A Call to Arms: A Comparison of the Semiotics
of the Peking Revolutionary Opera and 9/11 Media Images

Hence we know that the leader of the army is in charge of the lives of the people and the safety of the nation.” (Tzu 65)

Since the World Trade Center attack, the American government has used the media to induce the people into supporting its military actions. In the initial stages, images of the World Trade Center towers burning and collapsing filled our television screens and haunted our dreams. America watched hours of uninterrupted repetitions of chaos, rescues and death. Photos of our attackers covered every screen from television to computer. The loss of the towers damaged America economically as well. Thousands of jobs and lives lay lost in the rubble. With the loss of a major financial center that housed many businesses, the nation’s economy suffered a severe hit, which will take years to repair. Upon seeing these events, our nation united in purpose and prepared for war. A damaged nation cried for retaliation and retribution.

During the anthrax and biological weapons scares, an already tentative public became more fearful. News reports covering the deaths of those contaminated and analyses of the anthrax bacteria created a sense of fear for many Americans. Some people became afraid of opening their mail without wearing gloves. Internet and mail orders decreased as numerous consumers imagined anthrax laced packages arriving at their front doors. People opted to stay home instead of patronizing restaurants, stores and other public areas for fear of anthrax. The economy, already in a recession and reeling from the attack on September 11th, further weakened. The government’s tactics created more fear and furthered the recession. Their propaganda of choice was not the best for maintaining McWorld’s support during this war. They would have been better served with persuasive tactics with overt visual messages akin to those of the Peking Revolutionary Opera. A society of visually oriented consumers deserves, better yet requires, visually oriented consumer based propaganda. Commercials, billboards and magazine advertisements with celebrity endorsements with tie-in items such as clothing and toys would feed into this mindless consumerism we call McWorld. I am suggesting that we have McWorld create McWar.

McWorld is the consumer society in which we live. Within its confines, the consumer has many choices. One would think the consumer have a choice whether to buy or not, but in actuality, McWorld only asks the consumer which item they’d like to purchase. McWorld’s sole purpose is creating profits. Usually, this goal is reached by monopolies, which Barber defines as “a polite word for uniformity and virtual censorship but as a consequence of … the quest for a single product that can be sold to every living soul.” (Barber 137-138) Typically, they sell the same product to every living creature, in hopes of increasing their financial standing without regard for the homogenous society this generates.

McWorld’s hold over the American public is cemented by the images it generates. As we have moved from oral to visual cues its power has increased dramatically. Over the last century, as our forms of communication became more visual, news and advertising have risen in standing and changed our perceptions of the world. We once transmitted news orally until printing became inexpensive enough to generate newspapers and books for the masses. With the invention of the photographs, words could hardly compete with the perceived truth of the scenes they captured.

“The new imagery, with photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a supplement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality.” (Postman 74)


Pictures served not to enhance but replace our use of words to understand our environment and its messages. With the invention of television, we moved further from using words to understand our surroundings. Since television processes images and information faster than human emotions can handle, our society became inundated and overloaded with images. Consequently, we have become increasingly visually oriented – preferring pictures to word – and increasingly susceptible to images in the news and advertisements. Hence, the link between McWorld and the consumer mind solidifies.

Each image we see, whether positive or negative, affects us. According to studies by Reeves and Naas, experiences before a negative event are not remembered as well as events following. Therefore, events prior to the planes crashing into the towers on September 11 would not have the same weight in our minds as those events following. We essentially discard the less violent images. Viewing violent scenes arouses our senses. The intensity of the event is maintained with each replay. The increased level of arousal caused makes people “flee better, fight harder or act more quickly”. In the Reeves and Naas study, when people viewed gory images in the news, they remembered visual images, not spoken words. Their arousal levels increased and ideas of retaliation seemed reasonable and immediately necessary.

The news media is fully aware of the effect of their actions. They count on the fact that “[television’s] rapid-fire images help to create a[n]…atmosphere that puts viewers into high-alpha dreamlike state that blocks out almost all thought.”(Roach 11). They knew if we witnessed the repeated destruction of the towers and we would almost blindly rally behind the government’s cry for retaliation. Simply put - manipulation of the masses gets dressed up as public information. Within the week following the attacks, the American public, whipped into an emotional frenzy, was in support of military action.

This contrasts with the approach of Mao Tse Tung. He gained the support of the masses presented military actions beautifully, almost surgically, through the theater. During the Japanese occupation, China needed unification physically and ideologically, to support a potentially long military campaign. For this reason, Mao began the “reportage plays” in 1931. They were used to “arouse patriotism against a foreign aggressor and enemy”. Traveling theater companies performed plays in villages across China spreading patriotic messages to the largely poor and illiterate masses. As television was not a luxury the average citizen could afford, the plays could reach everyone.Mackerras finds this approach “highly practical and utilitarian…[Mao] was dealing with a numerically gigantic people steeped in tradition whom he planned to haul towards progress.”(149) They allowed Mao to reach a large group with the same message and touch them in a way words could not. Also, by making military action a part of entertainment, the reality of war seemed less daunting. The public was soothed into accepting war as a part of life through the theater. Like television, the plays were “direct, to the point and easy to understand.”(Mackerass 154)

Mao believed art and politics had to be united to bring political ideologies to all classes. During the talks at Yanan in 1942, he said, “There is in fact no such thing as art for arts sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics.”(Melvin D1) This belief fueled the creation of the PRO to solidify the government’s hold on the Chinese people and renew their patriotism and fervor for military action. Mao’s wife, Madame Mao, devised an option to guarantee a captive audience ripe for ideological inundation. She banned all performing arts and other operas during the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-1976. She then filled every opera with anesthetized propaganda. Ballerinas, en pointe toting machine guns triumphed over evil repeatedly – all the while smiling as if war were the proverbial “piece of cake.” However, as in all propagandist campaigns, eventually, the rhetoric wore thin and the public support waned. We have seen a similar situation in post-attack America as the semiotics and propaganda used by the American government have negative effects on the nation.

Semiotics is the study of socially accepted meanings of signs and symbols. These signs and symbols help us understand our reality. They shape our perceptions. They can include words, slogans, pictures, gestures, traffic signs, dress codes and colors. Even lighting and angles of camera shots send us certain signals. For example, we believe a person wearing a suit and tie to be formally dressed as society calls that particular clothing combination formal. This sign evolves into a myth if the suit has a brand name on the label such as “Armani” which is associated with thoughts of expense and luxury. The idea of luxury now overpowers the original meaning of the suit. Signs become myths when their attached social and political connotations overtake their denotations (Bignell 22). The distorted meaning creates the illusion of an undeniably true message that can only be read one way instead of it being one possibility. The presented truths appear to be natural, almost common sense. All socio-political groups propagate myths. They are effective politically as they help perpetuate ideologies, or perceptions of reality and society followed by a group, which assume apparent truth of some ideas and bias of others. Ideologies change with societies’ economic and political powers. Myths help ideologies giving them a natural appearance. Both are communicated to the public, either overtly as in China or covertly in post-attack America, through propaganda.

Propaganda is communication with the intent of swaying opinion, whether overtly or covertly, to support an ideology. “The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as leadership, so they will share death and share life without fear or danger.” (Tzu 43) But before the public complies with propaganda, there must be motivation (Sandor 129) most effectively created by “individual compliance”(quoted Sandor 129) or behaviors people are persuaded or otherwise prevailed upon to perform. “Public participation creates popular support which is always important to the outcome of war.”(Sandor 128) According to Abby Sandor, two key elements create this participation: symbolic displays of support for government ideology and widespread use of audience inclusive rhetoric in public communication (129). Both the media since September 11 and the Peking Revolutionary Opera (PRO) use induced compliance through public participation. In America, since September 11, the flag pins, flags in commercials and other broadcasts and slick slogans characterizing each phase of the initial destruction, potential chemical warfare and war offer ample opportunities for public participation. In China, images of the red sun, the Chinese flag, slogans and banners and propaganda-filled operas created public participation.

“Propaganda has always been a part of war.”(Hiebert 318) Though tactics have evolved, this idea remains true. In Communist China, the PRO presented the propaganda through the theater. Since September 11, images of patriotism, destruction and new heroes have covered the news media and advertisements. The government recognized the public’s need for retribution and used controlled images and other visual cues to heighten those to control the people.

The Peking Revolutionary Opera is a form of non-illusionist theater filled with repeated violent images of communists winning every battle. Non-illusionist theater is most effective with homogeneous audiences who comprehend the meanings of the theater’s semiotics. In all kinds of theater, there are various visual elements usually agreed upon and understood within a particular culture that affect how events are deciphered. Characters, lighting, colors, symbols, and printed slogans are among them.

The Peking Revolutionary Opera broke away from traditional Chinese visual signs and symbols in order to appeal to the greater population while feeding them Maoist ideology. Characters were the most important part of the plays. Madame Mao believed,

“We must work hard to create worker/peasant/soldier heroic characters. That is the basic task of socialist literature and art. Only with this type of mode and with successful experience in this area will we be persuasive, able to consolidate our hold on this front.” (Mackerass 150)

Certain roles, known as the three prominences, were crucial to the operas. Positive, heroic, and main heroic characters received the most important positions. Main heroic characters held almost superhuman status. They carried the drama’s meaning. Both “positive and heroic characters were generally portrayed without any human blemishes.”(Tubingen 102) Positive characters stand tall and straight while negative ones slouch. Ballerinas standing en pointe with machine guns in their hands flitted across the stage. They represented strong heroic women fighting for their rights. Negative characters brought other elements to the operas. Negative characters were always the enemies – usually Japanese or Nationalist spies. They created the conflict, which the positive characters resolved to defeat them and end each play on a triumphant note.

In the American news media, characters also exist. Heroes are born in tragedies such as the September 11th attack. Aldous Huxley says in the Brave New World :

“Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for and defended – there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. “ (237)

As the photos of lost firemen and policemen continued to pour in with television interviews of survivors and family members of the deceased, America redefined the meaning of hero. Policemen, firemen and emergency medical services personnel became recognizable as our symbol of courage and strength. Their uniform was their costume. I have witnessed people applauding firefighters and police personnel on the street since the attack. Many local restaurants offered free meals or other discounts to the new heroes. And as in the PRO, our heroes appear superhuman. By surviving the September 11 attack and working extended shifts to recover any remaining bodies, they increased their standing in the eyes of the public.

News reporters present another type of character important to note in the analysis of post-attack America. Their style of dress is typically formal. “Men wear suits and women wear business clothes…News presenters are thus coded as professional, serious, and authoritative.” (Bignell 113) The chosen style is to portray their seriousness about delivering the news objectively and professionally. Jonathan Bignell reports that these meanings are further supported by the impersonal language and lack of gestures used by newscasters. “They cultivate a smooth delivery and try to convey an impression of detachment that places them above the rough and tumble of their subject matter.” (Parenti 122). They want us to trust them. In White Noise, Don Delillo best describes the feeling reporters attempt to evoke:

“The reporter…spoke clearly and strongly and yet with some degree of intimacy, conveying a sense of frequent contact with his audience, of shared interests and mutual trust….He made it sound like a lover’s promise. “ (222)

Immediately following the attack, some journalists wore American flag pins on the air. “Open displays of patriotism go against traditional US journalistic standards of maintaining visible neutrality or objectivity when covering a story”(Jensen A28) This breech of accepted standards clued the public in to the seriousness of the attack. The lighting of an image or staged production gives other signs to the viewer.

In the PRO, lighting usually indicated the character’s disposition. Positive characters have scenes in bright lights to signify daytime. Negative characters are more active at night or in shadows or caves – in dimmer light. If negative and positive characters exist on the stage simultaneously, the positive characters have the spotlight on them.

In news media and advertising, lighting plays a significant role in our understanding of events. Tom O’Dell, Strategic Planner at a pharmaceutical marketing company, says that in most advertisements and programs, darker lighting implies a negative element, disease, dirt, etc. Brighter light usually directs our attention to the solution, the product being sold.

Colors used in the model operas offered great character insight. Bright colored costumes and props were reserved for positive characters. They often dressed in the clothing of the working class – giving the viewer a hero with which they could identify. Bright green and an extremely bright red hues represent “flourishing vegetation of late spring and summer,” (Drama 124) and are only used on positive characters. Red also signifies courage, loyalty, fire and the political ideology of Maoism. Red flags with communist slogans stood in back of many scenes. Negative characters, such as bandits, never wore red. Bandits could wear somber, earthy hues such as: dark green, dark blue and black. The media uses colors similarly.

In the media, colors have certain meanings. Black and white or monochrome images can symbolize reality (as in a newspaper) or a negative situation if juxtaposed with a color image. Red creates alarm and panic. People think of blood and sirens when they see red – things that are often cause for alarm. Bignell says, some shades of blues, green and gray are typically seen as cold and uncomfortable as in police dramas. But, other shades of blue and green can be calming and bring tranquility to the viewer. Deeper shades can be associated with nature or water. White symbolizes purity. In the past, Cover Girl magazine used white in on all their covers to portray a clean image. Yellow and brown usually connote warmth and comfort. According to Tom O’Dell, yellow brings happiness and the sun to mind. Most people equate it with good feelings.

In the PRO, the sun figured prominently in most operas. It is a traditional and positive symbol. It is the “hegemonic symbol for yang, the source of all brightness and light in the universe [and] a designation for the emperor.”(Drama 126) In the 1950’s, it became representative of Mao and Maoism. It also signified the element fire. Fire is “the anger and passion of the oppressed classes and their fervent desire for revenge.”(Drama 127) Fire is ascendant which calls to mind positive characters, enlightenment or spiritual liberation. Oppression by bandits is shown through ice and water. Pine trees are symbols of ascendancy and moral rectitude. Thin weak trees are descendant. Mountains are also ascendant and sacred.

The most sacred symbol since the attack has been the American flag. Within days after the events of Sept. 11, many citizens had flags outside their homes, on their lapels and their cars to show their support of America. Numerous offices and restaurants have flags hanging from doors and windows. Many advertisements have patriotic ribbons and images of flags in or behind corporate logs or replacing them altogether for a short period. These flags give the public an opportunity for public participation. In the Gulf War, the wearing or display of the yellow ribbon showed public participation. It symbolized support for the soldiers, not the war. The ribbons and the flags serve the same purpose, to unite the American public.

“We have become a nation unable to think except by meals of slogans.” (Berman 54) In Media Semiotics, Jonathan Bignell states that the title sequence, or slogan, “establishes the mythic status of news as significant and authoritative, while simultaneously giving each channel’s news programmes a recognizable ‘brand image’ which differentiates it from its competitors.”(Bignell 116) For September 11 and the days following, most networks created variations of the title: America under Attack. The other popular choice was Attack on America. Always 3 lines of text arranged vertically, usually with America on top – as the victor. The first few days there were dark colors and even dark lighting on the slogans. As we assessed the damage and started the recovery efforts, the colors changed to blue, red, and white – symbolizing triumph. The words spoken in the PRO were continuous streams of propagandist slogans and ideas. Communist slogans faced the audience throughout the play.

Slogans are key elements in advertisements. It’s the line you remember after seeing the ad. Many of us remember “Just do it,” Nike’s popular ad campaign. Others may know “Where’s the beef?” Wendy’s ad campaign from the early 1990’s. In any case, most people know at least one ad slogan. In an advertisement, life is repackaged and sold to us from a new angle. Everything from the mundane to the conceptual can be sold to the public through an advertisement. Household bleach gains a personality, perhaps even speaks. Fabric softener has talking teddy bears telling us about its goodness but showing us the softness and fluffiness of the bear as if to imply the product did it. The Army sells us on the concept of being “all that we can be”, we buy into it and enrollment increases.

News media and advertising offer particularly effective forms of propaganda. In America, we believe the news media offers us an objective view of situations and events. However, that is not the case. Being integral parts of McWorld, their goal is to create profits. All of the visual elements are used to catch and entertain us long enough for us to buy the magazine or watch the show in order to increase profits from advertising. Television news, newspapers and news magazine profit from advertisements. Advertisers expect consumers to stay tuned long enough to see or read about their product or service. If the news is not interesting enough, we don’t watch it and consequently, we miss the ads. Therefore the news can never be truly unbiased or completely revealing. It is always linked to the need for advertising dollars.

“TV stations that concentrate most on violent and sensational news get the highest ratings and, thus, the highest profits. Wars, too, always make a lot of money for the mass media.” (Hiebert 12)

We receive news but we only receive those pieces of information that the media deems acceptable for our consumption. “News is no longer the information that people need; it is now the information that news executives believe that people want.” (Hiebert 12) This is especially true during war when public support is most needed by the government. Immediately following the attack on America, Condoleeza Rice, sent message to all stations asking them to submit images to her prior to airing them. The Army and Marines use ads to boost recruiting. Dairy farmers employ it to sell us on the idea of drinking milk and eating cheese. The government currently uses Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive, to create propagandist advertisements for the Middle East in an effort to convince them to like Americans.

Tom O’Dell, Strategic Planner equates advertising with propaganda. He uses focus groups to gauge feelings and opinions on products to help manufacturers choose the perfect logo and the most effective advertisements to win consumer’s dollars. In essence, he is the ear of McWorld. He hears our needs, communicates them to companies and helps them sell us as much as our wallets can handle.

The American government would benefit from using some of the PRO’s approach to propaganda. America, land of consumers, requires a propaganda campaign more in line with its way of thinking.

McWorld sells us products through celebrity endorsements. War can be packaged similarly. Imagine, Britney Spears in fatigues drinking a glass of milk. The caption reads: Got War? It continues with a few catchy lines on the benefits of war and how we should support our government. Did I mention that Britney is wearing a designer outfit of fatigues with matching accessories? Also, the Britney fatigue dolls look amazingly like her. All are on sale at a Kmart near you.

Not only does this tactic grab the attention of a young reader, it brings a new, lighter element to war. Which is necessary to continue propaganda over a long period of time as in Communist China. The celebrity should change periodically to draw in a new crowd of believers.

The second tactic would be to pick one or even several particularly stunning, military personnel, police or firefighters and use them in advertisements. Create a calendar of the sexiest firemen or women. Use the chosen police persons in pro-war ads. Picture a military person in fatigues holding a machine gun, the tag line reads “This is war. This is your country at war. Any questions?”

Using the elements of McWorld, celebrity endorsements, clothing and toy tie ins and advertisements can create a more effective, innocuous campaign. This allows the citizen to view war as a part of everyday life, not a tragic event to be feared. It anesthetizes war for the public.

Also, it can bring revenue for the government whose current tactics are “creating a sense of panic that [run] counter to efforts to get Americans to resume their normal lives.” (Mitchell, A14) The clothing and toy lines can generate profits for the store selling them and the government. Why think about shooting when you can think about shopping?


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