I, it must be said, am a sucker for propaganda. Especially the kind used today in China and Vietnam. There is just something about the uniformly stale, often poorly Photoshopped artwork that manages to make its message instantly nostalgic while remaining all together contemporary. A new and retro motif born at once. Never mind that the “clutter effect” caused by blanketing streets with repetitive nationalistic rhetoric has made most impervious to its presence. It’s the predicatively styled commands and musty qualities that got me hooked.
While off on a day trip from Shanghai to Xitang, a water town nestled in Zhejiang Province (one best known for the narrow canals Tom Cruise ran down in M:I3) , I walked past a long, trailing piece of propaganda plastered on an old wall decorated with clay shingles. Starting from right above an emblematic picture of Tian’anmen Square, it read: “Military administration, the army, the people. [Take the] same breath. Share destinies. Connect hearts… ” and on and on. A message, truth be told, not unlike countless other would-be political prose, but nonetheless worth pausing on and contemplating. After a while, it really makes you feel like the Army is looking out for you. What a nice, warm feeling. So glad that our destinies are entwined.
The word for army, jūn, is made by drawing what is called a house or shelter over 车 (chē)， the character for vehicle. Place a shelter over the vehicle and you get 军. What you see today evolved from a character that once traced a circle around the vehicle. It is often noted that Chinese scholars can read text that date back over 4,000 years, but if you can read older scripts (such as bronze seal or oracle bone script) you can go back as far as 6,000 years. Around those time periods, the pictographs are a lot easier to see, but that doesn’t mean interpretation is any easier. The bronze seal script for 军 was originally a traditional 车 (車） with a circle around it. This could be because the army protected or encircled war chariots and carriages — both represented by the character 車 in ancient times.