a rather long-lasting deficient economy, and thus “development” had been the irreplaceable keyword during that historical period (similarly, slogan sights derived from “development” became the dominant type), and any other social issues at the moment should comply with or adhere to this key issue. However, because technology and management level as well as laws and regulations lagged far behind, the course of “development” was frequently characterized as extensive and resource-consuming. “Development” can be compared to a fast-moving diesel locomotive that could neither stop nor slow down and the indicator of its fascinating speed is GDP. GDP has always been the absolute standard government pursues; GDP makes China’s cities expand, brighten and prosper. Magnificent buildings and architecture, exquisitely linked to “administrative feats” more or less, are proudly erected in city space one after another, seemingly depicting and boasting the huge achievement of “the Chinese-style development”.

However, shocking side-effects entangled with “development” come straightforward: excessive development and competition leads to unrestrained consumption of resources and excessive emission of pollutants, impairing ecological balance as well as people’s sustainable living space and living standard; social value unidirectionally focus on economic development, largely neglecting the development of humanity, e.g. politics, culture and art, resulting in the deviation from the original purpose of economic development and people’s “wellbeing index” indicates a declining trend; growing wealth gap intensifies the frictions and conflicts between the “elite group” from the mainstream society and the disadvantaged at the foot of the social ladder, igniting more and more social problems. Consequently, with the new administration’s advocation and promotion in recent two years, a proper substitute is gradually replacing “development” as the new keyword of the Chinese society and becoming the new slogan sight in city space. That word is “harmony”.

“Harmony” as a word itself originated from the ancient Chinese concept “the harmony between the heaven and the human”, which emphasizes that human can’t just ask from Nature but should respect and compensate Nature in return. Lao-tzu, founder of Taoism, once said: “human follow the earth, the earth follows the heaven, the heaven follows Taoism,Taoism follows nature” . And these sentences hold the idea that human should respect natural as the guidance and all human behavior should stick to the principle of “honoring the nature” and “learning from the heaven and the earth”. It was right for the pilot to learn from history and pointed to a warning “beacon” for all the crew at the critical moment when the Chinese aircraft carrier under the full inertia of “development” was about to hit the rock.

Undoubtedly, the message conveyed by keyword “harmony” is way beyond the simple direction specified by the blueprint of the “N year” macro economy plan bundled with the “development” era, beyond the tough problems imposed by the international conflicts in the post-cold-war world, and also beyond the chronic “principle-related” debate between the reformists and conservatives about the distinction of what is socialist and what is capitalist. The new keyword covers a series of complicated and unsettled issues that reflect all civilians’ concerns, such as the absence of social trustworthiness, abuse of energy resources, climate anomalies triggered by excessive pollution emissions, inflation of prices, hostility between city and countryside, drug problems, intense relationship between doctors and patients, financial turbulence as well as those “subjects affecting people’s livelihood” which the new administration usually study and solve as their 1st or 2nd priority at the center of supreme authority. Keyword “harmony”, with the historical responsibility of awakening the return of traditional Chinese cultural values on its shoulder, seems to have undertaken a great commission, which is to move the nearly breaking down Chinese economy, an opened Pandora box, back on the healthy track.

“Harmony”, a visual sign composed of Chinese characters, can be seen in many different places. It may be printed on a huge advertisement banner on the top of a skyscraper in a big city, with pictures of beautiful mountains and waters as the background, making a magnificent presence; it may be put on large posters decorating the temporary fences surrounding a real estate under construction, which, along with the flame of the sunset at dusk and the constant flow of people getting off work, would make perfect video clips of the typical Chinese “post-modern life”; it may be well displayed in a show window beside the green area of a refined residence community, where an old man totters past it; it may appear among the rolling titles on an arched electronic screen installed at communication hubs in the downtown area, and the flickering and dazzling LED arrays against the dark sky symbolizing the interaction between the keyword and its carrier.

After just a few clicks of camera shutters, with keyword “harmony” as slogan sights in the background, men and women traveling in crowds, stranger brushing against you, lonely soul swiftly passing by or leisurely couple walking dogs, they’re all captured by the lens as still images in a documentary way, their faces being clear sharp or out of focus, some showing ease and leisure, some displaying contentment, some fidgeting, and some suggesting an air of indescribable embarrassment.

“Harmony”, the keyword saturated with historic and cultural significance and yet challenged by the ideology of current situations, when it is pieced together with pop-art style street views, when it is blended into the blue sky and white clouds, when it is matched with people’s numerous facial expressions, when it bursts sparkles by mixing with fashion elements, I am surprised to find that the relationship between the visual sight of words and their logic meanings is actually misplaced, dissected and even conflicted. That relationship is a seemingly familiar but actually quite strange juxtaposition, almost like certain settings of stage scenery forced upon life. And I, an observer behind the lens, while recording “real” sights and events, is gradually sinking into the vision field of a “virtual reality” and involuntarily being drawn into the “black hole of semantics”.

[Editor] Zhang Shuo