Before ‘duang’: character creation, art and ideology in the digital age

duang1eIn the last week there has been much media coverage devoted to an invented character whose viral dissemination amongst internet users earned it the dubious distinction of being labelled ‘The word that broke the Chinese internet.’ The character in question? an onomatopoeiac utterance issued by Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong born action star and movie veteran. Like many celebrities Chan maintains a lucrative side career endorsing commercial products, his prolific and many would argue indiscriminate advertising career has seen him endorse everything from electric bicycles to anti-virus software, auto-repair schools to frozen dumplings. One of his most famous commercial roles is as the herbal shampoo ambassador for Bawang 霸王, the fourth most popular shampoo manufacturer in China. Chan has served as the company’s spokesperson for over a decade, appearing prominently in its visual ads as well as featuring in numerous TV campaigns in which he invariable attributes his glossy, flowing mane to the rejuvenating effects of the herbal remedy. This commercial alliance has not been without its setbacks, in 2010 controversy arose after the company was accused of replacing the supposed traditional Chinese medicine ingredients in its darkening and hair loss-fighting products with carcinogenic chemicals after the Hong Kong based Next Magazine reported that samples of its anti hair-loss formula had 10 parts per million of 1,4-dioxane.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China's largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

Jackie Chan features prominently in an ad for Bawang, China’s largest herbal shampoo manufacturer.

On February 24th of this year, what many believed to be a new advert for Bawang starring Jackie Chan was released on Youku, the video, however, was a parody created from splicing together old footage from a 2004 TV advertisement. In the original ad, Chan pokes fun at the digitally enhanced images that have become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary commercials, these misleading ‘special effects’ according to Chan, “can make hair go “‘duaaang!’ Very black! Very shiny! Very soft!” whereas Chan’s tonsorial youthfulness is of course naturally credited to his continued use of Bawang. When the original advertisement was first aired over a decade ago, it attracted the attention of Chinese censorship officials who interpreted the company’s exaggerated claims as a misleading promotion of the shampoo’s effects.

The popularity of the 2015 video parody has ensured that ‘duang’, despite its lack of definition, has taken on a life of its own, becoming an extremely popular online topic of discussion. On weibo the hashtag #duang drew 312,000 discussions among 15,000 users. On China’s biggest online search engine Baidu, it has been looked up almost 600,000 times and the buzzword’s topic page on Weibo was read more than 180 million times. The word now even has its own page on Baidu.com’s Wikipedia-like Baike. Chan himself acknowledged the inadvertent viral storm he unleashed when he posted the word on his Weibo account; the post attracted more than 45,000 comments and 64,000 reposts (although apparently significantly less on his twitter account.)

jackieFrom its initial onomatopoeic origins, many Chinese internet users have sought to define duang’s meaning. While some have interpreted it as referring to the ‘special effects’ Chan mentioned in the 2004 ad, one commentator likens it to “a sound effect used to present something in a positive light…. similar to the “sproing” sound a cartoon character makes from appearing so suddenly that he is still reverberating in place like a spring.” While its perhaps unhelpful to think of an English equivalent given the word’s semantically dubious origins, the closest parallel would perhaps be “Ta Da!” or “voila!”. This ambiguous appeal has resulted in the word acquiring an ever expanding range of meanings; it can now be used as both a verb and an adjective. As another blog notes, one can be “duanged” (e.g. 真的duang了) or something might get “duanged up” (e.g. duang起來了) or just be really duang (e.g. duang 的). The linguistic pliability of the word has subsequently resulted in it being employed to advertise everything from ice cream to sex toys, in addition to inspiring a spate of visual (primarily photoshopped) parodies that have melded together popular internet memes to comic visual effect.

A selection of visual parodies inspired by the 'duang' meme, including one of Jackie Chan himself, photoshopped wearing the blue/black or white/gold dress that inspired so much  global controversy.

A selection of visual parodies inspired by the ‘duang’ meme, including one of Jackie Chan himself, photoshopped wearing the ‘blue/black or white/gold’ dress that inspired so much online controversy.

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After first appearing in romanized form in the subtitles of the video parody, duang eventually acquired its own character, an amalgamation of the last two characters of Jackie Chan’s 陈成龙 name: 成龙 which are superimposed one above the other to lend linguistic credence to this fabricated word. As Victor Mair at the University of Pennsylvania’s very knowledgeable Language Log recognises: “The problem is that the sinographic form of “duang” doesn’t yet exist in any electronic font, much less any dictionary, whether in printed or online form.  It might as well have been invented by Xu Bing as part of his “A Book from the Sky”.  To the extent that it is circulating around the web, it is doing so as an image (i.e., it is not yet typable and transmittable via Unicode).”

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Illustrating both the playful and inventive nature of China’s online community, Chan’s viral creation is of course not the first invented character to surface in Chinese cyberspace (although at present it may be the most widely discussed). In this post I would like to use ‘duang’ as a starting point to investigate an ongoing artistic project that has involved the creation of new characters in response to new forms of cultural knowledge.

The Xin hanzi 新汉子 ‘New Characters’ project was first initiated by the artist Jiao Yingqi 焦应奇(b. 1958) in 1994. Jiao is a conceptual artist and researcher at the China Art Research Institute. He is a graduate of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) and was a lecturer in CAFA’s Mural Painting department until 1997. Between 1997-2001 he founded and ran the Beijing Artists Warehouse (北京艺术家仓库), one of the earliest artist-run spaces in Beijing. His practice has evolved from traditional painting and mixed media through computer-based hypertext to his current research into new Chinese characters.

Dissatisfied with the archaic inadequacy of existing composite units to express issues and concepts of modern relevance, Jiao embarked on a project to create new characters. Since 1994 the project has undergone various incarnations and iterations, resulting in a body of work that has produced over 300 new characters in 30 separate series. One of the first series that Jiao produced examined the possibility of creating new characters for the electrical and electronic devices that have now become ubiquitous components of our everyday lives.

Jiao's invented character for a PC or laptop- which bears  a strong visual resemblance to the device (consider the small stroke on the rights as a mouse.)

Jiao’s invented character for a PC or laptop- which bears a strong visual resemblance to the device (consider the small stroke on the rights as a mouse.)

Another of Jiao's invented characters- this one representing a television.

Another of Jiao’s invented characters- this one representing a television.

Another character that Jiao created to express 思维的媒介与电视媒体有关 - the relationship that the media and television has upon our thinking

Another character that Jiao created to express 思维的媒介与电视媒体有关 – the connection between television media and media related thinking

Jiao’s characters also extend beyond inanimate objects to engage with what he regards as personality or character phenotypes, most notably in his 知识分子肖像 ‘Intellectuals’ series. For this work Jiao categorised intellectuals into subdivisions based upon defining character traits, often with hilarious and slightly scathing results. The resulting classifications included:

Bàijīn zhīshì fēnzǐ 拜金知识分子  ‘Intellectuals who worship money’

Quǎn rú zhīshì fēnzǐ 犬孺知识分子 ‘Enslaved intellectuals’

Jīngshén dúlì zhīshì fēnzǐ 精神独立知识分子 ‘Independently minded intellectuals’

Shūdāizi zhīshì fēnzǐ 书呆子知识分子 ‘Bookworm intellectuals’

Hài rén zhīshì fēnzǐ 害人知识分子 ‘Intellectuals who harm or are disparaging to others’

and even Jiānchí máozédōng sīxiǎng de zhīshì fēnzǐ 坚持毛泽东思想的知识分子 ‘Intellectuals who adhere to Mao Zedong thought.’

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Jiao’s initial designs for his 知识分子肖像系列 ‘Intellectuals’ series.

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A later image for Jiao’s ‘Intellectuals’ series, this one entitled Xiāngxìn jīdūjiào kěyǐ jiù zhōngguó de zhīshì fēnzǐ相信基督教可以救中国的知识分子” An intellectual who believes Christianity can save China.

The character that Jiao created to express 'independent thinking' or 精神独立  for his intellectuals series adds a single stroke above the character for 人 or 'person'.

The character that Jiao created to express ‘independent thinking’ or 精神独立 for his intellectuals series adds a single stroke above the character for 人 or ‘person’.

Series 6 of Jiao’s ‘new character’ series concerned itself with slightly more morbid subject matter as he designed new characters to express terms for killing or harming people. Notable examples include Hài rén guó 害人国 ‘a country that harms or kills people’ and Hài rén de méijiè yánlùn 害人的媒介言论 ‘harmful media statements’ (the 4th and 5th characters from the left in the top row of this chart).

Jiao's new character series no.6: characters expressing death and harm.

Jiao’s new character series no.6: characters expressing death and harm.

Undoubtedly Jiao’s most well known series, however, stems from his concern with environmental pollution, a topic which has been a pressing social issue in China for decades, but which recently became a major topic of discussion following former CCTV journalist Chai Jing’s release of 穹顶之下 ‘Under the Dome’. Chai’s investigation into China’s air pollution and its devastating effects on health was delivered in a TED style talk format that combined dazzling graphics and sophisticated visual media with extensive investigative analysis. Presented in a style that was personal and accessible, the documentary quickly went viral after it was released on February 24th, and was viewed by over 250 million people before it was removed from the internet just over a week after its release.

Jiao’s Wūrǎn xìliè 污染系列 ‘Pollution series’ creatively combines the radicals for 毒 ‘poison’ with  气 ‘air’  to create a new radical for pollution. All of the new characters in this series therefore share the pollution radical, so that the new character for ‘polluted water’ is constituted with a pollution-radical on top, and a water character at the bottom. Similarly other toxic byproducts of economic growth are expressed via characters for ‘noise pollution’, ‘light pollution’, ‘soil pollution’, ‘money pollution’ and even ‘thought pollution’. Jiao’s intention for his created characters is that they transcend the confines of an abstract art project and circulate back within the community, thus encouraging discussion of the social issues which they address. Jiao lives in Yinjiafu 尹家府 in Dasungezhuang Township 大孙各庄乡等 in Shunyi District on the outskirts of Beijing. After the local township government learned of his project they asked Jiao to paint his works on billboards near the village. Jiao perhaps controversially chose to display his ‘pollution series’ for the project, addressing both those who cause pollution and those who suffer from its consequences. Erecting various road signs throughout the town, which deliberately resembled their official government issued counterparts, he placed a sign for ‘polluted water’ near the town’s main river in addition to signs for soil pollution and other forms of  environmental degradation.

The new radical and characters that Jiao created for his 'pollution series.'

The new radical and characters that Jiao created for his ‘pollution series.’

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Jiao’s road sign displaying his character for ‘water pollution’ which he erected by the river in Dasungezhuang 大孙各庄乡等 in Shunyi District on the outskirts of Beijing.

One of the latest incarnations of his new character project was presented at the independently run art space 箭厂空间 The Arrow Factory in Beijing in 2013, during which Jiao embarked on an exhibition and workshop that engaged participants in constructing new formulations of the character guo 国 or 國 (nation or country). As the project statement notes: “In this version of the project, Jiao asks visitors to participate by inventing new variations of the character based on different combinations of the individual components.  Entering a hybrid classroom / voting booth, with educational and reference materials hanging from the walls, viewer participants can handwrite their own characters on printed forms and submit into a ballot box for later publication.”

Jiao's '国'字研究 'Character Study: Nation' project for Arrow Factory, Beijing, which ran from 2013.07.06 – 09.08. For more information go to http://www.arrowfactory.org.cn/?page=jiaoyingqi

Jiao’s ‘国’字研究 ‘Character Study: Nation’ project for Arrow Factory, Beijing, which ran from 2013.07.06 – 09.08.

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The choice of character for this project is obviously not arbitrary, ideas of nationhood and belonging are hotly contended within China, especially since the jingoistic form advocated by the government is frequently at odds with those whose idea of culture and patriotism differs significantly from those in power. This point is especially relevant given that the CCP maintains its legitimacy by emphasising its role as the inheritor and protector of a codified body of national traditions that are summed up in terms of China’s unique ‘civilisation’ and language, one in which characters obviously play a prominent ideological role. In ‘character study: nation’ Jiao therefore provides a platform to explore these conflicting and varied articulations of national identity, whether as a means of reclaiming individual identity and expression from the collective character of the nation or from the historically sanctioned versions of nationalism and culture promoted by the government and disseminated online through its various media platforms.

By involving participants as active creators in the project, designing individual characters that resonated with their own conceptions of what ‘country’ or ‘nation’ should represent, in addition to submitting their entries via a ballot box system, Jiao emphasised his desire for the new character project to have wider social implications. Essentially democratic in nature,  the project sought to engage its participants in thinking about the ideological confines and strictures which underpin the way language operates and circulates, both online and in its quotidian manifestations as a tool of knowledge production, education, inculcation and potential thought conditioning.

Different versions of guo 国 國 that were produced during Jiao's 'character study: nation' project at Arrow Factory , Beijing 2013.

Different versions of guo 国 國 that were produced during Jiao’s ‘character study: nation’ project at Arrow Factory , Beijing 2013.

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Unlike Xu Bing’s 天书 monumental installation ‘Book from the Sky’ whose invented characters many saw as reflecting the denial of culture, the politicisation of meaninglessness and the aesthetics of deconstruction, Jiao’s work appears to arise from an oppositional stance. Like Xu he confronts the paramount role of characters in the maintenance and preservation of history and culture- exploring identity and its relationship to the written word, including how that identity has frequently become intertwined with authority. However, unlike Xu’s deliberately illegible creations, Jiao demands that his new characters bear responsibility for expressing profound contemporary ideas. If a Book from the Sky was created to resist easy interpretation, Jiao’s characters are presented with the precision of a dictionary entry, each one accompanied by its own exegesis, complete with tonal pronunciation and contextual usage. The visual mode of presentation is also important, designed with the graphic clarity of an eye chart or a visual lexicon Jiao’s new characters revel in recuperating meaning from apparent obscurity and ambiguity, in short they demand linguistic legibility.

Xu Bing, 天书, 'A Book from the Sky' ca. 1987–91. Installation, dimensions variable.

Xu Bing, 天书, ‘A Book from the Sky’ ca. 1987–91. Installation, dimensions variable.

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Like duang- the invented character mentioned at the outset of this post, Jiao’s characters cannot be written using any existing electronic font, they are not typable and transmittable via Unicode and are unlikely to ever appear in an official dictionary. The primary mode of disseminating his new characters is online, via his active weibo account and his online blog. His characters therefore circulate primarily as digital images, exploiting the virtual and visual possibilities of online communication to foster discussion about pressing contemporary concerns. His graphic manipulations, in addition to emphasising the emancipatory potential of images, aim to create new transparent systems of taxonomy with the potential to reflect changing social realities. Demanding that characters no longer be treated as a monumental or timeless edifice but rather as an active barometer of cultural expression, Jiao endows the individual user with the ability to reassert power and agency over how language circulates and operates, not just as a state enforced dialogue, or the result of media interaction and interference, but as something which can be imbued with personal significance.

The acknowledgement and inclusion of these heterogenous perspectives generates a larger and more diversified field from which to contemplate the role of ideology and language in everyday life, providing a visual record of the complex articulations of a country in transition. Whether tackling environmental woes, the role of intellectuals, the ideological underpinnings of nationhood and belonging, as well as the impact of new technologies including the internet, Jiao’s new characters reflect the aspirations and desires of a modern, globalised and technological savvy society as well as the realities of a constantly evolving online sphere.