China’s culture of catchy slogans has been vital to its Covid-19 recovery efforts. Shanghai resident Asen Velinov explains the rich history behind some of the bizarre slogans seen on social media.
“Pick where you will be resting – on your couch, in jail, in hospital or in an early grave.”
“Take a walk today and grass will soon cover your grave.”
“Take a bite of a wild animal today – find yourself in hell tomorrow.”
Slogans play a big role in China. The ones above are from Covid-19 banners seen across the country and shared on social media. They can be seen all over the world too, as the power of a soundbite is clear. A pithy short slogan often trumps a well-reasoned explanation if it paints a strong image and uses humour, absurdity or exaggeration to make a point. Here in China, we see them in front of churches and at rallies, hear them chanted by crowds and used by governments to sell messages and ideas.
While in other countries slogan-bearing signs are usually temporary and handheld, in China they are more permanent – often seen on banners (white or yellow characters on red cloth), hanging on walls, fences or between traffic signs or trees.
These slogans have a long history, are still common, and this year played a role in the fight against Covid-19.
Professor Liu Yuntong, director of the Research Institute of Applied Linguistics at Tongji University in Shanghai, traces the history of such slogans to what some consider to be the first: it comes from the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 BC), and says, “When the sun dies, I will die with it” – the sun being Emperor Zhou.
Slogans, especially the ones on banners, first found real widespread popularity between 1840 and 1949, when various political and social movements started using them to spread their message. After 1949, the Communist Party of China (CCP) further expanded their use, and started using them across the country to mobilise the population for various initiatives. “Their continued use represents an interesting intersection of Chinese language, Chinese culture and the Chinese political system,” says Prof Liu.
The meaning of the banners is best understood with some background information about the language in which they are written. Mandarin is a tonal language, the writing system is based on characters, and the relationship between meaning, pronunciation and written representation is less “natural” than in languages with alphabets. A character is always one syllable (and sometimes a one syllable word), and the number of syllables is limited (as they can only end in a vowel, -n or -ng) to only 410, as opposed to about 15,831 possible syllables in English. As a result, many words sound the same or rhyme, allowing for various puns, double entendres and jokes. The tonality of the language means that phrases often have a catchy rhythm, and the characters further add a visual element, strengthening the “catchiness” of the slogan.
This introduction was necessary because to a Western audience, the slogan-banners below might seem like relics of times long gone. They are still very common in China, but the styles in big cities differ from those in smaller cities and rural areas. In places like Beijing and Shanghai they are prescriptive and dry: “Stay home, wear a mask, wash your hands!” In other areas of the country they can be much more blunt and dramatic. Some of the examples below are from Malaysia, a country with large ethnically Chinese population. The slogans and banners shared in this article are gathered from social media posts; a testament to the power of these short and pithy admonitions.
Translation does not do justice to these slogans. In translation they are often clumsily worded and too literal, but there is a reason that in China they are still a common way for the authorities to communicate with the people: in their original versions many of them are witty, funny and memorable – and as with poetry, their essence is what’s lost in translation. Not all of them are great, of course. Many are cliched, awkward or inappropriately threatening.
Professor Song Lijue, vice dean of political science and law at the International School of East China University, and professor of translation studies, considers this sort of high-context language the “most difficult to effectively translate” and warns that literal translations can be misleading and awkward sounding to a non-Chinese reader. She says that “finding a balance between ‘spirit’ and literal meaning of the phrases in a foreign language is an art in itself”.
In China, almost three months after steps were first taken to control the Covid-19 epidemic, these slogans are not so common any more. They were most widespread in early February when then measures were strictest and calls for compliance the most urgent. Unfortunately, since then, words and expressions such as quarantine, isolation, social distancing, lockdown and ventilator have entered the daily vocabulary of many people around the world.
The slogans are a reminder of the measures the Chinese authorities took and warn about the dangers of not complying with them. Even though they are extremely China-specific, they show the framework of an aggressive and comprehensive epidemic management initiative – arguably one of the more successful ones. They were being mostly put up by local government agencies in rural areas and smaller cities.
The translations provided for the slogans in this piece are perhaps not the best possible ones – but they are true to the content and, when possible, the tone and style of the slogans.
Prof Liu emphasises that in the eyes of Chinese intellectuals the slogans made by local authorities are vulgar, harsh and aggressive, but also “reasonable and somewhat effective in the sociolinguistic framework that creates them. They do not do a good job ‘reasoning’ with and persuading their intended audience, but they are effective in putting it on notice, and achieving acceptance and desired compliance and/or action.”
Dr Nora Chileva-Xiao, an expert in ancient Chinese literature at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), reminds us that this type of short, memorable speech is still everywhere, and while in Western societies slogan-style propaganda is considered outdated, it does tend to reappear during stressful times or when a soundbite is needed.
Slogan propaganda also has a place in international relations. The packages containing masks and other donations sent to and from China by governments, companies or individual donors regularly feature slogans offering support and optimism in the efforts against Covid-19. Chileva-Xiao compares them to road signs, “ever-present and usually mandatory: you might be in a hurry, but you have to wait patiently at the red light, or there would be a punishment”.
Xiao Jin, editor-in-chief of Driving Tour Magazine and a tourism industry thought leader, describes them as the simplest form of media. People of all education levels can understand them and that fulfils an important governmental function: informing the public. In recent years ‘banner language’ has moved closer to the type of language that becomes popular on the internet, and aims for humour, levity and self-deprecation. Just like online language, some slogan-banners are rude, improper and vulgar.
Banners are used in all sorts of contexts in China: on streets, in schools, in companies and offices, during meetings, events, exhibitions, weddings and travel. They are often present in group photos (which are also very common in China) and make the event, date and group of people easily identifiable. For casual occasions, the banners are usually colourful, but the ones used by government entities are in the traditional and more formal red and white or red and yellow colours. While they can add a strong visual element that maximises the message, banners can also turn into visual pollutants. It’s a sadly common occurrence for tour groups arriving at scenic spots to unfold huge banners that shift the focus from the natural landscape.
The slogan-banner format is deeply ingrained into the life of Chinese people. Everyone is used to them being around in all sorts of contexts, but they have most significant use and presence in less-developed areas of the country – and are most interestingly worded there too.
During the Covid-19 measures, church signs in some countries have come even closer in content, tone and function to the Chinese slogan banners – like the one below from the US reminding us that “6 feet apart today is better than 6 feet under tomorrow”.
It is difficult to evaluate how truly effective this type of communication is, especially in the context of a public health crisis. The witty, interesting or overly aggressive slogans get shared on social media, and are widely discussed or made fun of. In that sense, they are effective; they keep the conversation going about the reality of the epidemic and the quarantine, and are a reminder about social responsibility and the measures everyone needs to comply with.