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Let’s talk briefly about this crazy Chinese prom dress fiasco.  What happened is that a (wasp-y) Utah high school senior found an elegant red silk cheongsam, also known as a qipao in a thrift store.  The form-fitting curves of the high-necked Chinese dress suited her and she put some pictures of herself on social media—only to be derided by a priggish young man of Chinese American heritage who wrote:

My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress…I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the shameful treatment of early (or contemporary!) East Asian immigrants, the excesses of American consumerism, all sorts of colonial ideologies…these are all subject to meaningful and broad-ranging ethical criticism. However, a brief look at the history of the cheongsam quickly illustrates the problems of “cultural appropriation” politics.

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The cheongsam was originally a baggy robe-type dress worn by women of the Manchu.  The Manchu were northern horselords who made up a mighty branch of the Tungusic peoples.  During the chaos at the end of the Ming dynasty (as ignorant, incompetent emperors and their crooked enablers drove the empire to ruin, famine, and civil war), the Manchus poured out of the north and conquered all of China.  Han people wore the cheongsam to ingratiate themselves with their red-tasseled Manchu overlords…but over time the dress became much less conservative and began to hug the form.  In the 1920s, with influence from Western flapper fashions, it evolved into a stylish and often tight-fitting dress (with high leg slits) for socialites and upper-class women…and for demi-mondaines, before it entered the broader culture of East Asia and South East Asia. Should we decry the colonialism of Manchu war lords? Do we need to call out the puritanical sexism of the original dress which was meant to cover women up…or the sexism of the later dress which was meant to show off women’s bodies?  Ultimately the Han appropriated the dress from their Manchu conquerors (and then conquered Manchuria which is now the northern part of the people’s Republic of China).  Should this Utah teenager have taken all of this in to consideration and worn a high-waisted Empire gown (oh wait that reflects the excesses of the Napoleonic era and should only be worn by French people) or a satin tunic gown (shades of ancient Greece) or an elegant pleated fancy dress with mameluke sleeves (nooooo! Orientalism!)?

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Every style of outfit has wound down from ancient antecedents which have mixed together over the millennia.  Culture is not a tiny stagnant tarn—it is like the water cycle of Earth. Great rivers mingle and wind down to the common oceans only to be swept by the clouds back to the uplands and return again and again.

It should be obvious now that I really dislike the entire concept of “cultural appropriation” as a smear directed at people who admire or utilize elements of many different culture (this makes sense: I write an eclectic generalist blog and paint flounders from all of the world’s oceans).  Am I supposed to only write about or paint middle aged Anglo-Saxon type men? What would you say about an artist like that (assuming you went deep into the alt-right to find such a freak)? I can hardly imagine a more racist or sexist thing!

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China Trade (Wayne Ferrebee, Oil on panel)

It may (maybe) be that cultural appropriation is an appropriate charge to level at mean-spirited or willfully ignorant use of imagery and ideas. Things like the black-faced minstrel tradition or (goodness help us) “Little Brown Samba” or super-sexualized harem pictures from les artistes pompiers spring to mind.  But even these are more complicated than they seem at first.

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Mermaid Appropriation?

Does that mean everyone has to know every part of the history of every image, decoration, literary concept, garment, religious symbol, allusion?  Such a world sounds ideal to me, but I think it might be an impossible (it seems like the culture critic in this case did not think out all of the historical ramifications of Chinese fashion history).

The world is more global than ever before and the prom-dress kerfluffle has made it all the way to social media in actual China.  People there are confused.  They see the dress as a compliment to the Middle Kingdom.  American teenagers are wearing traditional Chinese outfits to their formal dances. It reflects the prestige and rising strength of China.  It is (gasp) a compliment!

Maybe inner-city rappers angry about suburban white kids trying out their dope beats and mad rhymes shouldn’t be so angry.  When people want to copy your style it doesn’t always mean they want to monetize your music or enslave your ancient kingdom state or belittle your ancestors.  People might admire you! You might be winning!  Just please don’t write anything like little brown Samba.  I’m afraid that to stay atop the ever-changing terrain of the humanities you may have to at least look some things up and maybe please use your brain.

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Iggy Azalea has stolen the Tokyo Olympic Mascot’s look! or is it the other way?

In the arts and humanities ideas exist on an (ever changing) gradient.  Talking about this and thinking about people with different backgrounds and perspectives—learning their histories– is the point.  But the shifts in this gradient come from politics which is a treacherous realm. Come to think of it, maybe the critic of the prom dress was trying to use the internet to claim the mantle of victimhood and aggrandize himself in the process.  Well done. Mr. Lam, on appropriating the culture of the United States of America!

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Is that a Frenchwoman in Roman garb?

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