Don’t Use Chinese Culture as an Argument that Cultural Appropriation Is Okay

This post is written specifically as a critique responding to this article by Sonny Hallett.

So, ironic as it is for me to say it (because I write about cultural appropriation a lot)…

Chinese people are not the best people to talk about cultural appropriation. Like, yes, in the US we are minorities and see the appropriation of our culture and sometimes have feelings about it. But you cannot fundamentally equate the criticism of people using Chinese culture with criticism of people using black American culture.

Cultural appropriation is primarily about contextualizing problematic historical power dynamics. Chinese culture, while in the minority in western usage in, say, the last 50–100 years, has the history of having massively been the dominant culture for centuries before that point.

If you really want to talk about nuance in cultural appropriation and use Chinese culture as an example, you have to look at present-day mainstream / Han Chinese usage of non-Han cultures. China media, for example, is incredibly proud of the country containing 55 minority ethnic groups and keeps putting on shows literally parading an attractive girl from each group in traditional dress on stage next to a bunch of Han dancers.

Additionally, China has one of (possibly the most?) complicated and power-laden histories of cultural growth and interaction in history. And its practice of expansion and dominance is comparable to European colonialism.

One feature of this is that, from its own dominant seat, the spread of Chinese culture has usually been viewed as an act of dominance for the Chinese: Historically, on numerous occasions, a “foreign” power would invade, take charge, and immediately adopt Chinese culture and keep practicing it while ruling some stuff. In turn, Chinese people would consider this to be successful continuity of cultural dominance.

The upshot of this is the idea that somebody else using Chinese culture is problematic is a relatively modern concept — viscerally, a weight of history is much more likely to cause a given Chinese person to instinctively feel like this puts them further on top, rather than further down.

This means that for many Chinese people, the most meaningful differentiator for offense vs acceptability genuinely is whether the interaction contains an actual insult or stereotype. In the article, Hallett’s makes the argument that stereotype is the line that really matters, and I think this is the context she is coming from.

But this common Chinese experience of cultural usage contrasts drastically with the experience of cultural usage of, say, a black person. In the latter situation, the history is of repeated subjugation, and so the usage of culture then becomes one more component of the subjugation.

Even more broadly than that, there is a key contrast wherein in one case, cultural exchange has repeatedly historically led to empowerment, and in another it has led to subjugation. So talking about what cultural exchange does must itself be put in context.

So, in conclusion, I appreciate that the author has a very international background. And I agree there is a ton of nuance in this topic.

Anyone can come up and say, “I’m okay if people use my culture.”

But don’t say, “And go use other people’s too,” because each of our circumstances is really different.

And Chinese people, as a whole, have a lot of work to do about our own racial history. Even if, ironically, western culture is insufficiently informed about it to put it in the spotlight.