What’s in a Dress? Chinese Culture in the Melting Pot

The other day on Twitter, there was a highly visible dust up between a teenage girl attending her prom and a vicious mob of vitriolic identitarians ripping into her over what she chose to wear: a Chinese qipao. This is a type of dress you tend to see pretty commonly whenever you’re watching movies that take place in China or Hong Kong. It’s a beautiful and sexy dress that women tend to look great in. As I noted over on twitter, what happened here is a great big shame, for a variety of reasons. 1) A bunch of adults attacked a teenage girl on her prom night 2) A hundred thousand mean-spirited people dogpiled on a girl whose classmates are committing suicide at jaw-dropping rates for cyber bullying 3) This cultural appropriation trend is antithetical to American values.

All of those are important, but for the culture at large, it’s the cultural appropriation topic that needs to be confronted. But, I’ve already addressed that at length, and my views haven’t changed. I want to have a different take here. Let’s all take a moment to celebrate what Chinese culture has given the world. There are a lot of Asian-Americans in this country — or, as I prefer to call them Americans — who’ve brought their culture over and enriched our lives. Now, I have a great deal of love for Asian culture across the board. I grew up in a town in California that has a 50% Japanese immigrant population and those values penetrated a lot into my character, and I’ve worked at a Korean company for the last two and a half years, but I’m going to focus on China specifically for this post.

5. Philosophy

Westerners are often familiar with Aristotle, Nietzsche, Socrates, Hume, Plato, Kant, Descartes and Heidegger, but less so with Confucius, Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and their peers. China has a rich history of philosophy that spans across Confucianism, Taoism, Naturalism, Mohism, Legalism, Yangism, The Logicians, The Agrarians, Zen Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and Kaozheng Science. Often boiled down to truisms found on popsicle sticks, this rich tapestry of thought is responsible for everything from such basic beliefs as yin and yang to the concept that external happiness is a fool’s errand and true happiness is found within. Often more practical and easily applied to daily life than the abstract Western philosophers, some of the most advanced wisdom on Earth is found in the writings of Chinese philosophers and much of it is as true today as it was three thousand years ago.

4. Chinese Cuisine

Everyone’s familiar with Panda Express and its famous orange chicken, and there’s not a strip mall in America where you can’t get a plate of beef with broccoli or hot and sour soup. Dim Sum, essentially dumpling based tapas, is one of the all-time greatest culinary creations, fit with its own unique and incredible dining experience to back it up. Soup dumplings are a masterwork in deliciousness. Chinese hot pot, and its Japanese derivative, shabu shabu, is another amazing dining experience where you have a boiling bowl of broth in front of you and you cook your own meat. If you like Benihana, you’ll be in heaven when you experience authentic hot pot. Not only is Chinese food delicious, but it influenced much of the rest of the cuisine from across Asia that Americans enjoy on a daily basis — Thai, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, all unique and fantastic cuisines to be sure, have shared roots in the ingredients and cooking techniques of China.

3. Great Movies

Shaolin Soccer, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Eat Drink Man Woman, everything with Jackie Chan. Rich, colorful, amazing films that tackle the big themes of life and touch the soul. There’s not a person alive in America whose life hasn’t been touched by the influence of Chinese film-making. Chinese immigrants brought the entire Kung Fu movie genre to America, and from its popularity we derived enjoyable works like Rush Hour, Walker Texas Ranger, Kung Fu with David Carradine and Kill Bill. Not only are these works an integral part of American life, but they gave many Americans, ignorant in large part of the inner-life of the Chinese and Chinese-American experience, insight into the humanity, hopes, dreams, history and values of that group.

2. Bruce Lee

Not just a mindblowing action star who made some of the greatest movies of all time, but an inspirational philosopher who was a role model to many Chinese Americans struggling with identity in a new country. He wasn’t fully accepted in China because he wasn’t pure blooded, and he wasn’t fully accepted in America either. A philosophy major in college, his Confucius-esque quotes are a true and reliable guide to being a badass not just in body, but in mind as well:

“Don’t think, feel….it is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!”
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”
“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”
“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”

And, of course: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

His Wikipedia page reads like a giant Chuck Norris joke, except it’s all true. They had to invent a new camera because his punches were too fast to capture on film. He could take a coin out of your hand and replace it with another before you could close it. He won the 1958 national Hong Kong Cha-Cha Dance Championship. He hit a crew member with his famous “One Inch Punch” and that crew member had to miss work the next day. Bruce Lee would punch his fists into buckets of gravel and rocks 500 times a day as a training exercise. He is one of the greatest Americans of all time. Hard stop.

1. The Four Great Classic Novels

In Chinese literary canon there are four novels that are referred to as the Four Great Classic Novels of China. These are: The Journey West, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Legend of the Water Margin and Dream of the Red Chamber. In terms of comparison, think of these as a Eastern corollary to something like The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Arthurian Legends, etc. You may not have heard of them, but I guarantee that they’ve affected your life and the things you watch.

Without The Journey West, about a monk who journeys to Tibet, there is no Dragonball or Dragonball Z. The original Dragonball is a creative adaptation of The Journey West. Goku, the monkey tail, the cloud, the staff that grows longer and shorter at will, it all comes straight from there — he’s based on Son Wukong, the god that the monk encounters in The Journey West. Wukong is also seen in tons of other games like DotA 2.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, about the civil war in China that began with the fall of the Han Dynasty and led to the creation of the Jin Dynasty popularized Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which has informed war and business the world over; it’s a popular backdrop for video games, TV and movies all across Asia. They say every man should read the Romance of the Three Kingdoms three times — once as a child, when idealistic Liu Bei seems like the main character; once as an adult, when pragmatic Cao Cao seems like the main character; and once as an old man, when wise and family oriented Sun Quan seems like the main character. If you’re trying to read the most influential works in the world, and you don’t have this book on your list, you’ve limited yourself horribly.

The Legend of the Water Margin is the basis of one of my favorite video game series of all time, Genso Suikoden, Japanese for “Fantasy Tales of the Water Margin”. The original novel is about a group of bandits who are oppressed by the government and how they raise an army of 108 individuals in order to stand their ground until they’re eventually granted amnesty and allowed to keep their territory. Think “The Magnificent Seven”, with more of a rebellious uprising tone, combined with “300” and a David and Goliath story rolled together. This book is an inspirational parable about what a small group can accomplish.

Dream of the Red Chamber is to the East what Pride and Prejudice, Downton Abbey, Gone With the Wind, or things of that nature are to the West. It’s a long-form novel about two aristocratic families during the Jin Dynasty and their relationships as their wealth and prestige crumbles over time. Aside from its popularity and cultural impact, it’s known as one of the first and most prominent pieces of Chinese literature to prioritize and fully flesh out its female characters and, like Shakespeare or Dante, is a long form epic written entirely in poetic verse. Korean Dramas, popular the world over, can have a lot of their themes and tropes traced back to this book.

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I, as an American, and a global citizen, am greatly appreciative and, in fact, in awe of what Chinese culture has delivered to the planet. We, as Americans, and we, as a world, can only benefit when we incorporate the best of it. But, I do understand the mindset of the people who talk about cultural appropriation. I strongly disagree that people shouldn’t adopt what works from other cultures, but I do also think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. It’s valuable to know where things come from, and who we have to thank. So, thank you, thousands of years of Chinese culture — the world has improved as a result of generations of effort, and to every American of Chinese descent I can only express my greatest gratitude: what you’ve brought to our shores has enriched our lives tremendously.

Ryan is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to buy his new book, Gods of the American Wild.