Cultural Flows in the Digital and Beyond: The Potency of a Symbol in Mainland China

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Poplin, Justine (2017) Cultural Flows in the Digital and Beyond: The Potency of a Symbol in Mainland China. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


In the twenty-first century, access to a fragmented global culture through online portals has created what Bauman (2011) calls a ‘liquid culture’. As screen-mediated ways of being grow and propagate through our art galleries, museums and online social media feeds, how are we to read this emergent visual grammar so that we can motivate, move or elevate our ways of knowing? This thesis explores the symbolism created in mainland China in 2009 through an emergent and retained set of subversive symbols: the Grass Mud Horse lexicon in Chinese visual culture and beyond. To date, theorists have focused predominantly on internet memes, independent of other multimodal forms generated and transitioned from symbolic online internet memes to offline symbolic use in art and design. I investigate ways of deciphering and articulating these visual gestures through accessing cultural keys. I claim that the new symbolism generated as a result of internet censorship in mainland China demonstrates a generational and ideological shift; it does so through the creation and propagation of new visual grammar in twenty-first century China. To scaffold my claims, I explore an overview of historical changes in the visual articulation of Chinese culture. The use of Mao Zedong as a symbol in art and design clearly illustrates a shift from veneration to subversion. By exploring the symbolism in visual culture dating from 1912 to China’s digital age, this study reveals a transition that proposes a new heroic icon, the Grass Mud Horse. The creation of this new symbolism has political relevance; it deploys practices and art forms to signal, dissolve and raise awareness of social and ideological change. This study maps the new symbolism to test the claim that over time, some symbols may lose potency, while others remain and reflect ideological shifts. The findings will be demonstrated through a synthesis of online digital ethnography, including semiotic and compositional interpretation, and incorporating multimodal discourse analysis. This study will challenge the Western perspective of Chinese stereotypes in visual culture by working with and interpreting visual cultural flows in the digital age.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 2001 Communication and Media Studies
Historical > FOR Classification > 2002 Cultural Studies
Current > Division/Research > College of Arts and Education
Keywords symbolism; visual culture; Grass Mud Horse; Chinese culture; internet censorship
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