Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Corporate Identity Metaphor as Constitutive Discourse in Miniature: The Case of New China Life

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Corporate Identity Metaphor as Constitutive Discourse in Miniature: The Case of New China Life

Article excerpt

This essay critically engages the cluster of corporate identity metaphors deployed by the ex-chair of a we insurer based in Beijing to construct the corporate persona, consolidate his personal authority, negotiate ideological tensions, and produce a morphing collective identity for employees of the company to live up to. It lays bare the constitutive, justificatory, and defusing Junctions the metaphors served both individually and as a strategic formation. The essay contributes to the discipline by bringing constitutive rhetoric to bear on the study of metaphor in action. It models a way for consumers of corporate identity metaphors to slip the symbolic trap embedded therein. Incidentally, it also gives a flavor of the symbolic peculiarity of corporate China and questions the serviceability of imagining corporations as mere economic entities.


The Sino-foreign joint venture setting in the financial services sector on the eve of China's accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO) made a fertile ground for examining the potency of metaphor. The suspenseful threshold moment brewed much uncertainty and angst. For all the prediction and control it promised, the proliferating SWOT analysis type of literature did little to redress the collective psychic turmoil. Mythic, ritualistic symbols were needed to enable a collective catharsis. Authors of such symbols were challenged to aim for the invocative, polysemous, and polyvalent. Given its essentially perspectival and ambiguous nature, metaphor stood out as the most serviceable symbolic resource at such a moment.

This essay is a case study. It engages an Enron-grade corporate scandal in the financial services sector in present-day China. It illustrates the potency of the "map" (metaphors) and the fact that oftentimes the "map" is one of the very few things most people can see. The entailment is that people need to develop "metaphor literacy" as equipment for living.

Concretely speaking, the essay foregrounds four corporate identity metaphors--rocket, fast fish, submarine, and wolf--as deployed by Guan Guoliang during his tenure as chair of New China Life Insurance (NCL), allegedly the fourth largest life insurer in China at the time. The essay sees each of the four metaphors as a constitutive discourse in miniature and focuses on how they channeled the corporate energies, massaged the collective pathos, gave soul to the corporate efforts, and, most importantly, how they re-fashioned the corporation and its subjects. That is to say, the essay focuses on the illocutionary force and perlocutionary impact of these metaphors. It treats them as potent forces rather than neutral descriptors or surface ornamentations.

Overall, Guan's corporate identity metaphors worked like manifestoes and directly orchestrated the collective motive of NCL. Their deployment was either well in pace with the company's major economic moves or in tune with the shifting political weather, or both. Together, they coalesced into a strategic symbolic formation. Declaratory in nature, the metaphor cluster enacted a symbolic makeover of the corporate self and ritualistically offered a psychic home for NCL's people. The resonance of Guan's metaphors, however, went well beyond NCL per se. For one thing, they also captured and managed the sense of crisis shared by corporate China in its entirety as international competitors threatened to enter the fray unimpeded. In a subtle way, the metaphors also addressed the peculiar angst felt by ascending private interests in an operational environment defined by change, uncertainty, and extra-commercial risks. As such, they made a rich, profound, and non-substitutable object of study.

The rest of the essay falls into four sections. After presenting the case of NCL and its ex-chair, it then critiques the four salient metaphors the ex-chair deployed as crucial moves in his multi-fold identity game. The third section offers a theoretical analysis. …

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