I sent a few pictures to my Dad of my recent field trip with my ESL students. He said, “Why do Asians always do the peace sign in pictures? They always did it when you lived in China.”
“When you visited Korea and Japan, they did it too. ”
“They do it in the US. What does it mean and why did it start?”
I was able to explain that it actually is a “v” for victory, not a peace sign. But what does it really mean, and when did it start? I wasn’t able to give an explanation. So, I thought I’d do a little research on the topic.
The V sign began to be used during World War II by Allied troops. Victor de Laveleye, former Belgian Minister of Justice, suggested the V sign on his 1941 BBC news broadcast as a way to rally support for the war. It spread through Belgium and moved on to France and the Netherlands and eventually all of Europe. Even Winston Churchill used the V for victory sign.
US President Richard Nixon went on to use the V sign for victory in the Vietnam War. However, protesters and hippies who were against the Vietnam War, changed the v from “victory” to “peace” by holding up the same sign but saying “peace” as they did it as a subtle protest of the war. They wanted this hand gesture to change from its meaning of war to a meaning of positivity and happiness.
The V sign probably became popular in Asia through an ice skater named Janet Lynn, who was a peace activist. She was often photographed in the Japanese media in the 1970s doing this sign. Although the Japanese knew the V sign as victory because of WWII, Janet Lynn often displayed this sign as peace.
Another story says that a famous Japanese actor named Jun Inoue starred in some camera commercials in the 70’s where he flashed the V sign, thinking it was popular in the West, and it caught on from those commercials. All in all, a lot of Asia copies Japan. And more importantly, Asia copies the West. Whether or not it was from seeing this ice skater make the V sign and thinking it was a popular thing to do in the West, we may never know.
China, Taiwan, and South Korea are also well known for doing this sign in photos. They say that the symbol means “yeah!”, like they are feeling good. But, really, Asians do so many poses for photos. They have the need to do hand gestures in almost every informal photo.
There is one that guys do in China that means handsome. They might even just throw up a fist.
When girls do the V sign, it is usually close to their face. My Chinese friends told me it is a good chance for them to cover up some of their fat face. (Having a fat face is a big issue that many Asian girls dread).
I had to include this photo of me and my friend Ben in a bowling alley in China. Here I am being all fierce and competitive, and he told me he was doing a pose like a flower!
I even started doing the V sign after living in China for 2 years and traveling there in the years after. It just became natural. In fact, it was nice to actually have something to do in a photo instead of just standing there awkwardly with my hands down to my sides.
So the general rule of thumb is for that every month you live in Asia, you are 5% more likely to throw up your V sign in a photo. And, actually, it can be kind of fun. :] So I’m still not sure I fully understand why Asians do the V sign, but hey, sometimes with cultural differences, we don’t need to and can’t fully understand certain phenomenons, and there’s a real beauty in that.