An Ethnocentric View of History

I was at my guqin class yesterday when a new student came in. He’s perhaps in his late-20s, early-30s, and works as a traditional furniture designer. Guqin tends to attract people interested in traditional cultural heritage, so this wasn’t too surprising, but I hadn’t expected to meet students from such diverse professional backgrounds.

As the class wrapped up, our teacher began chatting with him about maintaining cultural heritage. He tends to talk about this to everybody who comes in the door, but being interested in the topic, I kept half an ear on the conversation as I continued practicing.

“I think Japan does a really good job of maintaining culture,” he commented.

Yup. Indeed they do.

“Although,” he continued. “There’s never any innovation. All they do is receive whatever China gives them and they hold onto for centuries. They’re like China’s time capsule.”

I froze. Excuse me?

“What do you mean by that?” our teacher asked.

“Well, take tea for example,” he paused. “They still use powdered tea and prepare exactly how Chinese people did it during the Song dynasty while China has innovated and gone beyond.”

Hold up.

While powdered tea was introduced to Japan during the Song dynasty, the formation of Japanese tea culture happened through a lot of Japanese innovation. There was never such a strongly defined bond between tea and Zen until tea reached Japan, and it never developed such a rustic aesthetic in China (although there was a transformation in the Ming… but that was a shift from powdered to loose-leaf tea).

I realized that this was a common trope I heard repeated over and over again. That China is the source of East Asian culture, and the peripheral states in the Sinosphere were merely recepients of culture, unable to produce a culture of their own.

This was true of my explorations during the Buddhist art expo, where everything was labeled “Tang dynasty style” even if it was a replica of a Japanese-carved statue. It’s also true of other arts that are quite obviously Japanese in origin, such as gold-lacquer repair (kintsugi 金継ぎ). But, I’ve seen videos asserting that it is actually a Chinese art because China had lacquer before Japan had lacquer.

Recently, I’ve come across a few articles in Chinese that argue Japanese tea’s core ideals—wakeiseijaku 和敬清寂—are actually of Chinese origin because the phrase first appears in a Chinese text. Regardless of who actually arranged the text, the phrase definitely never caught on in China, whereas it grew into a life of its own in Japan. That alone needs to be addressed. Furthermore, there needs to be an understanding that two cultures can independently come up with similar if not identical concepts.

This is a troubling trend that stems from ethnocentrism, which is not new to China by any means. While in-group/out-group bias is pretty much universal, I remember a peculiar line that lumped the misfortune of being born in one of the four marginalized tribes (戎夷蠻狄) as being equal to being born blind, deaf, mute, or disfigured.

Oof.

In any case, the young dude was a brilliant designer who told me little tidbits, like how a traditional table for calligraphy and tea should be 72 cm high. Fun stuff!

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