The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s "China: Through the Looking Glass" exhibit wrapped up on Monday to record-breaking fanfare. Clocking in at 815,992 visitors, it usurped "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" as the most visited Costume Institute exhibition of all time, and the Met's fifth biggest show ever. This news isn’t exactly surprising: More than ever, the world is obsessed with China — an economic superpower, a source of online intrigue, and a major player in international politics. As someone born and raised in China, I ought to be elated. The rich heritage of my people was provided an opportunity to shine on a stage with a fervent following in Western culture. Unfortunately, I walked away from the exhibition feeling incredibly pissed off. "China: Through the Looking Glass" lived up to its name: It was preoccupied with the Western lens through which its artifacts were intended to be seen and appreciated. Its presentation validated the Western gaze upon foreign objects, and created a subtle yet jarring hierarchy between cultures.
Is this what “positivistic” looks like? Because it felt like erasure.
"This exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity," the entrance sign explained. Yet, where comparisons were drawn between a historic Chinese garment and a contemporary design, the former was relegated to the background. Take the “Emperor to Citizen” galleries, for example: The Qing dynasty imperial robes were tucked behind dimly lit, oval windows meant to resemble mirrors, while the modern interpretations from Western fashion houses were placed front and center. Overall, the exhibit's displays were overwhelmingly Western, save for a gallery on Chinese couturier Guo Pei and a section on cheongsams. Is this what “positivistic” looks like? Because it felt like erasure. Little to no information was presented about the period pieces — in stark contrast to the paragraphs written about extravagant creations from John Galliano and Tom Ford.
Long before Europeans and Americans began sporting qipaos and silk robes with dragon motifs — and the bastardized versions of them dreamed up by occidental designers — they enjoyed glimmers of Eastern fantasy through objects they’d see and touch every day in their homes. Chinoiserie, despite its name, is not just about China: The term encompasses a broad spectrum of Asian influences, each one conflated with the other in an exoticized pastiche. The rise of Chinese-like home products in colonial America came on the heels of their popularity in Britain, the birthplace of many settlers. Since the Navigation Acts limited foreign trading in America, colonists were only able to purchase imported goods through Britain. As a result, the nation's initial understanding of art and design from the Far East was heavily influenced by the European point of view. After centuries of trading in Asia, the marriage of Eastern themes and European sensibilities reached maturity. Furniture maker Thomas Chippendale famously deconstructed elements of Chinese architecture on to which he grafted rococo trends; François Xavier d'Entrecolles, a French priest living in China during the early Qing dynasty, uncovered the techniques behind making porcelain — a significant aspect of Chinese heritage dating back to ancient times — through industrial spying. In a series of letters, D'Entrecolles exposed the process and accelerated Western production of porcelain, which was having a big moment due to the Oscar Wilde-led Aesthetic movement. Unsurprisingly, the forged versions looked a bit off. While Chinese ceramics usually depicted scenes of nature or figures in Taoism and Buddhism, Western imitations featured elements scrambled together because they looked “Asian” — like fans, bamboos, and racial caricatures. The Staffordshire transferware pictured here provides a startling example: Offset by an ornate Victorian-style border, the caricature of Qing dynasty children playing sports is disturbingly similar to anti-Chinese propaganda cartoons from the Yellow Peril.
By the late 19th century, Americans were able to travel across the world thanks to rapid industrialization. Bringing back foreign objects to display at home as souvenirs became de rigueur, and there were no bigger tastemakers of the era than the Rockefellers, who spearheaded the trend of modeling rooms after a particular country and naming it for that culture. Being the trendsetters they were, the Rockefellers saw their decor style widely copied: Since not everyone could afford to dedicate that much space to a Moorish smoking room in their home, they had Turkish corners instead. In a letter published in A Passion for Asia: The Rockefeller Legacy, Abby Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller) wrote to her sister about the "Chinese room" in her Manhattan mansion: "I have changed my Chinese room all about, and it really looks much better. Mr. Miya found me a Japanese altar table in Japan this year, which has just arrived and which improves the room enormously... I also got from [Dikran Khan] Kelekian [a prominent art collector] a beautiful Khmer." Objects from Japan and Cambodia were tossed in the mix as Rockefeller tried to create a room she felt evoked "China." The idea that objects from foreign cultures could be readily mixed among themselves — but should be separated from the rest of the Western-style furniture — eerily mirrors the blanket classification of "otherness" that minorities were saddled with in America at the time.
The dominant power has always felt the right to bend and distort symbols of identity from cultures it has held contempt for in the past.
While Chinese laborers in America were given exploitative wages and barred from marriage or property ownership by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, creations from their culture were fervently collected by privileged classes to showcase their own sophistication and worldliness. The immense popularity of chinoiserie in the Victorian era didn't benefit Chinese people in China, either. Quite the contrary, it was a time of humiliation and oppression for the nation at the hands of European powers: After being defeated by the British in the First Opium War, China was forced into signing the Treaty of Nanking, subjecting itself to a highly unfavorable trading deal and ceding Hong Kong in the process. This was only the first of many unfair diplomatic agreements in subsequent years — some claim the actual number was over 1,000 — that China was coerced into to prevent further military attacks. Other countries who imposed treaties included France, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Growing up, learning about my country’s unfair treatment on the international stage was an important part of my education. Students were tested on the dates, causes, and impact of every single one of these treaties. The message from my history teacher was clear: We’re lucky to be Chinese people in this day and age, but keep in mind what our ancestors went through to get us here.
Over the past couple of years, we've taken some major steps forward on condemning cultural appropriation. Many of us now do a double take when a brand produces tribal prints, and think twice when we see Kylie Jenner in cornrows. Even in the wake of all this progress, it’s not a mystery why cultural appropriation still exists today: The dominant power has always felt the right to bend and distort symbols of identity from cultures it has held contempt for in the past. The Met using its cultural platform to play out a fantasy of the “Orient,” rather than to celebrate the artistry of an ancient culture that, mind you, has thousands of years on the U.S., is what I’d consider a step back. It pains me to see crucial historical information missing in a world-class museum exhibition about China, especially when they’re all facts I wish more people in the world knew about. So, over 800,000 misinformed footsteps later, was this exhibit really a success?