The Met’s New Exhibit Is About Orientalism, Not China

Photographed by Connie Wang.
When the theme of this year’s Met Gala was announced, I was very, very nervous. As a Chinese-American who works in fashion, I should have been all over “Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film, and Fashion” (the original title of the exhibition), but as a Chinese-American who works in fashion, I know far too well how badly things could go. It would be the Met’s Department of Asian Art’s 100-year anniversary, and it could be a lovely homage to extend what is already a vast and thoughtfully curated collection of ancient Chinese artifacts to modern-day art. But, having seen my fair of share of Katy Perry-minded “homages” to Eastern culture, I also expected that it was equally as likely that it'd be accompanied by a parade of chopstick hairstyles and kimonos. “I love Mulan,” would be the sound bite of the night.

After touring the exhibit, I can tell you that it’s thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough. But, "China: Through the Looking-Glass" (its vastly improved title) is not about China, Chinese fashion, or Chinese fashion designers, and the Met makes that point very clear. Rather, it’s about how the West has borrowed from China throughout history: “The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism.” That concept was reiterated by Costume Institute Director Andrew Bolton and Wong Kar Wai, acclaimed filmmaker and the exhibition's artistic director. (“Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.”)
Throughout the exhibit, too, that theme is reiterated in sometimes hilarious examples. From a room juxtaposing Eastern Chinoiserie with blue-and-white Chinese porcelain to a room comparing authentic Chinese qipaos with their Western versions, each thematic grouping is based on the different tropes the West has found most interesting, not the aesthetic moments most relevant, or even recognized as a thing, in China. For instance, a Dior dress covered in Chinese characters is revealed to be sartorial equivalent of a bad kanji tattoo. The script is the reproduction of an 8th century letter detailing a particularly noteworthy stomachache (explains the introductory placard, “Because this language is seen as 'exotic' or 'foreign,' it can be read as purely allusive decoration.”)
Photographed by Connie Wang.
And that — the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. Orientalism is defined by literary theorist Edward Said as the way in which imperialist Western cultures have inaccurately and patronizingly interpreted the “East.” It paints China, as well as other Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African countries, as romantic and exotic, dangerous and intoxicating. At face value, it doesn't seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (I actually texted a picture of the Mao display case to my mother, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and she responded with “Dead people. It’s not fashion. I won’t wear it.”)

However, the Met awkwardly proposes that Orientalism can be positive: “[We present] a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. What emerges is an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural combination, and representation.” Yeah. Magic.

In a time when information sharing is quicker and easier than ever, a conversation about misinterpretation is incredibly relevant. Walking through the exhibit with fellow journalists, I had some truly powerful conversations about history and context that were enlightening in ways you always hope a museum exhibit can be. But, that whole bit about it being a two-way street? About how it can be cross-cultural and encourage creativity? When the entire exhibit only featured a small handful of actual Chinese designers, two Chinese-American designers, and one Chinese-American fashion muse who spent her whole life trying to break out of the Oriental box Hollywood placed her in, it seems like an inflated statement to make. A conversation only works between two equal, mutually respectful entities — so what is it called when one of them is a work of fiction made up by the other?
Photographed by Connie Wang.
That brings us to last night’s Met Ball. Having this kind of difficult, but necessary, conversation about appropriation within the context of a museum is one thing. Yet, it almost seems like a cruel joke to extend that same concept — how the West sees “the East” — into a party. It’s a near impossible set-up: How does one celebrate thousands of years of a one-way “relationship” between Western artists and China? Should you even celebrate it to begin with? What kind of statement should you make if the question is, “How are you ‘inspired’ by an entire nation’s history that’s been opportunistically fictionalized by the same people who you represent?”

Sure — there were plenty of Chinese people who attended the Met ball, which is in and of itself a significant thing that I feel great about. Wong Kar Wai helped curate the exhibit. Chinese actresses like Gong Li, editors like Vogue China’s Angelica Cheung, and designers like Jason Wu and Vivienne Tam were all in attendance. But, it’s important to acknowledge that just because Chinese people were there doesn’t mean that all Chinese people automatically give tacit approval to Orientalism.
Photographed by Connie Wang.
Anna Wintour puts it plainly, “Fashion is a reflection of the time.” China is wealthier than ever, and everyone — from tech developers to real estate magnates to the fashion industry — is hungry for the opportunity to introduce Western products to Chinese consumers. It’s the reason you’re seeing runway shows held on the Great Wall or an international fashion award ceremony held in Beijing. It’s why designers are opening stores there and why brands are learning how to use WeChat and Weibo. On a superficial level, the proliferation of Chinese-skewed images are beautiful, lovely, spine-tingling stuff (as a Chinese person, I know I’m biased). But, it’s when “mood-board” fashion connects with real life that things get tricky — like when Vogue held a pre-Met Ball pajama party on Doyers Street, one of the most iconic, enduring ghettos in NYC that became populated with 19th century Chinese workers and their families who were forced to self-segregate in the face of anti-Chinese sentiment.   

It’s something that I have a difficult time parsing, and I’ve been asking myself this question in some form or another every single day of my life. But, to expect that an event attended by people who, by and large, represent Western artists, are the Western elite, and — to be perfectly honest — have not shown the ability to have a thoughtful dialogue about this complicated subject, is asking a lot, especially when it comes in the form of a sound bite and a red carpet photo.
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