GAN4 ("Do it!")

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From a long blog post on contemporary Chinese religious art and architecture:

The post contains many other photographs of this monument, some with groups of people standing before it, so it is a real thing.

We know where the monument is:  Dalishucun ("Big Pear Tree Village"), Fengcheng City, Dandong Prefecture, Liaoning Province in China's Northeast (formerly Manchuria).  It is located a hundred miles south of Shenyang and 35 miles northwest of Dandong, not far from the border with North Korea.

This striking red monument, situated on a hillside, is 9.9 meters (30 feet) tall, and can be seen from quite a distance.  The same symbol may be seen on other public constructions in Big Pear Tree Village.  But what does it represent?

Upon first glance, one of my Chinese friends thought that it was a symbol for the Chinese yuan and Japanese yen, ¥, and thus that it was a monument to mammon, a fitting motif for today's China.  But this sculpture lacks the forked prong at the top.

Another friend thought that it was a Cross of Lorraine (French: Croix de Lorraine), the heraldic two-barred cross ☨.  But the vertical member of this sculpture does not protrude above the upper cross bar.

When I showed it to some other, younger Chinese friends, they snickered, confirming my own suspicion that this is none other than the celebrated gàn 干 ("do; f*ck"; it also has many other meanings, including, when read in first tone, "dry"), with which we here at Language Log are thoroughly familiar:

Most recently, we have hearkened to President Xi Jinping's clarion call in his 2017 New Year's Speech for everyone to lū qǐ xiùzǐ jiāyóu gàn 撸起袖子加油 / 擼起袖子加油 ("roll up our sleeves and do it [i.e., work hard]").  See:

The "'gàn' zì wénhuà guǎngchǎng '干'字文化广场 ("'do' character culture square") celebrates local cadre Mao Fengmei 毛丰美 (b. 1949; CCP branch secretary for Big Pear Tree Village) and his lifetime of kǔ gàn 苦干 ("hard work").  Mao exemplifies the spirit of "为民而干" ("'do [it]' for the people") (13,400 ghits).  This is obviously a transformation of the deathless slogan of another Mao, " wèi rénmín fúwù 为人民服务" ("serve the people", more lit., "serve for the people").

Mao Fengmei's watchwords are kǔ gàn 苦干 ("work hard"), shí gàn 实干 ("work steadfastly"), and qiǎo gàn 巧干 ("work ingeniously”).  Relying on this spirit, Mao raised Big Pear Tree Village from poverty to a model of rural prosperity.  The towering gàn 干 ("do it") sculpture is the embodiment of the principles that Mao used to turn Big Pear Tree Village from a backward community to national prominence.  In plainest, simplest terms, I suppose we could say that — with his emphasis on gàn 干 — Mao Fengmei was trying to instill a strong work ethic in his fellow villagers.

For his accomplishments in Big Pear Tree Village, Mao attained sufficient national stature that he was featured in this report on the 2014 national legislative and political advisory sessions, at which he had served as a deputy (lawmaker) since 1993.

Here are more pictures and explanations of the "'gàn' zì wénhuà guǎngchǎng '干'字文化广场 ("'do' character culture square").  One of the photos is of a stele inscription commemorating the villagers' work in establishing an extensive fruit orchard, which generated considerable income for them.  The last sentence reads as follows:

Tāmen yòng hànshuǐ quánshìzhe gàn zì jīngshén de zhēndì

他们用汗水诠释着干字精神的真谛

("They illustrate the true essence of the word 'gan' with their sweat") (English translation on the stele)

Party tours are organized around this giant gàn 干.  Notice in the photograph accompanying this article that the railings around the edges of the spacious square are decorated with countless gàn 干 symbols.

Here's a richly illustrated article on a study trip to the monument by Liaoning Prison Administration cadres.

When I called this gàn 干 monument to the attention of Chinese friends and students who didn't know about it before, their reactions were diverse.  Those who were over about thirty-five years of age, and especially those from Taiwan, mostly thought of this respect shown to gàn 干 as a kind of worship.  In other words, gàn 干 veneration for them is a manifestation of popular religion.  Indeed, the local people around Big Pear Tree Village characterize gàn 干 as " shén 神" ("sacred; divine").

Younger people almost invariably cannot help but think first of the vulgar meaning of gàn 干, so for them it seems very strange to see such a huge statue erected to gàn 干 in such an ostentatious, public fashion.  They cannot help but laugh when they see this gàn 干 sculpture.  Even some older folks (over sixty) also reacted to the monument to gàn 干 with hearty laughter.

There's a third type of reaction which looks upon this monument to gàn 干 as "political propaganda and commemoration of the thirty-years of hard work and the economic development of this village".  This sober, scholarly, socialistic approach yields quite a different interpretation of the gàn 干 monument than the previous two.

Here I will let one of the correspondents (basically in the third category and about thirty years old) expatiate upon what she takes to be the overall aim of the article with which this post begins and in which the gàn 干 monument is featured:

I guess the main point of this article is to criticize the ugly and bizarre designs of much architecture in China. This has become a cultural phenomenon in China nowadays.

The elite aesthetic and artistic canon are different from the taste of the lower social classes in most societies. This is why the temples in the villages look so weird. Popular religious cults often absorb foreign deities and even create new deities based on the existing ones. This is what I learned when I was studying ancient Egyptian religion. Local and household shrines did not quite follow the royal art canon and usually look "awkward".

However, many buildings belonging to the elite look ugly too, such as the landmarks of some large cities. This indicates that the new elite, though they have become very wealthy now, do not have the corresponding elite artistic taste. Possibly the owners of these buildings (i.e., the owners of local corporations) come from lower social classes and never received any elite education.

I think the lack of education in art and humanities in China makes the situation worse. Even the best universities in China, such as Tsinghua, do not offer enough courses on art and humanities, let alone middle and high schools. I really hope things will get better in the future and young people can have opportunities to learn more about art, history, culture, and philosophy, rather than merely science and engineering.

Here's another assessment of the article by someone with a more playful, literary background (in her lower twenties):

I have read the article from the first word to the last, and I like how the writer was seriously talking nonsense! He does have a substantial point about the need to respect Chinese popular culture, even though it seems cheap, low-class, and coarse to some. It has always possessed a cute sense of humor, profound wisdom, and strong attachment to the grassroots life of xiāngtǔ wénhuà 乡土文化 ("local / rural culture") that I personally find so attractive. As for "干",it not only means hard work, but also is an equivalent to an English four-letter word starting with the letter after "e". So, if the 干 monument truly exists, the local government definitely has made itself a tremendous laughing stock.

One last thought, from a comparative perspective.  "Just do it" is a wildly popular meme in contemporary American culture, as in the supposedly inspirational video (of which this is a brief segment) by Shia LaBeouf.  What are the nuances we bring to "do it" in such a context?  Probably nothing like the folks in Big Pear Tree Village.  (Notice that some of his gestures are rather explicit.)

Finally, I have overheard people say "We didn't really do it" (i.e., "we didn't go all the way"), which shows some affinity with the vulgar usage of gàn 干.

Strange, though, that nobody looks upon the gàn 干 monument and thinks "dry" — which is most assuredly a possible reading.

Hail, almighty gàn 干, whatever you may mean for your legions of ardent devotees!

[h.t. Grace Wu; thanks to Sanping Chen, Jichang Lulu, Yixue Yang, Jing Wen, Jinyi Cai, and Chia-hui Lu]



20 Comments »

  1. Brett said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    The peak of "Just do it!" as a meme would have been about a quarter of a century ago, when it was Nike's main slogan.

    [(myl) Indeed — as Wikipedia explains,

    "The slogan was coined in 1988 at an advertising agency meeting. […] The "Just Do It" campaign allowed Nike to further increase its share of the North American domestic sport-shoe business from 18% to 43%, (from $877 million to $9.2 billion in worldwide sales) from 1988 to 1998."

    ]

  2. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 3:16 pm

    Just Do It

    Wikipedia: "In 2015, actor Shia LaBeouf used this phrase in LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner's #INTRODUCTIONS video, which later become an Internet meme." (VHM: bold emphasis added)
    27,977,136 views

    [(myl) …following a few billion Nike-slogan views in the 1990s…]

  3. cameron said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 3:17 pm

    This proto-punk classic was released in 1971: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYDTaAZAQns

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    @cameron

    Thank you very much for Pink Fairies "Do It".

  5. Daniel Barkalow said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 1:32 am

    A giant statue to gān rather than gàn sounds like something out of a challenger introduction on Iron Chef. "So dedicated to the use of dried ingredients that he commissioned a statue to the word 'dry'…"

  6. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 5:10 am

    So now can we have a monument to 撸 lū?

    (It would be more of an engineering challenge, since the 鲁 bit has known structural stability issues in non-zero-gravity environments; but no challenges are unsurmountable under Party leadership. Just putting some magnets wouldn't work (by Earnshaw's theorem). With some creativity and enough funds, you could have a rotating structure, Turkmenbashi-style. Or keep a giant superconducting magnet at the base. Or just go for the traditional form 擼.)

  7. unekdoud said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    Assuming you do want to physically levitate 鲁 piece by piece, you could replace the whole magnets setup with some very strong fans, though I'm not sure you could invisibly supply enough power to "just do it".

    Either way, the levitation might have detrimental effects on those party tours. Best to go for something less lifty.

  8. AntC said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    Let's do it, let's fall in love Cole Porter 1928, is pretty transparently the same birds do it/bees do it, and pre-dates the lot. (Apologies if that got mentioned in one of Victor's earlier posts.)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 9:55 am

    @AntC

    We haven't mentioned the Cole Porter song before, and your bringing it to our attention is much appreciated

  10. Jichang Lulu said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 10:59 am

    Let's do it like they do on CCTV 7!

  11. John Swindle said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

    I thought it was a family name. Like "Fucks", an uncommon variant of the German surname "Fuchs". I don't know if there's a big monument to Fucks, though.

  12. Frank L Chance said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    Another contemporary reference might be "Why Don't We Do It In The Road" from the Beatles White Album. Just another famously ambiguous take, reportedly referring originally to putting on a concert in Abbey Road.
    https://youtu.be/5AdtR-d2HJQ

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 12, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

    Controversy over monumental statue of Guan Yu in Indonesia

    VHM: The statue is 100 feet high and dominates the surroundings. Using Chinese geomantic terminology, it may be said that the statue pòhuài fēngshuǐ 破坏风水 ("destroys the fengshui").

    Questions:

    Is this popular religion? Popular culture? Confucianism? Will the Muslims blow it up the they did the Bamiyan Buddhas? Is Guan Yu a man (a historical personage)? A god? A character in a novel?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_Yu

    The following articles have photographs of the offending monumental statue of Guan Yu in Tuban, East Java, Indonesia and examples of large statues of Guan Yu in China.

    "In Indonesia, Chinese Deity Is Covered in Sheet After Muslims Protest"

    By RUSSELL GOLDMAN | AUG. 10, 2017

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/10/world/asia/indonesia-chinese-statue-islam-muslims-protest-guan-yu.html

    "Giant statue of Chinese god covered up with sheet in Indonesia after upsetting local Muslims"

    by Alex Linder in News on Aug 11, 2017 9:30 am

    http://shanghaiist.com/2017/08/11/guan-yu-covered-indonesia.php

    "Statue of Chinese god Guan Yu stokes tension in Indonesia"

    Aug 11, 2017, 7:04 pm SGT

    http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/statue-of-chinese-god-guan-yu-stokes-tension-in-indonesia

    "Chinese god statue controversy shows cultural conflicts"

    By Liu Lulu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/9 23:23:40

    http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1060552.shtml

    A statue of a Chinese god at the Kwan Seng Bio temple in Tuban, Indonesia's East Java, has sparked huge controversies in the country recently. Dozens of people, mostly Muslims, rallied in Surabaya demanding the statue of Guan Yu be demolished less than a month after the statue – reportedly the tallest effigy in Southeast Asia at 30 meters high – was unveiled in mid-July. Protesters believe that this Chinese warrior god made no contribution to Indonesia's establishment and thus cannot reflect the country's culture. The statue is even regarded by some radicals as an insult to Indonesia….

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

    From Jean Debernardi:

    An Australian scholar gave an interesting paper on monumental statues in Asia at a conference that I attended maybe ten or fifteen years ago and I'm still trying to remember his name. It's a trend as I'm sure you know, with massive statues in Penang (have you been to Kek Lok Si, where they built a large statue of Kuan Yin in the 1980s that was very controversial?), Hong Kong, and Thailand. As to Guan Gong, he is shen or a saint–the deified spirit of Guan Yu, who may have been a real person but also is a character in Chinese fiction and opera. Prasenjit Duara had a nice discussion of his deification in an 1988 article in JAS on the myth of Guandi. As my landlady in Penang explained it he is the patron saint of business since he protects you from getting 'cut.'

  15. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

    More interesting notes on monumental Chinese statues in Southeast Asia from Jean Debernardi:

    I now recall his name–Mark Askew. The paper on monumentality in Thailand and elsewhere is Asia was published in an edited book called Religious Commodifications in Asia: Marketing Gods, edited by Pattana Kitiarsa and published by Routledge. Our library doesn't seem to have an e-book unfortunately, but it's up at least partially in Google books.

    Actually the story behind the Guanyin statue in Penang is interesting. In the 1970s the Penang government appropriated a Chinese school for land to build a new state mosque that some believed would damage Chinese fengshui. Not long after, the Chinese Buddhist community raised funds to build the statue of Guanyin. Whenever people described it, they always mentioned that the new statue would be taller than the state mosque. The government got wind of this and forced them to shorten it so that it was not taller than the mosque. Since they had already started building it, their only option was to remove part of the planned structure, so Guanyin did not have a neck. The statue began to deteriorate, people thought because of the way they'd been forced to modify it, and was replaced about ten or fifteen years ago with a bronze statue. I'm quite sure that the new statue is taller than the state mosque, but there are so many tall buildings in Penang now, maybe nobody noticed….

  16. Victor Mair said,

    August 13, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

    From Justin McDaniel:

    Pattana Kitiarsa’s book is great. He was a great scholar, but sadly passed away from cancer at only 46 years old. I highly recommend it. Marc Askew is a controversial scholar in my field for sure and picks very provocative subjects (which is good!).

    Pattana and I worked together for a long time and my latest book was partly inspired by our time together — Architects of Buddhist Leisure: Socially Disengaged Buddhist Practice in Asia’s Museums, Monuments, and Amusement Parks (Hawaii, 2017) looks at the history of giant statues, public monuments, leisure gardens, museums, etc. in Nepal, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka. There are many projects like the Guan Yin in Penang in Southeast Asia. There was a major controversy about the height of one in Nakorn Pathom a few years ago and in regards to one in Danang. The one in Sendai (Sendai Dai Kannon), which is the third largest statue on earth I believe, was heavily criticized in Japan when it was built because it was seen as a tax scheme and a marketing tool for the owners wedding hall, golf course, and pet cemetery. Indeed, of the top thirty tallest statues in the world, 26 are either Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Of the top ten, only one, the Statue of Peter the Great in Russia (#8) is not Buddhist. The Statue of the Liberty is number 32 on the list. The Spring Temple Vairocana Buddha Statue in Leshan, China, the tallest statue in the world, is 420 feet. There are several that have been abandoned too. Many large Buddhist public museums, parks, and monuments like the Laykyun Setkyar Buddha (Monywa, Burma), the Awaji Kannon in Southern Japan, or the Sanctuary of Truth near Pattaya, Thailand could be considered — in terms of the numbers of visitors, general upkeep and staff support, and the amount of scholarly and artistic interest — failures. The Awaji Kannon, for example, is the twelfth tallest statue in the world. Despite the expense of building a museum inside a statue this large, it is now abandoned.

    Not all giant Buddha images are dying. Others like the Buddhist enlightenment park in Bodhgaya (North India), the Kamakura Daibutsu (near Yokohama, Japan), the Fairy Stream Amusement Park and Buddhist Temple (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) and the Phra Putthamingmongkol Akenakkiri (Phuket, Thailand) receive tens of thousands of visitors every year. The Tian Tan Buddha (Lantau Island, Hong Kong) has a fun cable car that takes thousands of visitors every month to its base.

    I discuss Buddhist ecumenicalism, architectural visions and the compromises of local optima, and Buddhist spectacle culture in the book. Pattana was great at discussing finances and local political pressure.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 7:02 am

    From Jichang Lulu:

    Two monumental Maitreyas are under construction in Ulaanbaatar. The taller one will be located in the outskirts of the city, under the auspices of the Grand Maitreya Project and the Dalai Lama's blessing.

    The second one, about 20 m tall, is a Chinese donation. Specifically, it's a gift from the Yonghe gong 雍和宫 ('Lama Temple') in Beijing to Dashchoilin Дашчойлин བཀྲ་ཤིས་ཆོས་གླིང། monastery in Ulaanbaatar. The Yonghe gong was charged with appointing most Mongolian reincarnate lamas in Qing times, and now again has been given a central role in interactions between PRC entities and Mongolian Buddhism. The statue itself, built in Sichuan, is reportedly finished, but the building that will house it is far from ready.

    I wrote about this second Maitreya as part of Beijing's approach to Mongolian Buddhism here.

    There's a linguistic issue related to the name of the Sichuan-based company the Dashchoilin Maitreya was ordered from (owned by Könchok Tashi དཀོན་མཆོག་བཀྲ་ཤིས། 根秋扎西, a Tibetan artist and entrepreneur). The company's name is Karma Bisha, rendered in Chinese as 噶玛博秀 Gámǎ bóxiù. In the original Tibetan, the name is ཀརྨ་བི་ཤྭ། Kar.ma bi shwa, which seems to be an inversion of Bi shwa kar.ma, the Tibetan transcription of the name of the mythical sculptor (or architect deity) Viśvakarman, the 'All-Maker'. If that is correct, the Chinese name of the company could have been based on attested names for Viśvakarman in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, such as 毗首羯磨 Píshǒujiémó or (as per Hui Lin's expanded Yiqie jing yinyi 一切经音译) 毗湿缚羯磨 Píshīfùjiémó.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 10:41 am

    From Nguyen Ngoc Hung:

    Chinese in Vietnam also worship Guan Kung (Quan Cong): you may need Google Translate to read this.

    http://www.hoangsa.org/f/threads/ngun-gc-v-vic-nguoi-vit-tho-quan-cong.2534/

    Whatever the Chinese community in Vietnam has, the Vietnamese will create their similar idol and Tran Hung Dao, a great army General, similar to Guan Kung) has been deified and worshipped everywhere in Vietnam.

    See: http://www.vanhoaphatgiaovietnam.net/thu-vien/sing/tin-nguong-tho-duc-thanh-tran-hung-dao-611

  19. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

    Having lived through the Nike campaign and having purchased about two dozen pairs of their shoes over the years, I'm as much in awe of the power of the Swoosh as anyone. As an avid jogger, I even paid a respectful visit to the store-museum in Eugene and ran on the idyllic Prefontaine track ("Pre's Trail") at America's mecca for track and field (University of Oregon). But my impression all along has been that "(just) do it" has had a life of its own apart from the Nike slogan.

    That impression was reinforced by several of the comments to this thread documenting "(just) do it" before and after the Nike slogan, which, after all, was inspired by Gary Gilmore's last words on January 17, 1977, around 8:00 a.m.: "Let's do it". He said two more words in Latin just before his execution at 8:07 a.m., "Dominus vobiscum" ("The Lord be with you"), to which the Roman Catholic prison chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Meersman, responded, "Et cum spiritu tuo" ("And with your spirit").

    The surge of "(just) do it" into renewed memedom after the Shia LaBeouf video in 2015 has by no means dissipated. I still hear my students and others say it all the time.

    Out of curiosity, and with the help of Ben Zimmer, I consulted Google Ngrams for "Do it." and "Just do it." — punctuation is tokenized in the Ngrams corpus:

    https://goo.gl/mQeoh6

    Ben observes:

    =====

    …as we've discussed before, the trend graphs are not reliable beyond 2000 because of changes in the composition of the corpus (which only goes through 2008 anyway), so Ngrams won't tell you "to what extent they're still alive" in recent years….

    Google Trends (based on the volume of Google search queries) might be more enlightening for recent usage. In this graph you can see a big spike for "just do it" in mid-2015 when that Shia LaBeouf video came out. It's settled down since then.

    https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=all&q=just%20do%20it

    =====

    Anyway, when in doubt, "(just) do it!"

    P.S.: Not really: that's NOT my personal philosophy.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 17, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    The Chinese "roll up your sleeves" meme has even gotten into New Zealand politics:

    https://twitter.com/RaymondHuo/status/893976052774481920

    http://www.chinanews.com/hr/2017/08-11/8302157.shtml
    ‘霍建强[=Raymond Huo]提出,工党这次的竞选口号是“撸起袖子加油干”。’

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