Transform the Boundaries: Intercultural Communication in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Chen Sheng, Wesleyan College

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Abstract In this research, I intend to reveal the Eastern cultural elements of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, use ideological criticism and intercultural communication theory to analyze the rhetorical meanings of those elements, discover the strategies that Maya Lin used to make Eastern cultural elements appealing to the predominantly Western audience, and discuss the contribution of this research to rhetorical theory.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial attracts and moves many visitors of various backgrounds and with different experiences related to the Vietnam War. The designer of the memorial, Maya Lin, managed to appeal to virtually all audiences through this initially controversial design. A first-generation Chinese American, Lin’s cultural identity became part of the controversy–yet, it also largely contributed to the success of the memorial. Three features of this memorial are identified that make Eastern cultural elements appealing to a Western society: (a) It invites visitors to think through the change of time and space; (b) It reflects the polarization of life and death with subtle connections between the two; (c) It provides space for visitors to mourn as individuals but also focuses on the feelings that they share as a group. Such characteristics enable Eastern culture to be appealing to Western mainstream culture; they also suggest that intercultural communication enriches the meanings of a visual image not only aesthetically but also rhetorically.

I still clearly remember the first time I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. To see this memorial was not part of my original plan–not until I realized that it was in the same area as the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, which I intended to visit. Born, raised, and educated in China, I was not yet ready to see the other side of the Vietnam War. I expected it to be as disturbing as the side of the story that I already knew, and I felt reluctant to rethink about the blood, death, and cruelty involved. But as I walked toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I saw an architecture different from anything that I had imagined–it looked as if a huge Chinese character “人” was written on earth in black ink. This character 人 (rén) means person, people, and human in Chinese. I could feel my heart sink in mourning for the dead as I stood before the simple yet stunning memorial. It is not about glorification of war–instead, it is all about life and humanity.

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