The Atlantic has a post by Matt Schiavenza entitled “What’s with the Chinese Communist Party and Slogans” It’s a nice little piece on the vapid sounding slogans that post-Deng Chinese leaders announce to set the tenor of their reigns. Like papal names these are often pretty opaque to outsiders. What Schiavenza does not discuss is that slogans go back way further than 1978. The Maoist period had lots of them, and you still see both the faded Maoist ones and new ones on walls all over China. Slogans (口號) actually go back at least to the Republic. When you look at the reports of Nationalist period conferences they will often have a list of the official slogans that the conference had decided on. Why was this such a big deal? The best place to look for information on this is David Strand’s An Unfinished Republic
Strand it interested in the development of modern forms of political performance, like oratory, after about 1900. Although he does not discuss slogans as such, he does talk about how creating new forms of communication was at a premium in the early 20th century.
In a jumbled, creative, and competitive political culture, spreading the word about women’s rights, setting up shop as a political activist, or trying out the role of orator put a premium on making an immediate visual and vocal impact on potential recruits like the young Mao. The multiplying of vocational, educational, and ideological paths ensured competition. Competition rewarded clarity or urgency of message. A critical resource for all political actors of the period was the capacity to imitate and reproduce images and ideas that sold or persuaded as the means to gain a quick payoff or a first step toward seeding deeper values. Greenblatt, in a literary and historical variation on the theme of social and cultural mimicry, terms this critical ingredient “mimetic capital” As either fashion statement or deep-dyed commitment, ” China” sold once the term was recognizable, and so, perhaps more surprisingly, did “republic,” “rights,” “public speaking,” “male-female equality,”” “chamber of commerce,” “people’s livelihood,” “meeting,” [and] “study society,”…Serious political entrepreneurs like Sun Yat-sen mined world, national, and local culture for a phrase or world picture that might excite or reassure such an impressionable and interested audience(p.166)
So this explains why things like oratory (not part of the Chinese tradition) newspapers, reading rooms, etc became important in China. But why slogans? Part of it may have been that you can’t do a nice bit of calligraphy without a nice pithy phrase to work from. Slogans (sometimes) lend themselves to chanting. Maybe it ties into the tradition of chengyu (4-character classical phrases), or even reign titles. If nobody has written anything about this someone should. Strand’s book is a good place to start, however.