Beyond the scripts of digital posters: a case study of language ideologies and writing practices in contemporary China

31 minutes to read
Academic paper
Yan Jia

Abstract: This article examines how written scripts used by different social actors in digital media are informed by language ideologies in contemporary China. The data consists of three digital posters produced by China National Radio, a private company that provides business English training, and a non-governmental and hobby-oriented Hanfu (literally, Han clothing) association in order to promote the Double Ninth Festival. Inspired by what Silverstein (1985) has referred to as “the total linguistic fact,” this study attempts to analyze how the written scripts of the digital posters on the WeChat platform (co-articulated with images, colors and layouts) are informed by different language ideologies. An analysis of this data set shows that: Firstly, the trans-scripting between simplified Chinese and English employed by the Chinese government is associated with the “glocal language ideology” (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2003). Secondly, the grassroots association embraces the co-current use of simplified and traditional Chinese to authenticate the traditional script. Thirdly, the inclination of the private company appears to have been informed by the national language ideology, namely, to follow the standard writing practice and to use only the simplified Chinese script. My findings indicate that the various scripts used in China are informed by different ideologies and serve ideological purposes that indicate asymmetrical power relations.

Keywords: language ideology, Chinese script, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, trans-scripting strategy


In recent years, China’s remarkable economic growth and modernization have brought to the forefront the significance of its cultural development. The revival of traditional culture has become a recurrent theme in contemporary sociopolitical discourse in China, such as in governmental policy (Cheng, 2008). In 2017, for example, the Chinese state council issued new guidelines to preserve and develop ‘traditional’ culture, particularly emphasizing the revitalization of traditional Chinese festivals. The general public is also encouraged to participate in the promotion of traditional culture in a wide range of different forms, including by utilizing social media platforms (Li, 2020; Zhang & Peng, 2018), such as WeChat (the dominant multi-purpose social media application in China). Hence, an increasing number of social actors, such as official media institutions, interest groups, and enterprises, use official accounts or group chats of WeChat to regularly design and publish online posters to promote the traditional Chinese festivals (Luoxia et al., 2019; Yan & Shen, 2019). The digital poster, thus, has emerged as the predominant and widespread medium for public engagement in such activities.

Analyzing digital posters

Digital posters, as one of the most popular forms of communication and art, are always available for distribution and have the ability to visually convey language alongside other visual imagery. When people use language in artistic content, as Jaworski (2018, p. 677) writes, “their works enter a broader sociolinguistic field, whereby linguistic forms carry social values of distinctiveness and possibility […] or, - in other words - their language ideologies.” This means that the written scripts of posters on social media, together with other semiotic modes, such as images and layouts, are crucial not just to highlight the theme and provide information to a mass audience, but also to index who is entitled to use the scripts and which ideologies are at play. Language ideologies, as Silverstein (1979, p. 193) claims, are “sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use.” They are rooted in social actors’ experience and are subject to the interests of their social position (Lønsmann, 2014). That is to say, language ideologies embedded within digital poster scripts serve as important links between the linguistic practices of different social actors and distinct sociocultural structures, particularly in the context of China’s cultural resurgence entwined with its rise on the global stage (Ding & Saunders, 2006). In light of this, it is important to pay attention to the socioculturally motivated language ideologies that social actors at various levels in China have championed or even contested in the actualization of the specific language used in traditional cultural publicity posters, i.e., scripts used in China and their legitimacy.

So, to that end, this article aims to examine how the written scripts of posters posted by different state, civil society and corporate actors on contemporary China’s social media platforms are informed by language ideologies. This article discusses three posters produced respectively by China National Radio (CNR), a Hanfu (literally Han clothing)-hobby association, and a privately-owned enterprise, No. 1 English (Yihao Ketang). These posters were distributed on WeChat to promote the same traditional Chongyang Jie (Double Ninth Festival) event. China National Radio is one of the most influential of the “three central broadcasting organizations in China” (Huang, 2017, p. 144) and plays an important role in spreading a positive image of China in terms of promoting Chinese culture. The Hanfu association is a non-governmental and non-profit organization, but also a “grassroots association” (Smith, 1997), made up of people favoring Hanfu (the so-called traditional clothing of Han Chinese), whose aim is to promote Hanfu and the associated traditional Chinese culture. The privately-owned enterprise is a small-sized business located in Beijing and mainly provides training in business English. In this article, I follow the analytic guiding principle — “total linguistic fact” — as proposed by Silverstein (1985), which comprises three dimensions: language ideology, linguistic form, and language use, to help in understanding how different social actors guided by language ideologies rationalize their own language activity (co-articulated with the images, colors and layouts of the posters).

This paper is organized as follows. In the following parts, I will present the interplay of the different scripts that social groups deploy in contemporary China and the language ideologies through which they are interpreted and assigned meanings. Initially, the theoretical framework and its contextualization in China will be outlined. Following that, an examination of the different script choices used by the various social actors and their relationship to ideology will be conducted through an analysis of the three digital posters. The final part will summarize the main findings and discuss the sociolinguistic implications of the digital posters in the online linguistic landscape.

The ‘total linguistic fact’ in a Chinese context

The term “total linguistic fact” is defined by Silverstein (1985, p. 220) as “an unstable mutual interaction of meaningful sign forms contextualized to situations of interested human use, mediated by the fact of cultural ideology.” This theoretical perspective provides a more holistic view of linguistic phenomena in which linguistic form, language use, and language ideology mutually shape and inform one another. The linguistic form (or structure) is “a systematic organization of linguistic types potentially contributing to denotation” (Moore, 2021, p. 496), broadly including the different forms of writing systems, such as for Chinese and English. Language practice refers to the actual language use in real-time communication, related to the systematic indexical meanings of a certain linguistic form (Silverstein, 2003). Language ideology is a set of beliefs that inform language use and the (de)selection of linguistic form.

The dominating scripts in China

Chinese has two script systems — simplified (Jianti) and traditional (Fanti) Chinese — as well as several phonetization systems, such as Hanyu Pinyin, as auxiliary tools for pronunciation and other practical needs, e.g., computer/phone input (Chen, 1999). The traditional and simplified Chinese systems both belong to the logographic writing system consisting of characters that represent words and depict objects or the abstract notions they denote. In the past, the traditional characters in particular were written in ink-brush style and vertically, from right to left.

The Chinese writing system has undergone dramatic changes since the 1950s (Bradley, 2011). After the Chinese communist party overthrew the Kuomintang Party-led government and established the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the character system became greatly simplified. Simplified characters, referred to as Jiantizi, have today taken the role of Fantizi (complex or complicated characters), commonly referred to as traditional Chinese characters. Jiantizi has thus been adopted as standard written Chinese (Rohsenow, 2004). Hanyu Pinyin (a Chinese spelling system), as a romanized system of Chinese characters, was designed and promoted to provide the pronunciation of standard spoken Chinese in mainland China, i.e., Putonghua (common speech, also called Standard Mandarin) (Wang, 1997). The traditional vertical orientation of writing has gradually been replaced by a horizontal orientation as the typesetting of textbooks and other reading materials from left to right has been adopted since 1955 by all official newspapers and publications (Zhu, 2017). The modern Chinese punctuation system, another significant component of the written script, has also become standardized following the amendment of the document General Rules for Punctuation (Biaodian fuhao yongfa) (Hamm, 2021). Unlike in mainland China, traditional Chinese is still used as the standard form of writing in Taiwan following the Kuomintang Party’s retreat to Taiwan. For historical and sociopolitical reasons, the two special administrative regions of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Macao, also follow this practice (Chen, 1999).

In conjunction with globalization, the English alphabetic script has also gained popularity in China. About one-third of the nation’s total population either uses or is learning English (Wei & Su, 2012). After the People's Republic of China implemented the policy of reform and of opening up to the outside world in 1978, the English as a Second Language (ESL) industry expanded dramatically (J. Liu & Tao, 2012). The state has also incorporated English into national primary education as the most important foreign language. Therefore, knowledge of English has spread in China as a “translocal” linguistic resource (Pennycook, 2006) that “can be appropriated and exploited without allegiance to its historically native speakers” (Li, 2016, p. 2). For example, Andy and Xu (2002) demonstrate that Chinese English ‘with Chinese characteristics’ is no longer recognizable in its native contexts (like inner-circle English-speaking countries).

Writing practices in China

According to the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Standard Spoken and Written Chinese Language (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo guojia tongyong yuyan wenzifa), which took effect in January 2001, the principal writing system employed by important institutions, including broadcasting organizations and administration, as well as public services such as signboards and advertisements, is that of simplified characters. The traditional Chinese characters, in contrast, should only be used in specific circumstances, such as in connection with historical sites and cultural relics. However, the official language regulation is predicated “on images of ‘societally desirable’ forms of language usage and of the ‘ideal’ linguistic landscape of society […]” (Blommaert, 2006, p. 244). The actual language practice in social life is much more sophisticated because it is “embedded in particular social situations […] gains its meaning and significance from being situated in cultural beliefs, values […]” (Barton & Hall, 2000, p. 1). Written scripts in contemporary China are characterized by diversity and creativity, as Guo (2015) notes in his commentary on the ten-year report on the language situation in China. For example, by analyzing the signage in historical parks, government-authored promotion boards and commercial streets in China, Zhou (2020) demonstrates the diversity of typographic choices, such as the old calligraphic style with traditional characters and other typefaces, which is closely associated with social and cultural values across different domains. Similarly, Gao (2005) discusses the diverse ways in which English is employed in bilingual advertising in China. The creativity of language use is more evidenced by the language practice on social media — “trans-scripting” (Androutsopoulos, 2015; Spilioti, 2019). Language users refashion the existing script by manipulating the various linguistic resources associated with different languages to serve their own purposes. For instance, Zhang (2015) shows the multilingual language play in weather messages on posters created by one of the most popular Chinese government microblogs, Shanghai Release. By mixing Putonghua, the Shanghai dialect (with lexical items borrowed from Putonghua), and elements of English, the government manages to identify with urban youth in this digital era. Li and Zhu (2019) have also observed that Chinese social media users creatively combine existing characters with quasi-homophonic English words, such as 关你peace ‘it’s none of your business’ which gives them, according to the authors, extra humorous or satirical meanings.

Language ideologies in China

Some national language ideologies are explicitly promulgated by governmental authorities, “because they are consistent with overarching political values that distinguish particular polities” (McGroarty, 2008, p. 99). As Coyl (2008, p. 65) notes, some changes in Chinese script, including the standardization of simplified Chinese, “have been fueled by a political desire to differentiate one country [mainland China] from another [Taiwan].” The official language law of the People's Republic of China, as noted above, states that simplified Chinese is the standard and official written form. It reflects and reinforces the national language belief that simplified Chinese is connected to the People's Republic of China’s nation-building. Therefore, the difference between the use of simplified and traditional Chinese may be interpreted as indicative of the political divide between China and other areas, such as Taiwan or Hong Kong (Su & Chun, 2021). For example, Guo et al. (2020) have demonstrated that the local Chinese residents in Hong Kong identify themselves as great ‘Hongkongers’ by associating simplified Chinese with mainland China, particularly mainland Chinese authorities, and by attributing negative connotations to the identity of mainland Chinese. Similarly, through analyzing the online debate discourses, Yan (2016) has also shown that Macao residents hold the view that simplified characters are taken to be a strong index of mainland China, people from mainland China, and ‘disabled’ Chinese culture, while traditional Chinese not only represents the legitimate script in Macao but also indexes the authentic Chinese culture. They take pride in being the guardians of traditional culture. Through the activity of “Chanting the Chinese Classics,” mainland Chinese demonstrate a similar sense of cultural pride. They believe that traditional Chinese is heavily loaded with cultural heritage and hence link traditional Chinese to national pride and Chinese cultural self-confidence (Yu, 2016).

The view that English is regarded “as a tool of significant pragmatic value” has gained widespread acceptance among both the state and individuals (Simpson, 2017, p. 333). The Chinese government, according to Hu (2005), considers “English as a global language with significant social, economic and political value” (Pan, 2011, p. 260) which can be used to support China in achieving its objectives by facilitating economic development and national modernization. By examining Chinese–English hybrid lexicons distributed on Chinese gateway websites, Qi and Zhang (2021) have found that individual Chinese have adopted English as a global resource to be exploited to perform glocal functions and that they have assimilated English for their own local usage in enacting their identity.

Language ideologies are linked to the social positions and experiences of particular groups of people and to their political, social, or economic interests (Hsiau, 1997; Kroskrity, 2004). Namely, different social actors in China are able to legitimize their own language behavior in different ways and to produce divergent and multiple conceptualizations of the social roles of linguistic forms. The next sections will analyze three digital posters to show how language ideologies are tied to actors’ linguistic practices in China. In the analysis, both linguistic and non-linguistic components of the posters will be scrutinized, as they collectively contribute to the creation of semiotic meanings.   

Scripts, linguistic use and ideologies in China in three digital posters

Three digital posters were posted on October 25, 2020, at the Double Ninth Festival, which takes place on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month. This day, therefore, is also referred to as the Chongyang (重阳, lit. double yang) Festival, as both the day and the month are yang (opposite of yin in Chinese philosophy) numbers. The purpose of the posters was to promote this traditional Chinese event. This festival originated during the Warring States period (475-221 BC) or the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) (Huang & Qin, 2017). On this day, it is customary to climb a mountain, enjoy chrysanthemums, drink chrysanthemum wine, and wear the Zhuyu plant (dogwoods). It is said that these activities are meant to drive away evil spirits and will prevent future disasters (Guo, 2017). However, based on historical and cultural ‘facts’ that, in the past, many events honoring the elderly were held during the autumn (when the festival is celebrated) and this season is metaphorically associated with the later stages of a person’s life (Huang & Qin, 2017), this festival, as an “invented tradition” (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983), has been deliberately repurposed to advocate filial piety and respect for the elderly. This day was then adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China as Seniors’ Day in 1989.

The first poster (Figure 1) was collected from the official account of China National Radio on WeChat. The official account of WeChat enables users to publish content, gain followers, and offer products or services. The second poster (Figure 2) was extracted from the data of my current research about the stylistic practices of self-identified Hanfu fans in Beijing, China and the Netherlands. An administrator of a Hanfu association group chat in Beijing shared this poster, which was also reposted on its official account. The third poster (Figure 3) was taken from the official account of a company, No.1 English, established in Beijing in 2012 that provides English training to Chinese businesses, social groups, and institutions.

The official media: Trans-scripting between English and simplified Chinese

Figure 1. “重young (Chong young)”

The poster in Figure 1 can be divided into an upper and a lower part. The upper part contains a folding screen in the Chinese style known as Pingfeng, which is typically used to alter the interior decoration of a room. In front of the Pingfeng, the younger person is using a heavy metal rock gesture while sporting sunglasses and AirPods. The older man is playing an electric guitar. Their ‘shadows’ projected in the background reveal a child and a male adult. The Pingfeng is painted with a pine tree growing out of rocks, and a small and a big red-crowned crane surrounded by clouds. These images, representing longevity and auspiciousness in traditional Chinese culture, are frequently associated with the elderly. The lower part of the poster consists mainly of text and cloud-like visual elements. Two simplified Chinese characters and an English lexeme in the biggest font — “重(chong),” “young,” and “阳(yang)” — are placed at the feet of the characters, followed by the much smaller four-line phrases in simplified Chinese characters and an English lexeme: “You accompany me to grow up/ I accompany you to grow “young” again/ May the “old babies” of every family/ Be well every year and stay young forever!” (你陪我长大/我陪你再“青春”/愿每个家庭的“老宝贝儿”/年年安康,久久YOUNG!) The logo of CNR appears at the bottom of the poster. Thus, this poster appears to advocate for respect for the elderly and the ongoing companionship between children and parents who, despite their age differences, share interests such as music.

This poster uses a creative “trans-scripting” strategy.

Two different scriptural systems are used simultaneously. The two-character word “重阳,” denoting the name of the festival, is separated by the English word “young.” The pinyin of characters “重阳” is “chóng yáng,” and “yáng” sounds similar to English “young.” The character “重(Chong)” and the English word “young” are creatively combined into a new word and written vertically while “young” and the character “阳(yang)” are juxtaposed. This trans-scripting of “重young” distorts the original meaning of the festival and generates a new one — “young again” — as the character “重(Chong)” can be interpreted as “again.” However, the traditional top-to-bottom writing vector as well as the ink-and-brush style preserve the traditional writing style while Chinese and English co-occur and new meaning is added. This novel combination evokes a contrast between modernity and tradition, the West and China. It is noteworthy that the English word “young” is also ‘localized’ in calligraphic style to maintain a consistency with the style of the Chinese character “Chong(重)” rather than in a typical English font such as Helvetica or Calibri.

The four-line phrases in a single Chinese typeface look like a simple modern Chinese poem due to the flexible length, horizontal writing, and modern Chinese punctuation. This text emphasizes the bond between children and parents and expresses a heartfelt wish for close family ties to be maintained and for ageing parents to remain young forever, echoing the words “重young (young again)” above. In the third line, the expression “老宝贝儿(old babies)” is an exaggeration of ageing parents as babies, not only aligning with a cultural stereotype — many people “have characterized old age as a period of a second childhood and childish behaviour” (Covey, 1993, p. 81) — but also reflects the children’s love and care for their parents. The affective quality is also enhanced by the retroflex suffix “儿(er)” in the word “babies (宝贝儿)” (Song, 2013). The retroflex suffixation is usually preserved by speakers of the northern Chinese dialect, notably in the Beijing dialect, also when writing (Zhang, 2003). This suggests the legitimization of Standard Mandarin as the developed standard from the northern dialect(s) (Lin & Chan, 2022). Meanwhile, every letter of the adjective “YOUNG” in the trans-scripting “久久YOUNG!” (stay young forever!) in the fourth line is capitalized. In doing so, the purpose may be to draw the audience’s attention to the word “young” as a theme. In addition, compared to the use of simplified Chinese as a vehicle of expression, the deployment of English “young,” rather than the Chinese characters “年轻(young)” in the phrase “久久YOUNG!”, reflects the ideology that to some degree the use of English is associated with what is young, new, and fashionable, resonating with the English cultural symbols in the poster, such as the gesture indicating the rock music genre and an electric guitar, in contrast to traditional Chinese musical instruments. As Spilioti (2020) argues, trans-scripting has been an accessible practice that points to the specific voices and ideological positions of digital media users. The hybridity of simplified Chinese and English as well as the ‘localization’ of the English script indicate the official media’s “glocalness” (Koutsogiannis & Mitsikopoulou, 2003) in this poster, that is, a language ideology acknowledging the dialectical relationship between the global and the local in which the local appropriates elements of the global, notably language, while retaining its identity. In this case, the state-affiliated media extracts the useful linguistic resource “young” from global English to combine it with Chinese, helping to promote the ‘new’ theme of the traditional Chinese festival as well as to construct a modern, open, and ‘glocal’ government image. The glocal social practice of writing English in an ink-and-brush style in particular articulates the government’s sinicized view that English can be written in a style that evokes Chinese characters and can be utilized to promote Chinese culture.

Civil society: The co-current use of the traditional and simplified scripts

Figure 2. “重陽節(Chongyang Festival)”

The second poster contains four lines of Chinese characters arranged semantically from top to bottom, along with a large yellow flower background picture including a red sunset, two cranes, and mountains drawn in ink. Generally, sunsets and cranes are associated with the elderly. The mountains represent the traditional festival activity of hiking. Although the exact nature of the flower motif in the background cannot be determined, the audience will immediately be reminded of the flowers associated with the festival. These are known to be yellow blossoms, specifically chrysanthemums and the flowers of the Zhuyu plant. The text in this poster is in a calligraphic style. The festival name in traditional Chinese script — “重陽節(Chongyang Festival)” — is positioned on the right in the largest font, immediately followed by the Chinese characters “九九(nine, nine)” #[1] in white against a red background. This is reminiscent of an ancient Chinese wax seal which appears to denote the Chinese lunar date. The last two lines in simplified Chinese read “独在异乡为异客/每逢佳节倍思亲 (As a lonely stranger in a foreign land/ I miss my family more than ever on every festive day)” and are drawn from one of the most famous Classical Chinese poems by the poet Wang Wei (701-761 AD) describing his homesickness on the Chongyang festival. The overall content of the poster emphasizes the old and traditional aspects of the festival that have seemingly been passed down from ancient times to the present (Hobsbawm & Ranger, 1983), while the modern meaning of respect for the elderly is given considerably less attention than in the previous poster, i.e., the sunset and cranes.

Instead of following the left-to-right horizontal writing system prevalent in contemporary China, the text of this poster adopts the traditional, classical vertical orientation from top to bottom and proceeds from right to left. This classic writing layout indicates its allegiance to Chinese tradition.

Two scripts, classic and simplified Chinese, occur simultaneously in this poster.

Interestingly, the name of the festival “重陽節 (Chongyang Festival)” is written in traditional Chinese only, while the poem is written in simplified Chinese. #[2] As stated before, in the Common Language Law of China, traditional Chinese is not the standard Chinese script, and therefore its use is not advocated in publicly displayed texts. In the “indexical field” (Eckert, 2008) of the Chinese script, traditional Chinese is able to index cultural values, such as cultural authenticity and Chinese tradition (Deng, 2009) as well as the "well-established geographic and political position" (Curtin, 2008, p. 226), such as a Taiwanese identity or the political parties of Taiwan. It is evident that the cultural meaning of the traditional script is adopted here. The deployment of traditional characters to write the festival’s name emphasizes the significance of the festival as being traditional and authentically Chinese rather than expressing local/national identities, which is further strengthened by the citation from the classical poem. Given that the classic script is unfamiliar to the target audiences from mainland China, the symbolic and cultural meaning of the traditional script apparently takes priority over the literal meaning of the festival’s name, which reflects the dominance of the belief that traditional Chinese indexes a sense of history and tradition.

Interestingly enough, the script of the two-line traditional poem blends simplified Chinese and the classical vertical writing direction, which is not in line with either the modern standard or the classic writing styles. This makes this presentation style extremely hybrid and open to various interpretations. Nevertheless, the intention of this poster in combining the modern and the traditional is vividly revealed. Since simplified Chinese is the standard writing norm in contemporary China, it can thus symbolize modernity in today’s spatiotemporal framework while the vertical writing without modern Chinese punctuation, which was the predominant writing style in ancient times, is evocative of tradition.

The company: The sole use of the ‘invisible’ simplified script

Figure 3. “重阳节(Chongyang Festival)”

Similar to the two previous posters, the yellow background in this poster features a sun, two cranes, mountains, as well as scattered chrysanthemum-like petals. The company logo and QR code are located in the upper left and bottom right of the poster respectively. A very lightly colored cloud-line pattern can also be discerned between the mountains and the QR code on the right-hand side. The Chinese characters are composed of a variety of strokes and can be characterized by the relative position, such as top-bottom or top-middle-bottom composition. Incorporating the cloud-line pattern into the strokes of the simplified characters, the festival name “重阳节(Chongyang Festival)” is presented in an artistic typology design. For example, the top-middle-bottom structure of the character “重(Chong)” is made up of nine strokes. The middle part “田” of the character “重(Chong)” is replaced by the cloud-line pattern. Similarly, the festival’s name is written vertically, with the lunar date “九月九 (September ninth)” like a Chinese wax seal in the bottom right corner. Interestingly, the date “农历九月初九 (September ninth in the Chinese lunar calendar)” is put in red again and placed horizontally. Right below, four characters in a large font “重阳登高” (climbing to the top of mountains at Chongyang) present one of the most traditional activities of this day. Next, the two-line sentences “待到重阳日,还来就菊花 (By the time of the Chongyang Festival, I will come here again to appreciate the chrysanthemum flowers)” from a classical Chinese poem written by Meng Haoran (689-740AD) highlight that part of the day’s celebration is devoted to admiring chrysanthemums. Finally, at the bottom, the business’s slogan “提升英语岗位胜任力 (increase your English proficiency for English language jobs)” is expressed. This poster emphasizes the more historic, traditional elements of the festival by evoking collective cultural memories, diverging from the meaning of respect for the elderly promoted by the government.

There is a type of ancient script with images in China, Niaochong Zhuan (bird-worm seal script), with decorative strokes reminiscent of worms or birds. By following this writing tradition and the classical vertical writing manner, the hybrid form of cloud patterns and the writing of the festival name convey not only an artistic and visual impression but also stress the ancient connections and the traditional value of this festival. The national language ideology can take the form of an unstated tenet “on which ordinary people as well as elites build social action and interpret the meaning of acts and events without question” (Woolard, 2016, p. 7). Therefore, simplified Chinese, as the national and governmental norm and the only legitimized script, serves a practical and daily communicative writing function and remains highly ‘invisible’ without any specific, attributed meanings. This poster adheres to the standard script criteria. For example, despite the patterning linked to the ancient script style, the festival’s name is still based on simplified Chinese. The simplified script is used across the entire poster although many different typefaces are deployed to add diversity to the text. Compared to the stylized script of the festival’s name, the remainder of the text uses conventional digital typefaces, such as the date in the Huawen Lishu typeface (Huawen clerical script), the poem and the characters referring to hiking in the mountains in the Songti typeface, and the business slogan in Kaishu, which is the normal script. According to Qiu et al. (2020) and Zhou (2020), these prevalent typefaces are perceived as more contemporary, transparent, and effective scripts and are widely used in documents or on signboards made by the government to promote socialist values or ‘educate’ citizens.

Therefore, the use of these common typefaces, in addition to the horizontal positioning, reflects an ideological alignment with the official writing practice, in compliance with the national standard.

This belief also leads to the quotation of the two sentences from the classical Chinese poem presented horizontally with modern Chinese punctuation, differentiating it from the poem in the previous Hanfu association poster which was written vertically and lacked punctuation. The linguistic practice in this poster is more ‘mono-scriptural’ and adheres to the prescribed standard writing style.

On the other hand, this poster was produced by a company that offers English training. In China, the teaching of English has long been dominated by a monocentric approach to teaching ‘so-called standard English’ (Xie, 2014). Such a monocentric standpoint might have prompted the company to choose a ‘mono-scriptural’ approach so as to align its Chinese language use with that of its English language teaching, leading to a mono-scriptural poster. However, this firm did not employ any mono-script English or any English whatsoever in this poster in advertising its English services. This further demonstrates the company’s conservative stance concerning the use of linguistic resources as well as an effort to conform to the national norm.

Discussion and conclusion

By examining the interconnected relationships among language form, usage, and ideology, this article has presented a window into the contemporary China’s total (socio)linguistic fact. In particular, it has shown the complexity of the actual writing practices of different social actors and their connection to language ideologies in contemporary China. As the analysis indicates, the scripts of the three posters produced by three different actors circulating on social media differ greatly, although they use similar images in promoting the same traditional festival. It is clear that the script choices of the government, the grassroots association, and the private company were each informed by different ideologies and, as a result, differ from each other. Using a trans-scripting strategy, the governmental media creatively employs both English and simplified Chinese linguistic resources to transcend language boundaries in order to evoke the ‘young’ theme, as the poster advocates filial piety. This trans-scripting practice attaches notions of modernity and fashion to global English and also reflects the glocal ideology of the government. Therefore, the local and the global are dynamically and reciprocally synthesized, instantiated by the combination of the ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ linguistic resources. In contrast, the hobby-oriented, self-defined Hanfu fans pay more attention to the traditional aspect of the festival, and they favor writing styles that are more similar to those of the past. They use Chinese characters in addition to simplified Chinese to index the festival as a Chinese tradition, because this script is tied to what is considered traditional Chinese culture. The private company, shaped by the mono-scriptal national language ideology, also stresses the traditional meaning but deploys only simplified characters and generally follows the standard writing convention, as simplified Chinese is the norm and commonly valued script in China.

The traditional script choice employed by the Hanfu organization and the official media presented in this article highlights how the different ideologies of traditional Chinese in the People’s Republic of China are adopted by different social groups. The grassroots group opted to use the traditional Chinese script, as it believes that it indexes the authentic Chinese culture. The decision of the government of the People’s Republic of China not to use the traditional script when promoting traditional Chinese festivals reflects the government’s belief that the traditional characters might be linked to the official criteria for defining nationality, such as treating traditional Chinese as being associated with Taiwan or the political parties there. The script choices in the two posters further epitomize the two situations in which different Chinese scripts are used in contemporary China. One is the unifying and harmonious coexistence of simplified and traditional Chinese. The other is their rivalry or conflict with one another. The situation in which they are in conflict, in particular, applies to the ‘dilemma’ of Chinese scripts. Ideally, simplified Chinese should play a crucial role in China’s economic, political, and cultural development and contribute to a unified China. However, as Zhou (2019) highlights, the current ideologies, such as the one held by the grassroots association, lead simplified Chinese into a more difficult situation, creating a barrier to accessing traditional Chinese cultural resources, something which China desperately needs for the purposes of nation-building and projecting its global soft power.

The asymmetric power relation between the government and the enterprise is also reflected through the distinct linguistic practices of each in the digital posters. The trans-scripting of Chinese and English helps the government to promote the traditional festival while constructing an open and glocal government even though it contravenes the standard script criteria. In contrast, the private company cautiously uses the standard Chinese characters and writing style but not English and traditional Chinese. In China, the political system and the economic mechanism of the socialist market economy dictate that economic development cannot be separated from the role of the government. Especially in emerging economies, the government actively directs industrial development and develops business policy (Sheng et al., 2011). This power dynamic may drive the language practice of the commercial entity toward a conservative stance, whereas the government has the liberty to be creative or, to some extent, subversive. On the other hand, the Chinese government’s stringent internet censorship may also restrict the enterprise’s language choices. 

This article also advances an understanding of the sociolinguistic affordance of digital posters on social media. It shows that digital posters are an important component of the user-generated online realm. Through examining them, it is possible to discover the complexity of contemporary script choices employed by social media users, as well as the multiplicity of language ideologies. Thus, digital posters play a vital role in indexing the sociolinguistic realities that exist in contemporary China.

[1] The simplified character “九” is the same as the traditional one; thus, its stokes remain unchanged.

[2] The character “重(Chong)" is both traditional and simplified.


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I would like to thank Leonie Cornips, Suzanne Aalberse, Peter Wilms van Kersbergen, Albert Backus, Jos Swanenberg, and Sjaak Kroon for reading an earlier version of this paper and providing very insightful comments and feedback. Additionally, I extend my thanks to Ico Maly for his editorial help.