Why US and China have such different views about an American girl in a cheongsam

Reaction to school prom photo posted on Twitter was less negative in the country whose culture some said had been appropriated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 6:44pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 May, 2018, 1:10am

For the Chinese, imitation is the best form of flattery when it comes to their culture.

That is why, some observers say, the online consensus on the mainland comfortably accepted a teenaged American wearing the traditional Chinese qipao, or cheongsam, to her school prom, while she was forced to defend herself against accusations of “cultural appropriation” from some in the United States.

Keziah Daum, an 18-year-old from Utah who has no Chinese roots, ignited an outcry on the internet after she posted photos of herself dressed in the qipao on Twitter. The incident was widely reported by Western media, but has not received much attention in mainland China.

Chinese dress at US prom wins support in China after internet backlash

The qipao, originating in the loose style worn by Manchu women in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), evolved into the current tightly fitting version in the 1920s. 

It was regarded as fashionable by bourgeois women before the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Nowadays Chinese women tend to wear it at formal occasions. 

Liu Yu, a garment history researcher at Shanghai’s Donghua University, said she was surprised by some of the US reaction to Daum and felt people had “made a big fuss over a small matter”.

The scholar said that, theoretically, Western people tended to be less suited to the qipao, because of their flatter shoulders and bigger and higher body frames. 

Go ahead, appropriate my culture

“But we won’t accuse them of ruining our qipao,” Liu added. “Instead, we are very happy that foreigners are dressed in our traditional clothes at such an important event.

“It demonstrates that Chinese people are confident about our culture. We are not preventing other people adopting it.”

One of the Twitter users who criticised Daum was Jeremy Lam, who wrote: “My culture is not your … prom dress.” The post generated over 40,000 retweets, nearly 180,000 likes and thousands of comments on the website.

Daum told the South China Morning Post that she chose the dress, which was red and embroidered with gold and black, simply because she found it was a “beautiful and modest gown”.

“I am sorry if anyone was offended,” she wrote in an email to the Post. “That was never my intention. I am grateful I was able to wear such a beautiful dress.”

But Daum drew different reactions in China, where it was greeted more as “culture appreciation, not cultural appropriation”, as one commenter put it.

Li Bochun, director of the Beijing-based Chinese Culture Rejuvenation Research Institute, said that as China exerted its soft power, both the authorities and mainland people viewed the spread of Chinese culture positively.

“For example, Chinese people are elated when foreigners speak Mandarin,” Li said.

Five celebrities accused of cultural appropriation that prove Chinese prom dress debate is not the first

It’s a sensitive matter, however, to adopt other people’s culture in the multicultural, multi-ethnic US, said Elizabeth Tuleja, a Fulbright Scholar to China who specialises in cross-culture research and management and is teaching at Sichuan University in Chengdu, southwestern China.

Tuleja said cultural appropriation could be defined as the borrowing of certain elements or traditions from a group’s culture – usually by members of the dominant group in that place, without the consent of the “minority” culture. 

Such borrowing can be considered exploitative because it robs “minority” groups of the credit for their own culture, while the borrower from the dominant group may be perceived as trendy or innovative for it. 

When does cultural inspiration become appropriation in the fashion world?

“People [in the US] are very sensitive about culture – usually those from non-dominant groups,” she said. “People who have been discriminated against or marginalised get upset if somebody takes part of their culture and turns it into a costume or uses it in music or as jewellery.”

Another factor, Tuleja said, was the nature of social media, which allowed people to express strong opinions almost anonymously.

“Unfortunately, rather than having a dialogue or a civil debate, people are just trying to argue or vent their frustrations,” she said.

Amy George, an American founder of a business incubator in Chengdu, said that she thought Daum showed her appreciation of Asian culture when choosing the qipao.

“Teenagers choose the dress they feel is the most beautiful for their prom,” George said. “The fact that this woman thought the qipao was the most beautiful style of dress she could wear honours Asian culture.”

Five dressmakers keeping alive the qipao, or cheongsam, in Hong Kong by adding modern twists to the traditional Chinese dress

But some Chinese Americans said Daum had no right to wear the qipao and thought its historic value was diluted by foreigners dressing in it, said George.

Liu said Chinese people were open-minded about clothes and would consider a dress’ convenience, function and beauty, rather than its history.

She said that when Chinese tourists travelled to Japan, many of them rented a kimono and posed for photos on ancient streets or under cherry trees.

“People think it’s not necessary to associate it with politics or history,” she said. “That’s what most Chinese think today. It’s just clothes.”