Jeremy Shu-How Lin, the first American of Han-Chinese descent to play in the National Basketball Association, was recently criticised by former NBA player Kenyon Martin for sporting dreadlocks. Martin, an African-American, excoriated Lin for “cultural appropriation”.
It may come as a shock then for Martin to discover that the quintessentially African-American music genres hip hop and rap are so popular in mainland China now that the country has its own hip-hop bands and rappers. Artistes with names such as Higher Brothers, Fat Shady and Kafe Hu are the breakout stars of the current Chinese hip hop (xiha in Mandarin) and rap scene.
The issue of cultural appropriation is a tricky one. When does an appreciation for a cultural expression foreign to one’s own experience become “appropriation”? It is also complicated by the power relations between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.
Over several millennia, the Han Chinese have “appropriated” many aspects of non-Han culture and made them their own. Many traditional Chinese musical instruments, in fact, had non-Han Chinese origins. The pipa and erhu, two of the most recognisably Chinese musical instruments, originally “belonged” to the peoples to the north and west of the Chinese homeland.
During periods when parts of China were ruled by non-Han Chinese, such as the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589), or when China was at its most cosmopolitan, as during the Tang dynasty (618-907), “foreign” music and songs were fashionable entertainment, much like hip hop, R&B and rap are popular in China today.
It’s perhaps futile to see cultural expressions, be they music, language, clothing or belief systems, as immutable and mutually exclusive entities. They weren’t in the past and they certainly aren’t so in the interconnected present.