Weekendavisen: Garderobe imperialisme

Press/Media: Expert Comment


Shirley Chan was interviewed by the Weekendavisen (www.weekendavisen.dk), Europe's oldest newspaper still in print for the debate about cultural appropriation and cultural identity of Chinese dress in foreign countries.


Cultural appropriation, cultural identity

Period19 May 2018

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleCulture Wars - an interview by Weekendavisen (by Peter Harmsen)
    DescriptionAn interview by Weekendavisen on 19th May 2018

    Culture Wars: A white American teenager wearing a traditional Chinese dress at the high school prom has set the Internet on fire in the United States. In China, the reaction is much more relaxed.

    Wardrobe Imperialism

    A single photo on Twitter not enough, and suddenly 18-year-old Keziah Daum had inadvertently placed her hometown, Woods Cross in the US state of Utah, on the world map. The photo pictured herself at the gymnasium traditional prom - prom night - and she was wearing a qipao, a tight-fitting Chinese dress. There was hell.

    "My culture is not your goddamn prom dress," wrote a Chinese-American named Jeremy Lamb in a tweet that was shared 42,000 times, received 180,000 thumbs up and generated 20,000 comments. It was obvious that he had struck a nerve. The invective against high school girl piled up. "Box Racist" was one of the more gentle.

    Daum answered the criticism in a tweet: "I did not mean that everyone would think I was trying to be racist. It's just a dress. "Others have come to her aid, both online and in traditional media. If white women should not go in qipao, they were probably not at all made in Western sizes and dimensions, was one of the arguments.

    What's the problem? Keziah Daums prom dress has fallen straight down into an American debate on so-called "cultural expropriation." It is an academic term which gradually entered into in the ordinary language and covers a dominant culture taking over elements from the weaker minority cultures.

    In an American context, it's typical that the members of the privileged white majority acquire - or, depending on temperament, "steals" - Culture of African Americans. Jazz is an often-cited example. The claim says that it is a kind of exercise of power because the majority distorts the original term and forget to appreciate the creativity that the minority has put forth.

    Americans of Chinese origin is generally regarded as one of the most successful, "at least oppressed" non-Western minorities in the United States. But therefore they may well feel taken, says Shirley Chan, an expert on China studies at Macquarie University in Australia.

    "Dress may serve to define the boundary between different cultures, and here the traditional qipao been important to Chinese-Americans to assert itself as a distinct group within the American society. Some see it even as a last remaining symbol of their Chinese character, and therefore believes that it should be reserved for Chinese-Americans, "she says.

    About the Chinese qipao, previously better known by the Cantonese name cheongsam, is especially well chosen as an example of cultural expropriation, is another matter. The dress can be traced back hundreds of years in Chinese dress history, but the modern form emerged in the Chinese cities in 1920. It was especially favored by upper-class women, and it is connected with powerful dragon ladies as Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her sisters. In other words, it is not the most obvious expression of a weak, oppressed culture.

    Another thing is that Keziah Daum is far from the first white woman who has donned one qipao in public. A variety of Western celebrities from Grace Kelly to Nicole Kidman have worn it. At a state dinner in Beijing in November clothed America's first lady Melania Trump himself qipao from Gucci. It is reported not to Chinese President Xi Jinping as much as wrinkled brow on the occasion.

    Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also famous - and infamous in some circles ridiculed - to jump in foreign cultures robes when the opportunity presents itself. On a recent visit to India, he had donned so many screaming and shiny suits that he seemed to have grown directly out of a Bollywood musical.

    So why is it sometimes okay to kick it in other cultures wardrobe, and other times not? According to the American cultural researcher Elizabeth Tuleja trades, among other things on social media nature. The 18-year-old high school student was simply unlucky to be spotted by a sur Twitter user on a bad day.

    "It was just about a person who was frustrated and seemed to want to give vent to his frustration. That's the problem with social media. All share information, and all give the public free access in order to open themselves to criticism, "said Tuleja, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and is currently staying as a Fulbright Scholar at Sichuan University in China.

    "In social media, people feel free to come up with negative comments because there is a kind of anonymity. Man does not stand face to face, even if you stand abandoned by name and even photos. It gives people a feeling that they simply can lash out in frustration.”

    The indignation seems especially limiting itself to Americans of Chinese background. In China, the reactions are completely different criteria: people are almost honored that the good old qipao fall into the Americans' taste. It is, they say, an example not to "cultural appropriation", but the "cultural appreciation".

    "Culture knows no bounds. It's no problem as long as it is good sense, and there is no deliberate attempt to step on others' feelings. China's cultural treasures are worth spreading around the world, "reads a typical reaction to the Chinese Internet. The Chinese are aware of their growing role on the global scene, economically, politically and culturally, and traced a distinct pride.

    "Western culture and later American culture has so far been dominant globally. For the Chinese, it is a new and positive feeling to see a Chinese dress on a foreigner, especially when it looks good. For them it may mean that Chinese garb and thus Chinese culture has finally achieved a form of recognition in other countries, "says Shirley Chan from Macquarie University.

    Many reactions in the Chinese Internet has also space a blank acknowledgment that the Chinese themselves have solid time in the cultural expropriation in everything from families' visits to McDonald's for the young people's use of rock music, like "German" Oktoberfest in Shanghai offers Chinese with fluctuating beer mugs and Lederhosen.

    It is reasonable to ask whether the casual Chinese attitude has historical roots. One can, for example, point to the Qing Dynasty, which back in the 1600s allowed Western missionaries wear Confucian officials uniforms so they could blend in with the crowd. No one spoke of "cultural expropriation."

    The German Sinologist Ines Eben von Racknitz who teaches history at Nanjing University, is skeptical of attempts to search contexts where maybe none. The latest generations have seen such great changes that it can be difficult to trace cultural traits back to imperial times. Instead, she sees today a recommendation to the clothes of western-style pointing to the future rather than back into the past.

    "The western tuxedo is a symbol of the international community, and to money and prestige. Chinese men, it also takes on, and I have not heard anyone complain. Openness to Western-style clothing is probably due to a sense of belonging to the modern world, "she says.

    PersonsShirley Chan