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.


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!

The Incognito American

Reflecting on my previous post, I can almost always count on people telling me I don’t seem American.

I don’t look American, I don’t sound American, I don’t act American.

Sometimes, this is very helpful in getting to bond with local students and not having them tense up around me. Other times, it leads to extended interrogations on my origins, why I speak Mandarin, and general disbelief in what I’m telling them.

Recently, in another irritating episode, my guqin teacher asked me to be an interpreter for a guqin workshop with foreign dignitaries. This wasn’t an issue for me at all. Having done all sorts of interpretation and translation before, this would be a wonderful chance for me to help with some cross-cultural exchange (one of the aspects of the Fulbright Program) while also giving myself an opportunity to practice interpretation again.

One of the other guqin classmates interrupted us before I could respond.

“Hah!” she cackled. “What makes you think a kid like him can do English interpretation?”

Ever stoic, my guqin teacher ignored her.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I told him.

“Good,” he replied. “I’ll send you the powerpoint later this week.”

“I don’t know what you see in him,” she shook her head at our instructor. “When’s this event happening? Monday was it? I’ll be there. Let’s see how good this kid’s English turns out to be.”

I don’t recall her being invited.

Our instructor turned over to me, “It’ll be good exposure for guqin. If we want the art to survive, it has to be able to make an impact outside of China. Who knows—maybe one of the dignitaries there will be inspired to support guqin education in the US.”

I nodded and continued practicing.

In this rather aggravating incident, I realized that my latent Americanness led quite a few people to underestimate me, which… is not necessarily a bad thing. I actually enjoy being inconspicuous. What annoyed me was how she immediately dismissed me on basis of age. Even if I had grown up entirely in China (which she assumed), I know plenty of twenty-some-year-olds who are stellar interpreters and translators despite having grown up in a non-English-speaking country.

While my Americanness is constantly questioned (or dismissed) here, I’ve started wondering what it means to be American. While most people here associate a blond-hair, blue-eyed appearance Americanness, an encounter I had in the elevator illustrated that this is a terrible heuristic.

I walked into the elevator. There was a blond woman and a Chinese man present. As we descend, the Chinese man said—in English—to the blond woman, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

“I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she replied.

“Oh,” he looked confused. “Aren’t you American?”

“I’m British.”

I stifled my laughter. Oh, if only it were Independence Day. Wishing a Brit “Happy Independence Day” would truly be too perfect.

Then I realized. He didn’t wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, probably because he assumed I was—like him—a Chinese person who doesn’t celebrate the holiday.

Culturally, a lot of what I do isn’t “American.” I play guqin, not guitar. I write calligraphy with a brush, not a pen. I drink tea, not beer. I admire poems by Li Bai and Wang Wei, not Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

But at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily make me Chinese. In fact, when I go out with Chinese classmates, they’re taken aback when I order tea despite everybody else ordering a Budweiser. They find it strange that I’m not acclimated to a Chinese classroom environment, and they find it even stranger when I tell them we had things called seminars which were discussion-based classes.

Having grown up in the US, many of my experiences differ from my Chinese counterparts precisely because of my environment. While I also celebrate the Lunar New Year, Qingming, and Mid-Autumn Festival, these weren’t necessarily identical to how my Chinese classmates celebrate them.

Thinking back to my JET interview, it seems like a lot of cultural exchange tends to focus on how different cultures are so that they seem exotic, fresh, and new to the other. But I disagree entirely with that perspective. Instead, I view cultural exchange as something that can be accomplished through sharing similarities. Rather than talking about football and mass shootings (seriously, these are the two main things people bring up when I mention I’m from the US), I find it much more productive to talk about how Chinese culture has adapted and changed in the US.

I remember vividly my JET interviewer looking wholly unimpressed when I said that I’d bring a calligraphy brush to Japan to show people American culture, but I still stand by that statement. If the US is indeed a melting pot of cultures, I think it’s helpful to show East Asia that their culture is represented in the pot as well. The flavors might have changed (brush lettering is one way of using the brush that Japanese shodo doesn’t have), but it starts at one shared point of culture before branching off into the differences.

Thinking about it some more, I’d bring Cup Noodles as well. There isn’t a better symbol of starving American college student than 10 cent ramen.

While these objects themselves don’t seem American by appearance, they’ve been immersed in American culture and have grown in their own way.

I suppose, in way, I like this approach because I’m like the objects—outwardly Asian, yet with a latent American twist.