Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

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Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

In late September with Gaddafi removed from power and on the run, with major NTC achievements toward situating a transitional government, the insurgence of democratic participation in Libya was augmented by an outpouring of artistic expression toward re-articulating the previous total domination of social space under Gaddafi’s 42 year regime. Ellen Knickmeyer, former AP bureau chief for West Africa and Washington Post bureau chief for Baghdad and Cairo, writes about the transformation in a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting article. Discussing the totalizing control of social space through domination of symbolic autonomy under Gaddafi she writes:

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi’s Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi’s revolution.

“If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him,” said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. “We got used to him being a one-man show.”

Examining this facet of control is relevant to building a more exhaustive picture of domination. Outside of state-centric notions of security, repressive regimes maintain their domination through a combination of coercive physical force, state violence, and a monopoly over myriad forms of capital. It is through this monopoly that they frame and maintain control over the social space. Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher, writes:

The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.

Bourdieu outlines two forms of capital that are most relevant to Knickmeyer’s article. Domination is a matter of monopolizing cultural and symbolic capital, says Bourdieu (1977, 1991). Cultural capital is understood as the partial or total monopoly of a society’s symbolic resources in religion, education, science, and art, by monopolizing the mechanisms for appropriating these resources (1977: 187). Symbolic capital is the accumulated prestige or honor of a given individual or group (1991: 14), and the recognition they receive from another individual or group (1991: 72).

Exerting a monopoly over cultural capital and the colonization of Libyan life space through Gaddafi’s omnipresent image –as was the case with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, indeed all such totalitarian regimes exhibit this feature– and manipulation of public discourse toward deification of Gaddafi, as illustrated above, reified the regime’s, namely Gaddafi’s, monopoly over symbolic capital. This domination is the exertion of symbolic power, that very power that seeks to dominate symbolic: discursive, inscriptive, performative, interactions in social space and thereby assert domination over social space. A monopoly of symbolic power provides the repressive agent with not only its dominant force that presses on the subjugated from above, in the form of coercive physical violence, but also forms the subject (Butler 1997). It is a colonization of the psychic realm of agency and a push toward manipulating the agents relationship to power, Gaddafi, and the social space in which the agent finds him or herself.

With the removal of this suppression on symbolic interactions the individual is freed to renegotiate her relationship to the social space in which she was previously dominated. The outpouring of artistic expression is part of this process of re-articulating power away from the forced reality under Gaddafi toward a more untrammelled notion of agency and autonomy. Knickmeyer continues, quoting Anouar Swed, a Libyan who returned from London to launch a line of fashionable clothing modeled on traditional Libyan dress, “When he [Gaddafi] left, the art came out.’’

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

Since the political revolution there has been an artistic revolution:

The neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people’s homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint… After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say.

Reaffirming this, in a recent CNN article Catriona Davies explains that before the Libyan revolution there were fewer than ten newspapers in the whole country. Now there are 120 independent newspapers in Benghazi alone.

The eruption of free expression by previously subjugated individuals is not only an indicator of individuals taking advantage of the lifting of total domination under the previous regime, it is also part of the democratization process. Artistic engagement as a referent object should not be overlooked as a constituent process of non-state, non-military, regime change and creation. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere where popular mobilizations have lead to the removal of dictatorial regime structures the transitional political organizations, and the international community, should ensure that engagement in social space creation and participation is freely open and access to cultural and symbolic capital remains public.

These observations are transferable to all regime spaces and should serve as empirical data that elite manipulation and the appropriation of monopolized capital serves to entrench domination and exploitation.

Source: Written on the Wall

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Bulter, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Image 1, 2 source: Knickmeyer, Ellen (6 October 2011) “Showing It Off: Libya’s Artists Display Work After Qaddafi”

Image 3 source: Gastman, Roger (November 2011) “Written on the Wall”