The 'Qipao' kerfuffle: Cultural appreciation is not cultural appropriation

The Twitterverse has been a-flurry over Utah senior Keziah Daum's prom dress. She found a red qipao, the female version of the chángpáo or cheongsam (literally: “long dress”) in a Salt Lake City vintage store and posted a photograph of herself on Twitter sporting the lovely garment.

Fellow Twitter user Jeremy Lam took offense, tweeting, “My culture is NOT your … prom dress.” This ignited a storm of 23.4 thousand responses to Daum's tweet, with 41.9 thousand retweets of Lam's post.

He claimed that “the style of dress began as a formless gown for house cleaning, and was later turned into a symbol of female empowerment”.

As a Chinese woman, I have never heard such a thing.

To my knowledge, the qipao is a development of the dress enforced under penalty of death on the Han Chinese by their Manchurian conquerors, along with the pigtail or queue. Manchurian rule occasioned angst in the Chinese people until the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1911 by republican revolutionaries. The true ethnic dress of the Hans (who comprise 92% of Chinese and 18% of the world's population) is the hanfu.

The modern-day qipao is actually a 1920s Shanghainese fusion of Western form-fitting styles with the original loose chángpáo.

In any case, if Mr. Lam wishes to be consistent, I suggest that he stops wearing Western clothes like jeans and T-shirts, stops speaking English, and reverts to the ways of ancient China.

In this increasingly globalized world, it is impossible to keep our cultures entirely separate. From ancient times, humans have been trading, exchanging customs, and delighting in each others' cuisines, art, languages, and so on. For instance, the popular Japanese tempura dish was actually created by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the mid-16th century, while they were observing abstinence from meat.

Cultural appropriation involves taking a tradition and using it without respecting its original meaning and context, like commercialized celebrations of Christmas, Easter, Hallowe’en, and St. Valentine’s Day, or people wearing religious symbols as fashion fads. Cultural appropriation impoverishes a tradition, hollowing and distorting it into a wretched shadow of itself.

Inculturation, on the other hand, is a harmonious blend of previously separate cultures, as with the Mississippi Delta Chinese, or in Peranakan culture, where Chinese in the Malay archipelago have combined Chinese, Malay and European customs to form a unique and rich culture of their own. It is not an artificial mix, but a genuine fusion that has developed over time, and continues to develop anew. One now thinks of sipping tea as very British, but it was a Chinese beverage initially frowned upon in England. Through inculturation, traditions are mutually enriched in a happy marriage which creates wonderful offspring. We Chinese never used to put milk in tea! And now, thanks to Taiwan, there’s boba/bubble tea, a very milky beverage. And did you know that ketchup originated in Vietnam?

Daum responded to Lam's outburst saying,

“To everyone causing so much negativity: I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I'm simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I'm not deleting my post because I've done nothing but show my love for the culture. It's a... dress. And it's beautiful.”

The Washington Post reported:

While the family lives in a predominantly white suburb of Salt Lake City, Dawes said she has made an effort to give her daughter a multicultural upbringing. When Daum was in the third grade, her mother pulled her out of her school and enrolled her in a more diverse school in Salt Lake City. “I wanted her to have that exposure,” Dawes said.

Yesterday as I sat in Adelaide's Chinatown sipping bubble tea from a Taiwanese stall displaying K-pop videos, I watched as Korean pop stars break-danced and rapped in baggy jeans. Will anyone manufacture outrage over their “cultural appropriation”? I doubt it. Usually, the cries of overblown disapprobation are over the actions of white people, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donning Indian dress. Nobody bats an eyelid at Japanese businessmen dashing around in Western-style business suits, or American Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Day. Why is it wrong for those of European descent to demonstrate their admiration for non-white cultures, while others can just get on with life undisturbed by overzealous keyboard warriors?

In previous centuries, people actually preferred it if foreigners took on their customs. It was regarded as a sign of respect in 16th-century China when Matteo Ricci (pictured) and his fellow Jesuit mathematicians and scientists arrived dressed as mandarins, having thoroughly studied Chinese philosophy and culture. They even created a new liturgical item, the jijin (祭巾, literally, “sacrifice towel”), in which to worship, understanding that Chinese considered it disgraceful to leave one’s head uncovered in the presence of superiors. It was a sign of love when Mother Teresa, born Macedonian-Albanian, chose to clothe herself and the Missionaries of Charity in saris, the cultural dress of the Indians they served in Calcutta. Mother Teresa identified completely with the poor whom she served.

When I visited Saudi Arabia, I wore an abaya. As a foreigner I did not have to cover my face, but I was compelled as a woman to cover my body. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, said Ambrose of Milan. There is wisdom and humility in shedding the comfort of your own cultural habits and taking on local customs when visiting an area. Communities operate by particular rules, and in observing the rules and etiquette of the place where you are, you integrate and communicate better with the people around you, no matter how short your stay. People appreciate it when you make the effort to identify with them. In France, my brother says, the locals were more polite if he tried to speak in his limited French, although they understood English perfectly well.

In Western societies fractured by identity politics, social justice warriors view it as a capital sin if you innocently use the symbols of another culture, even though you are doing it out of love for that culture. They claim to stand for multiculturalism and diversity. Well, in Singapore for Racial Harmony Day, commemorating the 1964 race riots, we were expected to dress in other ethnic groups' costumes for the entire school day. We did presentations on one another's religions and ate each other's food.

True unity is not reached by emphasizing our differences, but by walking in each other's shoes. Then the exotic and strange becomes familiar, and we begin to understand and even to love one another.

Jean Seah is a social media manager and freelance writer based in Queensland, Australia. She is also chief editor of the American site Ignitum Today


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