I wanted to conduct a design / thought experiment that would provide perspective on China today, reflect on China’s changing global role and in a small way hold up a mirror to China’s national identity. And to do it in such a way that explored this country’s current and future role in the globalised economy.
The experiment was conducted within the following rules:
Most of this is obvious, but to call out nuances from two of the rules:
That left the decision of what to design and the material to use.
The raw material for this experiment is something that is many foreigner’s first touch points with Chinese culture – the ubiquitous red welcome mat that can be found outside many Chinese restaurants and shops. Most local Chinese wouldn’t consider the red mat to be part of their rich culture – preferring to draw on something with more apparent positive connotations such as literature or music, or more likely adopt something more hi-tech and forward looking – Shanghai’s iconic skyline, bullet trains, an active space programme, scientific exploration in the Arctic, an appreciating yuan, a growing global presence. Conducting interviews in China over the years I’ve had push-back from some for dwelling, even in passing on what they consider to be “old low-tech china” – I hope these people will bear with me now.
Nor would most foreigners consider the red mat as a strong cultural touchpoint. However for many foreigners Chinese food (in most cases – local interpretations of Chinese food), is literally their first taste of ‘Chinese culture’, and the red-mat sitting outside the restaurant is one of the first touch points of that experience. Virtually every community in China has someone selling red mats – made by brands such as 3A, 3G and 8A to name a few. A plain red mat can be yours for 45 RMB (€5, $7) and for between 120 – 420 RMB (< €51, <$66) depending on the complexity you can commission a custom design which is cut, heat pressed or stamped onto the mat. This ubiquitous, low-tech, high volume product has every right to stake its claim as being emblematic of the manufacturing base that has become the foundation of modern China, even if it is now relegated to a bit part.
In the months before initiating this experiment – time was spent exploring the red mat material, commissioning custom designs, including visits to mat customisation workshops. Through continued proximity to the material, the iconic yellow embossed into red sponge the idea of what to design took shape: a Chinese national flag.
There are few symbols of national identity more recognisable and loaded with meaning than a nation’s flag – with highly established rules and rituals around their use. They are raised on poles, saluted to, waved by crowds, draped over coffins, hung from doorways and when the occasion demands become a focal point around which to gather – as with the photo below from a pro-secular rally in Istanbul the crowd hold the edges of a massive Turkish flag.
Working on or with a symbol of a nation heightens the need for sensitivity. For a foreigner working with the national symbol of another country this applies doubly so. This is not new territory, in my professional life work, social travel and field studies force similar decisions around local norms from something as notionally simple as making the most appropriate greeting, whether to remove shoes on arrival in the home; to understanding when to respect local authority figures and when to challenge them. Whilst most people instinctively follow or are blind to these nuances, for someone attuned to local sensitivities a visit to a foreign country can bubble up hundreds of these choices. Working on another nation’s flag would bring issues of respect or otherwise for another culture into clear focus.
For something so ubiquitous it is not surprising to find more personal, trivial or flippant use of the national flag whether its animated QQ icons; embroidered flags; celebrations of China’s 60th anniversary; promotional food; NBA stars raising their local profile; or head-wear – the list goes on. To put the issue of a foreigner handling of national symbols into perspective – China is probably the world’s largest exporter of other nation’s national flags adorning pretty much anything that is adornable.
The tension between the form of the mat and our pre-conceived notions of its function creates a cognitive dissonance – the otherwise unconscious act of walking on a mat is checked by our ingrained behaviours around respect for the authority of a symbol of national identity. Taking one step back: most objects around us don’t consciously register and for good reason – if they did we would spend our entire time assessing and reassessing their impact on our current context. Is it dangerous? Is it useful? Will it break? Whom does it belong to? Where can I buy it? To maintain a constant awareness with everything would be like opening a door into new exotic curios shop, every second of every day. Even the professional observer of everyday life becomes inured to what lies around us.
A flag made from (pristine) pieces of red mat material triggers a pause for thought, challenges us to unlearn what we take for granted.