The last word from the East: Chinese whispers

Barney Loehnis
Ogilvy & Mather

Hyperbole is the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device. It may be used to stir passion and create a strong impression, but is not meant to be, though it often is, taken literally. It is easily abused.

Chinese literature such as Journey to the West – especially Communist propaganda – is full of hyperbole; its writers have always used the power of 'big' to evoke emotion and hypnotise its audiences into a zone of suspended reality. There's a quotient of complicity in the audience that wants to believe – a mischievous contract that is abused by clever copywriters.

China's scale and diversity doesn't help curb the extravagance. Often, what appears as hyperbole turns out to be true: grown men really do drive pink Rolls-Royces and golden Lamborghinis; 79 cities have more than five million people; 3,000 pigs were found floating down the river in Shanghai; fish can fall from the sky in coastal villages; and four illegal power stations can remain 'hidden' in Wuhan for a decade – it is forgivable that people believe even the most absurd stories.