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Dragons and branding

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Exit the dragon?

Has the dragon come to the end of its 7000-year reign as the symbol of the Chinese people? Earlier this year it was left off the roster of the five Beijing Olympic mascots, which were selected with their international connotations in mind - ferocious carnivores like the dragon were passed over in favor of benign, tasty herbivores. And now a proposal has been floated to retire the dragon altogether in favor of a more harmonious national emblem.

Wu Youfu, a professor at Shanghai International Studies University and the author of the recent International Review article "On Branding the Chinese National Image", was interviewed last week by Guangming Daily on the subject of image, soft power, and the "China threat". In the course of the interview, Wu brought up the example of the dragon as an element of traditional culture that is misunderstood abroad when used as a national symbol. "Brand China" is supposed to project a harmonious image of a peacefully-rising nation, one that bears ill will toward none. The western connotation of the dragon as a fearsome, aggressive, malevolent beast is, in the minds of Wu Youfu and other experts, at odds with its symbolism in Chinese culture of honesty, good fortune, and happiness.

The story was picked up a few days later in other papers, where it ran under headlines like "Experts recommend junking the dragon as a national emblem." Naturally, the idea of a bunch of bureaucrats repudiating a national symbol merely to please some foreigners had many people upset. In a clarification issued yesterday, Wu claimed that he had been misquoted and added that he only wished to retool the dragon image into something more harmonious.

Some commenters made the observation that if a rebranding is needed, the Chinese dragon could be given a new name to distinguish it from western dragons - "loong", for example. Others took a dim view of the need for brand-retooling altogether. Here's the conclusion of an editorial in the Shenzhen Business Daily:

If a country's faith in its culture is near-sighted and deluded, if it has no notable cultural accomplishments, if its cultural spirit is shallow and fleeting, then what does it prove to create a graceful, perfect "image brand"? What lasting mark can it make on the vast expanse of history, aside from "Sunflower Manual"*-style absurdity and self-delusion?

Of course, the dragon as it stands today is a crafty bit of branding. A view most closely associated with the modern poet Wen Yiduo says that the mythical dragon started out as some sort of snake before becoming the totem of a unified China by incorporating elements of the totems of separate nations that made up the empire (or the states conquered by the advancing empire). This theory had obvious applications throughout much of the 20th century.

However, according to an amateur paleontologist who has written a new, dragon-themed novel, Wen's explanation is utterly mistaken. Dragons were used as totems, says Yan Tie, author of Traces of the Dragon (龙迹) because, like other totem animals, they actually existed.

Yan cites examples throughout Chinese history, from a note in the Zuozhuan that "That autumn, a dragon appeared in the outskirts of Jiang [capital of Jin]" up through 1934, when a giant carcass of a horned beast turned up in the port city of Yingkou, Liaoning. According to Yan's calculations, dragons will most likely be found in certain parts of Hunan's Zhangjiajie Forest, Hubei's Shennongjia Forest, and Heilongjiang's Zhalong Nature Preserve.

Yan's novel uses the framework of an thriller to lay out his theories - a group of adventurers sets off in pursuit of a dragon-related artifact from the Xia Dynasty that vanished when its discoverer was being pursued by Japanese spies. Cracking codes, deciphering maps, and solving poem-riddles, they eventually uncover the lair of the dragon deep within the primeval forest.

Traces of the Dragon is being promoted as a Chinese Da Vinci Code, for similarities in plot as well as in the use of fiction to deliver theories that might be dismissed as crackpot if published as non-fiction. It's also being pushed as an answer to Wolf Totem, the mammoth bestseller that identified the wolf as the soul of the Chinese people. Nonsense, says Yan - the dragon has always been the most important Chinese totem.

But not for very much longer, if the modern symbologists and branding experts have their way.


Note: Learning the arcane skills detailed in the "Sunflower Manual" requires self-castration.

Update:China Daily editor Raymond Zhou has added to the debate: Is the dragon too fearsome a symbol for China?

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