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From the fake to the fabulous

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-11-01 23:24

This was one tour expert who had an intuitive knowledge of how Chinese culture works. If she were appointed the US minister of tourism, she could increase the inflow of Chinese tourists many times by doing nothing but giving tantalizingly descriptive Chinese names to American scenic attractions.

While rock formations and landforms are ready objects in the carnival of interpretation in a tourism-driven craze, the tendency to find physical similarities between things, or find inspiration from one to create another, can be traced back to the creation of Chinese words. Many Chinese characters, such as those for turtle and horse, were created by imitating the shape of the animal it represents. Over the years, many were gradually simplified. The character for horse used in Hong Kong and Taiwan still retains the four legs of the horse (馬), whereas the one used in the mainland (马) has replaced them with a long dash. The "it" pictograph in recent years is the word jiong (囧), an existing character so archaic nobody knew its meaning, but its resemblance to a square face with an arched eyebrow suddenly lent it a new meaning, one of slight awkwardness and embarrassment so vividly captured in its form that a tidal wave of enthusiasm generated from the grassroots pushed it to the forefront of usage.

From the fake to the fabulous

Leftover women or an unappreciated feast? 

From the fake to the fabulous

Artistic transcendence meets gender politics 

I'm not sure whether it is the same rationale that drives some Chinese to search for medical treatment from animal parts. Traditionally, if you have an ailment with your kidney, you'd be advised to eat as much animal kidney as possible. If you suffer from a brain disease, you should naturally get some kind of nutrients from pig brains, which taste not too differently from tofu. And if you have erectile dysfunction, well, there are all sorts of "whips", a euphemism for animal penises.

I'm no scientist, but I get a feeling this is pushing the anatomical likeness a bit too far. Should a professional runner eat a lot of leopard meat so that he can easily defeat his pork-eating peers? In most cultures, animals and plants are given human qualities in fairy tales and other forms of literature. But association by literary connotation or anatomical function may have nothing more than a placebo effect.

In arts and literature, imitation is usually the first step. Representing the natural world is one of the main objectives for artists. Especially during an era when art is made into a tool for political or moral propaganda, nature or the real world can be a liberating force because it opens a door for an endless array of possibilities.

However, many artists are not content with providing a mirror image of what nature offers. They want to elevate it, or inject personal feelings into it. It is often in this process that artists of true genius distinguish themselves from those who merely select and copy from the real world.

Take dance for instance. There are all kinds of folk dance in China that are inspired by flowers and physical movements in real life, stylized and beautified of course. When Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theater presented Cursive, it was in a league of its own. It starts by reproducing some of the strokes of Chinese calligraphy, but it quickly rises to a more abstract form. In the end, it is no longer the similarity of the calligraphic strokes, but the inner spirit of Chinese calligraphy embodied in the dance, that elicits astonishment. That is what I call imitation of a higher order.

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