Date of this Version
May 22, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
In my first post on the “Better City, Better Life” Expo promotion campaign, I focused on the centrality within it of visions of Shanghai as a special sort of distinctively modern and distinctively international Chinese metropolis, but here I’ll emphasize the second half of the slogan, which draws attention to the quality of urban existence. Expo public advertisements don’t just glorify Shanghai’s place in the modern world, they also strive to present Shanghai as a place where good behavior is on display. For example, on the subway one day I ran across a person dressed up as Haibao, and he was surrounded by people in vests that read “Make this city better, be a loveable Shanghaier.” Along with being cute and loveable, however, the most common adjective connected with expected “Expo” behavior iswenming I have been in Shanghai now for nine months, and within those nine months more and more small signs, specifically in very public places, have popped up, telling people how they should be behaving. For example, most escalators now read “stand on the right, walk on the left, use the escalators in a wenming way.” Or, “Don’t spit on buses, be more wenming.”
Wenming is difficult to define. Most dictionaries say it means “civilized,” but this definition carries as many problematic connotations in Chinese as it does in English. Leo Lee, in his book Shanghai Modern, traces the development of this word in modern Chinese. The term was originally borrowed from the Japanese, who used the same characters (pronounced differently of course) in the late nineteenth century to define behavior that was specifically “modern” and “Western,” thus maintaining the same connotations as “civilized” in English. This was picked up by China at the beginning of the twentieth century with similar effect.. The Nationalist government in the 1930s emphasized wenming behavior; it was often used in publications promoting the New Life Movement put forth by Chiang Kai-shek, a movement which encouraged people to be more hygienic and well mannered in terms of clothes, food, behavior, and deportment.. If we look at textbooks affiliated with the drive to improve weisheng (hygiene or health)—another complex term, whose links to visions of urban modernity are the subject of an important recent book by Ruth Rogaski we see them using similar language: calling on readers to raise the level of China’s weisheng by being wenming in the way they use the bathroom, stand in line, and so on.