Semiotic Perspective of Individual Cultural Identity


Abstract: This article is an analysis of individual cultural identity in semiotic perspective. Discussions are around how cultural symbols and cultural stories have impacts on individual identity. It is also discussed under contemporary context, including how modern media affect the communication of cultural symbols and stories, their effects on cultural identity and how science and technology change the formation of individual identity.



Cultural identity is an important topic in the field of sociology, politics, religions, cultural studies, public psychology, and many others. Although more or less different from each other, the definition of cultural identity usually covers the characteristic of the individual and the whole culturally identical group he lives in. Many fruitful researches have been done about how cultural identity is established and how it affects people’s activities in a community from different angles (Korte, 2007), including comparative culture studying, political, social psychological and others. Here in this article, I would use some semiotic concepts and theories to discuss the construction of cultural identity.


【1】Identity from cultural symbols and stories

When biologists Francis Crick and James Watson first decoded the correct double-helix model of DNA in 1953, they might not anticipate what unprecedented change it brought about, in the way people viewed the nature and the whole universe. In following decades, DNA researches have turned into thousands of applications in both academic field and people’s daily life. Recently, a company called 23andme, whose slogan says “we are reinventing the way you see your ancestry—through science”, starts quite a welcoming business. Through lab analysis of the saliva sample, clients can get a report telling their family history, ancestry’s timeline and trajectory, and “DNA relatives” from the genetic data contained in their DNA.

Looks like just a fancy, high-tech business.

However, it’s way more than that. Science, here to be exact the biology, offers human beings consciousness, and even rights, to build identity by their own, instead of accepting unconsciously what is said and authorized by others. This technology, along with other modern methods, is so remarkable that it can reform the way people form their identity, which hasn’t changed for thousands of years since the beginning of human civilization.

In contrast, before such “high-tech” stuff occur, people define themselves, and the group they stay in, by collective memory.

This is definitely not a new concept. First theorized and investigated by French scholar Halbwachs (Halbwachs, 1958), collective memory has been a phrase commonly referred in social and cultural studies. Generally, based on the fact that humans are social beings, collective memory is defined as a mechanism, by which a group of people acquire some certain mutual views, melted and remolded every time passed to the following generation. The mutual views here include ideology, sense of value, lifestyle and so many other basic aspects of the foundation of a community, and identity of each individual is one of the most vital components.


Then, traditionally, what is meant, or what is covered under, by saying identity?

First, every identity originates from some cultural symbols. For example, the Chinese nation regards itself as “descendants of Dragon” for a long history, an animal usually featured as a long nimble body, countless feet, horns on the head, and fierce lion-like faces. Clearly, dragon doesn’t exist physically in ancient China, or any corner of the nature, but comes totally from imagination. People picture it so vividly, and everyone else bathing in the same culture also buy it and never feel that it makes no sense.

Because such dragon is a culture symbol. Every component of the dragon’s appearance maps to, thus standing for, an existed meaningful concept already accepted by members in the same culture. Therefore, as the creature with mixed appearance, dragon functions as a symbol of many good qualities people value in their culture – lion’s bravery, snake’s swiftness, horn-y animal’s strength. More than the combination of all its components, it also becomes a spirit vehicle, dropping old and carrying new meanings with the time changing. When the empire values Taoism (a traditional philosophy of “doing nothing” in life and less control over citizens in politics), dragon can even be interpreted and appreciated as a symbol staying far away secular struggles, keeping a detached state of mind all the time, and its fierce side will no longer be emphasized. As a result, people living in different times of ancient China may even hold different images of dragon — “what does it mean” in turn reshapes “how does it look like”.

In this way, the mythical, weird-looking animal dragon is constructed into a cultural symbol through efforts by generations of people. A very small group of them contribute in, with all kinds of purposes, updating and spreading the meaning carried by this icon (and its matching written character as long as the writing system was invented), and more people just attend unconsciously in the process of acknowledging, memorizing, then passing on such meanings and their container, namely cultural symbols.

Besides dragon, porcelain, tea, Chinese knit, bamboo, plum blossom, dumplings and many others are all cultural symbols holding its unique meanings and qualities. Being moral, being modest, being exquisite, staying harmony, staying united with your family – these are what such objects eventually imply as a result of long-term mutual construction. Accumulated and recognized by different generations, such objects are then abstracted into symbols, leaving behind pragmatic or maybe aesthetic functions.

This process assists to establish the identity of each individual under the same cultural context. People visualize qualities they value through such symbols and externalize the ideal state implied by the whole group of people in a certain era. These symbols then serve as reminders and spirit models for the young generations, as well as unvoiced answers to questions like “what kind of people we should be like”.

To some extent, such process builds a portion of cultural identity. Identity can’t be only in the form of abstract concepts, or it will be hard to express or last long enough. Instead, identity requires some tangible and flexible vehicles, so people can easily understand and remember, also remove or add contents in accord with the historic context. When Chinese people say they are “descendants of dragon”, they are using all good qualities constructed on this fiction animal from former history, to annotate, also concentrate the explanation about who they are. Cultural symbols play an important role in people’s cultural identity.


Besides cultural symbols, cultural stories are another source of identity.

From myths of ancestor’s origin to heroic legends, almost all nations have own stories as validation of their unique greatness. These stories usually come from oral rhythms or songs, refined and processed through a long history until the invention of writing system, then carved on tablets or written on paper.

However, it’s not the end. In early 20th century, researches of Chinese ancient myths uncovered how nation’s early stories were “accumulated. (Gu, 1926, P80). In terms of ancient Chinese records, researches pointed out that the later the record was, the earlier the story was said to happen, as well as the greater and more detailed the plot was.

Similar as, if not more than, cultural symbols, cultural stories are also constructed and memorized among a continued cultural community. The relationship between cultural symbols and cultural stories are not simply affiliated. Sometimes cultural symbols will occur in stories, as critical bricks accumulating into blocks with all bunches of meanings already accumulated on themselves. While sometimes, stories also generate symbols, by concentrating the context and content into simple visualized elements.

Under the same cultural context, stories about early legends usually have common elements. Ancient Chinese great figures are always conceived when a young girl meet a mythical animal, and then born with surroundings of thunders and lightings in the sky or flames in the house. Such common elements, plots and ways of narratives in cultural stories form a unique pattern, which people in the same cultural community will follow when generating new “legend stories” with all kinds of purposes.

As cultural symbols do, such patterns of cultural stories function as tangible and flexible vehicles, yet carrying collective meanings in a combined group and multiple levels. Thunders and lightings imply the philosophic theory of numinous association between the “heaven” and the world. Flame is a sign of the “fire element”, one of the five that claimed as ingredients of everything in the universe.  As a result, such cultural stories and their patterns delineate the frame of people’s views of external world and views of their own positions in this world. Cultural identity is shaped when people start to answer the questions like “where does our world come from”, or “where are we come from”. Identity comes clearer in the process of repeating and enriching stories.

Only very few number of cultural stories can be passed on through history, but patterns of stories usually survive. People use similar patterns to carry stories, refine them by features and values of a specific era, with the ultimate aim to convince themselves and following generations of who they are.

Furthermore, in cultural stories there’re usually enemies. Most heroic behaviors are about killing Others, and the origin of a community comes with a glorious victory over an opposed group. Not to mention that the pattern of cultural stories makes it especially easy to fill in any enemies necessary for the reality. In this way, people who share the same cultural stories will have a clear sense of who they are not, besides who they are. Cultural stories then help establish identity by excluding others.

Given that above, when we say identity, cultural symbols and cultural stories are two implications cannot be avoided. They are both constructed. All people in the same cultural context attend in this process. In symbols and stories, they render, thus visualize, values and traditions of their times and nation. People take symbols and stories as the extended storage of answers to questions like “who we are”, “who we are not”, or “what kind of people we should be like”. Cultural stories also have an important function as excluding Others. Consequently, identity is shaped in contents of symbols and stories and the process of constructing contents, and then passed on generation to generation.

All these compose collective memories.


【2】 identity from modern media and new methods

Back to that fancy “23andme” we mentioned in the very beginning. This technology is so unprecedented because it subverts the tradition way how people get their cultural identity. That long-term construction walks away, instead the genetic data, which is absolutely concrete, objective and unchangeable, takes over the authority to exclusively explain all questions about who you are and how does your family come to this place. Identity here is obtained from a new, modern, “high-tech” source. Humans, as social beings since the first day of civilization, never have such an experience that their positions in this world, in this space-time, have already lied in their own body, and no greater one else is required to tell them the whole story.

It doesn’t mean that all cultural symbols and cultural stories don’t make sense any more. They still carry values and the traditions, show mutual interests and beliefs of a group of people, but have less functions than ever on shaping and explaining people’s identity by limiting them in this frame. Collective memory requires great efforts and exclusive faith, but now there’re more options.

Identity find a more tangible and flexible vehicle in our times. Evolution theory explains how you come here, heredity explains why you are like this and what you can probably be like in the future, anatomy and neuroscience explains how do you physically and mentally function, and all these lead to a reasonable, objective, structurally complicated yet logically simple result. These modern methods not only offer new contents, but the fact that identity can come from other ways.


Besides modern scientific methods, modern media also contribute in changing people’s way to think of themselves.

Originally proposed by Shannon in middle 20th century, information theory studies the process of information being communicated through electrical channel. One fundamental topic is random lossy data during the communication. The theory claims that redundancy is required when encoding the original data to achieve more accurate outcome. When information like cultural symbols and stories are communicated in today’s context of globalization, it also experiences such a process of encoding, decoding, and data losing.

With the help of modern media, it’s much easier to convey cultural symbols and it happens more often than ever. Symbols, as an association of the icon pattern (sometimes also the sound or even taste pattern) with meanings constructed onto, usually more or less inversely de-associate during such process of communication. It is imaginable, since context and the long history of collective memories related to certain cultural symbol are more or less lost when communicated. For example, dragon, the honorable symbol for people in Chinese culture, once raises controversy when touched by other cultures for its fierce icon. Misinterpretations happen when symbols conveyed to a group of people don’t have collective memories, at the same time contexts are also lost, about constructed meanings and the process of constructing.

Modern media enables communication happen extremely fast and often, which makes it also common that symbols are just left as icons yet contexts are not accurate or not enough, so the process of correctly representing meanings is hard to realize. As a result, new contents pop into those incomplete symbols, then new connections are built between the same icon and not exactly the same meanings. The new contents popping into usually rely on exited cultural symbols among the group of people on the receiving side of this communication. Besides the ancient Chinese symbol dragon’s fierce icon, ominous and brutal meanings constructed on this icon in western culture are also the reason for its misreading. It is common that such existed contents pop into the incomplete symbol, joining its icon, lead to an unexpected interpretation.

Therefore, cultural symbols leave others a different impression way from original contents. With frequent communications following, such difference is sent back, building another level on that misinterpreted symbol among its original cultural community. “How others think of us” then reflects upon “how we think of us”. “Negative” impression of the dragon leads to a further clarification or exclusion— “it doesn’t mean……it should be……”—or emphasis on certain values constructed in the past but missed in the process of communication— “in fact, we people are like……”.

In this sense, incomplete communication and misinterpretation cause a reflection on individual cultural identity. In addition, the globalization and gradually frequent cross-culture contacts in the past few centuries also smashed down the sense of “uniqueness” of the self culture. People realized (might quite unwillingly) that its symbols, its stories, were no longer the only orthodox in the universe. In other cultures, the symbol Dragon experienced another way of construction, which valued different things, told stories in completely different patterns and narratives.

It should be emphasized that such decentralization happens by various means, and the conflict in cultural symbols and stories is only one of them. As a result, collective memories on certain symbols may be forced to narrow down, focusing on something more specific and special. For instance, by emphasizing the Green tea, ancient Chinese intellectuals reinforced their identity as being in a civilized, ethical and knowledgeable class, which was traditionally obtained through just the “tea” symbol yet blurred for the popularity and traditions of Black tea in other cultures became known on ancient Chinese land with increasing ocean trades. Such inner-adaption of the cultural symbols’ construction is driven by an unconscious need for unique cultural identity, and certainly in turn has impacts on the way people view themselves.


Modern media contribute in frequent and mass communication of cultural symbols and stories. They not only function as the medium, but sometimes reshape the information flowing through.

In early times, writing system and paper were the main medium to convey cultural symbols. People from outside could investigate the culture, then wrote down the introduction of a certain symbol in their own languages, and record the whole history of how meanings were constructed through generations. As a type of media, books are expected to be formal, knowledgeable, overall and logical when conveying information, in both the content and the way of narratives. So for Others, if they read a book about Dragon, they will very likely to be informed of the context and the process of how meanings are constructed behind this cultural symbol.

But in modern society, more media are designed to be in favor of images, videos or other more visualized forms, which is also preferred by the audience. They are expected to be vivid, impressive, attention-catching, dynamic yet superficial and segmented. Under this circumstance, the result of communication of cultural symbols like Dragon will be different for sure. Through the image-based medium, it’s very likely that the context is incomplete, which is required to fully generate accurate meanings. People watch a lovely icon of dragon on the screen, probably with lines of annotation aside. These are all they have to piece together into the symbol Dragon.

The affordance of different type of medium cause different degrees of the communication of cultural symbols and stories. It isn’t necessarily true that one type of medium does always better than others. But it’s true that the symbol, with an icon and the content constructed onto, is partly lost or changed in this process. Incomplete decoding, over decoding or misinterpretation may also emerge. All these may have effects on cultural identity as discussions before.


【3】 Conclusion

As described, in the long history of human civilization, cultural symbols and cultural stories are closely related to the formation of cultural identity. For one thing, symbols and stories discussed here are both constructed by a group of people sharing the same cultural context. They put qualities and traditions they value in symbols and stories, take them as a reminder and illustration for themselves and others who are identified with the same group, also a visualized model for younger generations to follow. For the other, cultural stories also serve the functions to exclude Others by showing the uniqueness of the self.

All cultural symbols and stories are dynamic. Every generation attends in the process of constructing meanings for the purpose of emphasizing the priority of a certain class, enhancing relationship among members, motivating fights against enemies, etc. All things happening in this long-term, continuing construction compose collective memories of a community.

All these have impacts on individual cultural identity. People identity themselves by reinforcing certain qualities and tradition, by answering questions like “who are we”, “where do we come from” or “what we should be like”, also by constructing an imagined community and excluding others.

In modern times, however, things become more complicated. Frequent communications between cultures usually lead to some data loss of cultural symbols and stories. The icon and meanings constructed on the icon are sometimes disconnected or missing, which makes the representing of meanings in the receiving side go beyond original intention. As a result, new meanings may pop into the original icon, combined together as different cultural symbols even though they look similar. Frequent contacts then make people realize their symbols and stories are no longer unique. Also, affordance of different types of modern media will cause different degrees of the communications of cultural symbols and stories.

Modern medium and communications result in changes in cultural symbols and stories, which further result in changes in individual cultural identity. People see their reflections through others’ eyes, reinforce their own identity by clarifying or specifying their original symbols and stories. Of course, some symbols and stories may be disappeared in this process.

What’s more, new options are also provided. Science and technology enable people to view themselves in completely new ways. Identity is no longer obtained from collective memories, but lies stably and objectively in everyone’s body. Cultural symbols and stories are experiencing a new way of construction in modern times.



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