A fake controversy has erupted in America because a small group of Americans are outraged that an American wore a Chinese-style dress to prom. Chinese people, whose culture is actually being “appropriated” (so-called) here, couldn’t care less. If anything, they are happy to see Americans recognize the beauty and majesty of Chinese culture.
For millennia, Chinese have been proud of their extensive and refined (“博大精深”) culture. The Han Chinese have expanded their empire from Northern China to present-day China, absorbing dozens of ethnic groups (56, according to the official government count) into the Chinese race. Confucianism and Chinese characters spread to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. The emperor of the “Middle Kingdom” received gifts from tributary states, whose officials were forced to kowtow, recognizing the culture of China, and China was happy to teach them how to be cultured.
In the process, the Han Hanicized ethnic groups they came into contact with and also were changed themselves. The dress in question, the qipao (旗袍), is a product of the Han people being culturally assimilated into the culture of the Machu, who ruled China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Qing forced the Han to adopt Manchu hairstyle (the male queue/braid) and dress. The old Manchu dresses were originally long and loose but became tighter-fitting, and in some cases, shorter, until they came to be the glamorous style associated with Shanghai socialites and cigarette ads of the 1920’s.
It is evident, then, that culture cannot exist without constantly changing and being influenced from all directions. If it were not so, we would still be wearing animal skins and plants over our genitals.
Would the outraged Americans have preferred that the woman in question had chosen to wear instead the default Western-style dress, thus perpetuating the continued cultural dominance of white European culture in America?
Chinese people, for their part, wouldn’t. When I asked friends they thought about it on WeChat, here are some responses I received:
This means that she likes our Chinese culture
I personally think that sharing beautiful things is good
I personally think that wearing a qipao to prom is great, if it doesn’t violate the dress code
There you have it: Americans speaking for Chinese are personally offended that anyone would wear a beautiful Chinese dress to prom. Actual Chinese people think it’s great.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.