Symbolism in Chinese Visual Culture: A New Visual Grammar in Mainland China Iterates Shifting Ideologies

By Justine Poplin.

Published by The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published Online: September 1, 2016 $US5.00

Looking at China from the outside, the heavy censorship policies of Communist rule may appear rigid in structure, not giving life to creativity or freedom of thought. Notwithstanding this active regulation, the internet is often cited as the most open public space of political protest in China, thanks to anonymity. As a result, the internet and social media have opened the way for new transparency into political space in China. The new transparency and media for communicating are being used in clever and creative ways—and not just for politics and subversion, but also for identity politics, in particular cultural, lifestyle and regional identities. Internet participatory culture in China spiked on English-language websites and online forums after an article was published in the New York Times in March 2009, linking to YouTube videos, memes, songs and faux video documentaries of the Grass-Mud Horse phenomenon. The emerging set of visual communicators followed a government anti-vulgarity campaign. Thereafter, mostly anonymous Chinese bloggers created homophonic pathways (words with a similar pronunciation but differing in meaning) to infiltrate internet censorship. Bloggers avoided sensitive keywords and used wit, humor and new symbolism to express freedom of speech on the internet. The Grass-Mud Horse meme is the key mythological creature in the visual lexicon catalogued and case studied in this paper. It is the most notable and visually syntactic of the mythical creatures. The character of the Grass-Mud Horse manifests in a form that resembles an alpaca and symbolizes a Netizen, a freedom fighter on the Chinese internet. Through semiotic and compositional interpretation, this study analyzes and interprets the post-Maoist historical use of symbols in twenty-first-century Chinese visual culture.

Keywords: Visual Culture, Internet Memes, Internet Participatory Culture, China

The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp.1-11. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: September 1, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 819.352KB)).

Justine Poplin

PhD Candidate, College of Arts, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia