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Slogans, what drew my attention the most during a trip to Mainland China

I travelled beyond the Strait to the largest Mandarin-speaking area that I rarely visit, during the Mid-Autumn holidays around two to three weeks ago. The most conspicuous difference I could perceive there, apart from the unaccustomed simplified writing system that has yet never caused me difficulties in understanding, was slogans on the streets, ubiquitous slogans! Unlike their counterparts in other countries usually for advertisement or election purposes, the slogans on the street there could be notice signs or moral/discipline preachers. Interestingly, they mostly meet Chinese natives speakers’ aesthetic standard: rhyming couplets but as loose as English ones, sometimes with literary terms used only in fairytales or novels, sometimes with formal/classical terms.

Strict ones

Strict slogans could be as concise and unemotional as military ones, basically only keywords of morals or disciplines by which one is supposed to abide. They were reminiscent of my elementary, junior and senior high schools that had been fraught with such words as the Four Anchors (四維), the Eight Virtues (八德), clichéd morals and patriotic quotes painted or inscribed on the wall, over the blackboard, even on the back cover of exercise books, everywhere inside the school. I still remember the most commonly seen one on the exercise book in my childhood in Taiwan, which was

'Be an upright Chinese* man;
be an energetic good student.'
做個堂堂正正的中國人,
做個活活潑潑的好學生。
(* Chinese: here nationally, not ethnically)

Usually, slogans consist of at most 15 to 20 characters, but I found one (Fig. 1) beyond my imagination, with 12 keywords (24 characters) listed—12 abstract nouns unadorned, aligned together. These words indicative of 12 core values of Chinese socialism were theoretically serious and boring, albeit to me paradoxically fresh. Some of the values, unexpectedly, even conflicted with my/our pre-existing knowledge of the ruling party, e.g. ‘民主 (democracy)’ and ‘自由 (liberty/freedom)’.

I was incapable of telling whether such conflict arose from my possibly limited or biased impression of socialism and communism, or from the fact that these values were actually in the future tense as the authorities’ ultimate goals, not in the present tense.

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Figure 1. 'Core values of socialism: richness & power, democracy, civilisation, harmony, liberty, equality, impartiality, rule of law, patriotism, respect for work, honesty, amiability'

Crammed also with unemotional but somewhat vacuous words, another example that took me seconds to figure out in which direction* to read was a board (Fig. 2) photographed at a toll booth on the highway, which perfectly embodies our imagination and stereotypes of Communist countries in the same way. Now I regretted not photographing an enormous propagandist billboard lauding their President for his policies.
(* Chinese can be written either vertically or horizontally.)

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Figure 2. 'Richness & power, democracy, civilisation, harmony, liberty, equality'

Morals-telling & policy-supporting ones

Some slogans were morals tellers, preferably pairs of coupled verses. I believe that many people are blasé about proverb-like slogans that are preaching morals as if educating schoolchildren ill-informed about social or cultural norms and etiquettes, such as ‘One small step further, a big step forward to civilisation (向前一小步, 文明一大步)’ over urinals (Gee, we have this one in Taiwan, too); or are encouraging to strive for a patriotic dream or expectations (e.g. thrift, diligence) commonly shared by the public or at least by the authorities. Nonetheless, I encountered at a metro station a serendipitous surprise, a hilarious slogan (Fig. 3) intended to keep people away from greed. It read,

‘From the sky never falls a pie;
out for unsolicited benefits, keep an eye.’
天上不會掉餡餅,飛來好事要小心。

(Excuse my weird translation to match the Chinese word order, the rhyme, and figurative uses.) Rarely used as a metaphor in Chinese, the word ‘pie’ here intentionally for rhyming — despite its inaccurate rhyme — is the pearl of this slogan, which did draw my attention and appear somehow cute and entertaining.

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Figure 3. 'From the sky never falls a pie; out for unsolicited benefits, keep an eye.'

Not different from schoolkid-oriented etiquette lessons as these slogans, they seem to have become an amphitheatre to demonstrate — and compete on — creativity and imagination, where even rhetoric skills might be needed. Instead of straightforwardly saying in a commanding voice ‘Keep off the grass!’ for example, warning signs around a lawn nowadays favour a literary, euphemistic way. A version with personification applied I had seen four years ago was, ‘Little grasses are all alive; please, your legs, show mercy to their life (小草有生命, 請你腳留情).’ Another one (Fig. 4) I came across in this trip, in contrast, was rather classical like a literary work, which read,

‘As luxuriant as an emerald mattress is the grass;
how couldst thou bear trampling on it?’
綠草茵茵,踏之何忍?

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Figure 4. 'As luxuriant as an emerald mattress is the grass; how couldst thou bear trampling on it?'

(I translated it as ‘couldst thou’ here to create vibrations that the original Chinese text might have, where a classical pronoun ‘之’ [3rd-person, dative/accusative] and a classical sentence pattern were used.)

The structure of its first verse ‘綠草茵茵’, which describes the flourishing grass, could be found replaced in other warning signs by other poetic synonymous phrases such as ‘芳草萋萋 (lush scented grass)’ or ‘小草青青 (greenish little grass)’, with a similar ‘A-B-CC’ pattern where B means ‘grass’, A modifies B, and CC describes the entire ‘AB’. We are now as if we were in a literature class, aren’t we?

Near the ‘pie-slogan’ banner, to my surprise, was an X-ray device settled for security check. I did not anticipate that I would have to have my bag inspected and to take a mouthful of the liquid carried with me before passing through the ticket gate even in a metro station. The slogan at the security check place played with puns of Chinese classifiers (Fig. 5), not so creative or artistic though, reading verbatim

‘One “serving” of security check,
ten “points” of safety’,
一份安檢,
十分安全。

explaining to the public the importance of security checks, or if translated more English-like, ‘A simple security check renders the metro extremely safe.’

(Just in case that some of my friends are not Chinese speakers: In such a language as Chinese that has thousands of homophones, rhyming couplets and puns are commonplaces). Each word of a verse is coupled to another word of the other verse: numbers ‘one’ to ‘ten’; classifiers ‘serving (fèn)’ to ‘point (fēn)’, with similar pronunciation; nouns ‘security check (安檢, ānjiǎn)’ to ‘safety (安全, ānquán)’, sharing the character 安 and acceptably rhyming; the nominal phrase ‘ten points (out of ten)’ as an adverbial word meaning ‘very, utterly, completely’.

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Figure 5. ’One ”serving” of security check, ten ”points” of safety’

On these slogans, we might have heard various interpretations. A viewpoint with somewhat sense of superiority, as many people in Taiwan (or from anywhere else) could typically have, focuses on the ill-mannered local populace. From this point of view, every single existing slogan implies the quintessence of uncultured locals’ behaviour, just as we would never see a ‘no-defecating-in-public’ sign if nobody does so. Some people, on the contrary, tend to look on the bright side of the same phenomenon, recognising the government’s endeavour to render its citizens better-behaved, given that the current situation is a transitional period that every developed country might have experienced where, inevitably, the gulf between its economic development and citizens’ breeding is to be bridged.

If we, on the other hand, divert our attention to the wording that incorporates artistic/rhetorical components, could slogans that blend the arts in with people’s ordinary daily life be regarded as more 'advanced' than common ones that conveys only information not more than a command?

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