When China tried to change the color of the traffic lights because using red to ‘stop’ was ‘anti-communist’

There are things that cannot be and that, furthermore, are impossible. Not because of an ontological impossibility, or anything like that; most of the time they are simply impossible because of the weight of the social inertia that maintains them. The problem we have been faced with throughout human history is that we don’t know what those things are until we crash into them in the most ridiculous and miserable way we can imagine.

One of my favorite examples is, of course, that time the Chinese Red Guard decided to invert the color of the traffic lights.

Red is the color of progress

Camillo Corsetti Antonini 5wd6nkaztxe Unsplash Camillo Corsetti Antonini

On August 24, 1966, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the Beijing Red Guard decided that it made no sense that red, the color of the revolution and the labor movement, was used to signal that traffic should not move forward. So, neither short nor lazy, they printed posters and filled the walls of the city indicating that from that moment on the meaning of the colors would be reversed: green would indicate ‘stop’ and red, ‘move forward’.

It was, unsurprisingly, chaos absolute. With the government in disarray and more than a million Red Guards from across the country gathered in Tiananmen Square, the “vanguard of the Revolution“I had almost absolute control of the situation. The” almost “is important.

During the first days, the promoters installed guards at the intersections, but already at that time Beijing and its metropolitan area were a population monster that was very difficult to control. The following months were a succession of accidents, conflicts and problems. Finally, after a peculiar debate, they had to backtrack.

Where does the red color of the prohibited signs come from?

Kelly Sikkema Whs7fpfkwq Unsplash Kelly Sikkema

On March 30, 1931, under the auspices of the League of Nations, the “Convention on the unification of road marking“. In that text, which updates treated as the 1909 on automobile traffic, it is already said verbatim that in the prohibition signs “the red color must clearly predominate”.

When Garrett Morgan developed the first modern traffic lights in the United States By the late 10’s and early 20’s, red and green were already there. To stay, in fact. Over the years, this convention was developed and expanded (first in the Geneva Protocol of 49 and later with the Vienna Convention of 68), but the red remained there unalterable signaling the prohibition.

However, the truth is that these international standards have emerged as a ‘crystallization’ of the European consensus on the matter that emerged in the first half of the 20th century. For this reason, countries like the United States, China or Japan have not ratified it. That is not to say that they use completely different signage: in fact, over time (and research in traffic psychology) the signs gradually converge. It means that, as with languages ​​and languages, the history and society that use them matters. And a lot.

Imagen | Tian Zhang


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