Greatest American Hero: ChinaMan?

30 Jul 2006

No, I’m not talking about that Chinaman. I’m talking about ChinaMan!

So I grew up during the 80’s. I still like some of that cheesey stuff like ewoks and Adventure for Atari 2600. Not long ago I discovered that I could acquire all three seasons of the old TV show “The Greatest American Hero” through the magic of bittorrent. Acquire it I did, and I’ve been getting a real kick out of those old episodes (especially all the parts about fighting the commies). What really surprised me, though, was the logo on the main character’s suit.

Greatest American Hero

The Greatest American Hero

When I first watched the show some twenty years ago, the logo meant nothing to me. Now when I look at it, it very distinctly looks like a stylized Chinese character 中 (meaning “middle” or “China”).

Of course the resemblance is most likely just coincidence, but when I showed the show to a Chinese friend, the question immediately arose: “why does he have a 中 on his chest?” I responded, “yeah, it does look like a 中, doesn’t it? But it’s not.” That got me a, “what are you talking about? It’s a 中!”

So is the Greatest American Hero actually ChinaMan? Or maybe the “aliens” that gave him the superpower suit in the first place were actually just the Chinese?

CBL Bus

Totally not photoshopped

One more weird GAH/China connection: in Episode 1 of Season 2, the hero stops a bus marked “CBL.” CBL also happens to stand for the China Blog List, which, as luck would have it, also uses “中” as its logo. Coincidence??

OK, yes. That one is a coincidence.

But what’s the deal with the Greatest American Hero and 中?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. For people who know some Chinese, it’s difficult to look at that and not think “中”. So much so that one’s ability to perceive it as anything else is severely altered.

    Perhaps the Great American Hero is low wage labor and cheap goods from Wal-Mart to stave off the masses?

  2. You forgot to mention that the clothes were red! I guess the creator of the series must have been an admirer of the revolution! : )

  3. Da Xiangchang Says: July 30, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    I remember watching this show, right around the time a brontosaurous sauntered by my window. That zhong word has been misplaced in a LOT of other Western fiction. The psycho in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon carves it into a bunch of trees, and of course, the first thing the brilliant cops think of is “red dragon” after the mahjong tile!

  4. shuwei,

    Yes, good point! It’s a little ironic for a superhero that’s frequently fighting the commies, too.

  5. Da Xiangchang,

    I think what you’re talking about is a more recent phenomenon, which roughly coincides with Chinese character tattoos and the like. Keep in mind that this series was created around 1980, well before any kind of Chinese character craze. The US was still in the Cold War, so it seems unlikely that the show would borrow from Red China.

    So are you saying you think they purposely borrowed the 中 for the logo?

  6. Da Xiangchang Says: July 30, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    John,

    Naw, I’m just saying it’s ignorance or a coincidence. I think it’s a total coincidence that the character on the suit looks like zhong. In Harris’s case, I think it’s ignorance and not cuz he’s trying to be cool and have a Chinese letter. Red Dragon was published in 1981, though the seriously crappy second movie made from the book came out in 2002.

  7. I am chinese and Immigrated to the US in the early 80s, I realized that the zhong word immediately when watching that show. I asked everyone I know about the zhong word, but no one was able to answer why they put the word zhong on the guys chest. Those were the fun days, other shows enjoy watching at the time was CHIPs Patrol, and T.J. Hooker, and enjoy seeing the beautiful heather lockclear on the screen once in a while.
    ahh…Those were the days!

  8. D’oh! Ryan beats you to “How to spot a Jap.” You beat me to this. I just noticed in the ISRAFGHYIANONANAQ at onegoodmove. I was saving it for this weekend.

    We had a question. What language was the suit’s instruction manual in?

  9. Tony,

    Those were indeed the days! You can find more and more of those shows on bittorrent if you’re nostalgic enough…

  10. Josh,

    The Greatest American Hero was recently featured on One Good Move? That’s funny… I used to read One Good Move regularly, but these past few weeks I’ve been too busy and haven’t kept up. (But I couldn’t find the clip you were referring to on the page you linked to.)

    If it makes you feel any better, I’ve been meaning to write about this for about two months, but I wanted to include a screencap, and it just took me this long to get a lousy screencap.

  11. The language used in the “working book”, Second Season was Hebrew, upside down, and reversed.

  12. I bet the Costume Designer of that show was a big fan of Mahjong…

  13. Interesting post, John. Stephen J. Cannell, creator of Greatest American Hero and Los Angeles, California, native, also created “The A-Team” and “21 Jump Street” – we all know how big an impact those shows were in the 80s,

    Also, from IMDB: Stephen worked for his father’s interior design firm while he wrote television scripts and story ideas after work.

    Those coincidences are so peppered – good call(s), John!

  14. Apparently the superhero costume textile industry had already begun outsourcing to China by then.

  15. Hi there! John. I’ve been cheking your updates for 3 month now. I never commented because I really didn’t have anything useful to contribute except yet another “wow, you really know what’s going on in China” or ” man, your Chinese is good” . I guess you should be sick and tired of hearing this kind of stuff by now. However, since you are talking about TV shows I think you may want to check this out:

    http://www.6rooms.com/watch.php?v=28688

    This is a footage of a CCTV party I came across on the internet. Even for a guy who doesn’t watch TV much like you should know what CCTV is like. But you wouldn’t believe what show they are putting on on their own party. Besides, this thing may interest you for it’s linguistic value. Otherwise, just have fun.(See if you can get all their jokes)

  16. I’m a pretty die-hard fan of the show, but perhaps I can explain. The emblem’s resemblance to the Chinese character is coincidental. According to an interview on the first season collection of GAH, Cannell got the idea from a pair of scissors with the blades cut or reduced to the points that you see on the suit emblem.

    Finding out about the similarity to the Chinese character 中 and it meaning “middle,” it does fit with the character of Ralph Hinkley. He was a average “middle” class person given a suit with phenomial powers… but only in the suit. He has to deal with the same stuff we do on a daily basis, in his case too the first season, a pretty nasty divorce. So, the more I think about it, maybe there was a reason why the emblem did end up similar to the character.

  17. The emblem is actually made from an outline pair of scissors that the producer had on his desk he said hmmm what an interesting design lets make that the chest emblem if you watch the dvd extras he and the costume designer talk about it sorry to burst everyones bubble on the theory of how it came about but now the mystery is solved

  18. This makes an excellent Halloween costume … believe it or not!

  19. I had a Chinese friend in school back in he 80’s and he thought the middle symbol was used because “Ralph” was the middle man between the Earth and the Aliens

  20. It is official! The Greatest American Hero Web Series is coming out on July 4th!

    http://www.tgah.com

  21. lol, Americant took a Chinese word which means China as the symbol of Americant hero , so brilliantXD

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