Metanarratives to present compelling China stories

By CHEN XIANHONG / 04-15-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A visitor admires images of Chinese mythology during an exhibition at Chongqing Library. Photo: CFP

Currently, human civilization is being revolutionized, with drastic changes happening in the East and West. In this context, metanarratives, or grand narratives, are crucial to increasing discourse power in the global arena. 

The term metanarrative is best known for its use by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. In his opinion, metanarratives are comprehensive accounts of general historical events, experiences, and phenomena. They are legitimate and dominant narratives for each era. 
Facing the metanarrative crisis of liberal democracy in the West, China-proposed concepts such as whole-process people’s democracy and the community with a shared future for mankind offer groundbreaking wisdom to human society today. Metanarratives can buttress Chinese stories’ discourse system and provide methodological guidance for presenting compelling stories of China. 
To this end, Chinese mythology, archetypes, metaphors, and values are essential to building an all-encompassing framework of historical narratives, and to formulating principles and strategies for the country’s international communication. This is the theoretical starting point and practical foothold from which to raise China’s voice in the international community and enhance its cultural soft power. 
Mythology marks the beginning of human civilization. It was the initial cultural symbol created by primitive humans and mankind’s oldest memory, playing a predominant role in the creation of human culture. 
For nations, mythology is a basic element of national characteristics and a set of mysterious narratives involving the country and its people, deeply imprinting upon a national community as it is conceived, accepted, and identified. Mythology is profoundly significant to a nation as it builds a foundation of legitimacy. 
Chinese mythology serves as the historical roots and cultural sources for stories concerning China. It epitomizes the cultural spirit of the Chinese nation—beyond time and space. To tell stories of Chinese mythology well, it is first necessary to understand the thought and spiritual power of ancient mythological stories, such as Pangu creating heaven and earth, Nüwa mending the sky, and Quafoo chasing after the sun, and then innovative adaptation of these myths and diverse narratives can be used to keep up with the times. 
At the same time, historic miracles created by contemporary China cannot be overlooked. Efforts are needed to compose and disseminate the new era’s Chinese mythology. These miracles include the Communist Party of China leading the Chinese people to found a new China and making continuous progress in the modernization drive. From the “One Country Two Systems” policy to the “Belt and Road” initiative, from targeted poverty alleviation to the fight against COVID-19, from the Chinese dream to the community with a shared future for mankind, contemporary China is creating modern myths in the process of safeguarding its sovereignty and realizing modernization as an independent nation-state. 
These modern myths not only drive the Chinese nation’s spirit, but are also the reason people around the world are interested in, and pay attention to, Chinese society. Therefore, narration of Chinese mythology requires diverse perspectives, from ancient to modern and from concrete to abstract, to unleash new cultural energy, foster cultural images of harmony, and delineate the differences between Chinese and Western cultural origins through comparison, paving the way for legitimizing China’s cultural roots on the global stage. 
Through in-depth examination of the myths and rituals of many ethnic groups, Scottish social anthropologist James George Frazer defined archetypes as rituals in the earliest stage of human thought. Fundamentally, archetypes refer to the collective unconscious, which, once seen in real life, will trigger “racial memories” or “primitive images” that remain in the human spirit, offering an indescribable sense of familiarity and evoking emotional resonance. 
In the practice of telling China’s stories, a thorough understanding and proper use of archetypes, the common cultural genes of humanity, can guide the audience to feel that they are not listening to individual stories, but are learning about humanity’s collective experiences, all while striking a deep chord between individual and collective unconsciousness. 
According to the Brand Archetype Theory, the imagery linked to brand archetypes varies from nation to nation. The style of each nation’s brand archetype determines the legitimacy of its global image. The process is not spontaneous. It requires a clear national metanarrative strategy. 
For example, the science fiction IP series “The Wandering Earth,” which portrays China as the archetype of protector or caregiver for human civilization, showcases to the world the “warming power” of Chinese culture and builds a base for the country’s legitimate national image. 
Metaphors exist universally in our language, everyday life, thoughts, and actions. They are not merely rhetorical tools or linguistic phenomena, but also represent a way of thinking, an important cognitive tool for humanity, and an effective approach to improving the transmissibility of China’s stories. 
The rhetoric nature of metaphors can be leveraged to strengthen the convincing power of Chinese narratives and give listeners aesthetic enjoyment. For instance, the metaphorical statement “lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets” profoundly elucidates the relationship between environmental protection and productivity. The “seeds of a pomegranate” underscores the need for the 56 ethnic groups within China to stick together and consolidate their sense of community for the Chinese nation. 
For a nation, figurative metanarratives can enable people to clarify unfamiliar concepts with familiar ones, thus making abstract political thoughts specific, vivid, and easier to understand. Thought-provoking metaphors can also enhance the creativity of China’s stories, activating listeners’ imagination. For example, the “boat” is likened to a nation, the “sea” stands for the market, and the “embroidery needle” is compared to the craft, knowledge, and even secrets of state governance. 
Metaphors represent invisible thinking in stories. This imaginary trait is transmissible, so that listeners are like travellers in the realm of stories and tend not to resist the stories. 
Based on different political needs, metaphors can display a nation’s ideology from multiple levels and perspectives, innovating and reorganizing realities conceptually to serve the grand needs of international communication.   
For example, “dragon,” “awake lion,” “panda,” “Confucian Utopia,” and “Red Utopia” are all used as metaphors for China, which results from the construction of different ideologies in different countries under different circumstances. These images significantly influence understandings of China’s national image. 
Metaphorical metanarratives are conducive to building connections between real and imaginary worlds. From the real world, readers are drawn into the realm of stories and immersed in it. As such, they feel a sense of transcendence when returning from stories to reality, as they contemplate the “present” while leaving it, until they create an ideal “future” in contemplation. 
Values can be divided into individual values, common values, and shared values. Individual values are the system of beliefs deep inside each of us. They can inspire emotions, work as evaluation criteria, and orient our actions in daily life. Common values are values recognized by members of each collective organization, guiding complicated communication between the collective and individual members. These values are capable of appealing to community members and bringing them together. Shared values are common values which have been fully accepted or pursued by two or multiple cultures and peoples.
Values are the nucleus of stories, while stories are vehicles for values. Both stories and values are summaries of human life experiences. People tell stories essentially to express certain values. In stories, human joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment, happiness and mishaps all convey stances, attitudes, and value orientations. 
A good Chinese story must deliver the common values of all mankind, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, and integrate family values on an individual level, organizational collective values, country-level national values, and global common values on human society levels, into the narrative language based on life and the public in the international community.  
In the case of the United States, since its founding it exactly employed mythology, archetypes, metaphors, and values to forge a great national image. America specifically took the superhero as the archetype of the people, and American police and the eagle as national metaphors to promote the American dream to the world. This top-level design of national image branding has run through all American cultural and artistic works and external communication endeavors under its metanarrative framework.
China should also center on the four aspects of mythology, archetypes, metaphors, and values to craft metanarrative strategies to tell Chinese stories effectively, and construct a convincing metanarrative mechanism from temporal, spatial, material, and spiritual dimensions, with emphasis placed on the “helper” archetype and the warm power of the nation. It is vital to remain rooted in the cultural soil of the Chinese nation, seek mythological motifs from Chinese practices, unearth archetypal codes from these motifs, adopt metaphorical narrative skills and thinking patterns, and spread the love from China, characterized by warm-hearted help and commitment to global harmony, thus presenting good China stories that carry humanity’s shared values. 
This metanarrative methodology should be elevated into a collective consciousness in communities of diplomats, journalists, and communication experts, and in the fields of culture and arts, and the humanities and social sciences. Through the introduction of Chinese discourse, theories, literary works, and cultural products with metanarrative functions, a foundation for the legitimacy of Chinese knowledge will be cemented, the metanarrative crisis facing China’s national image will be resolved, and the country’s “warm power” will take shape and become stronger.     
Chen Xianhong is a professor from the Journalism and Information Communication School at Huazhong University of Science and Technology.