fbpx
CultureFeatured

Young Chinese React to “Qipaogate”, Mostly with Confusion

0

Utah high school senior Keziah Daum made a non-traditional fashion choice for her prom night last month: a high-necked, traditional Chinese dress with a thigh-high slit, called a cheongsam (in Cantonese) or qipao (in Mandarin). She chose the dress, in part, because she says it gave her “a sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty,” according to a recent interview with The Washington Post.

In case you’re not a Twitter native, and are wondering why a senior’s prom dress has landed her mainstream media coverage: after posting photos of herself in her dress on April 22, Daum‘s upbeat tweet went viral, drawing criticism and accusations of “cultural appropriation” and racism from a virtual mob. The photos sparked intense discussion on social media regarding what constitutes appreciation versus appropriation. The original post has garnered over 100,000 likes and almost 24,000 comments at this writing.

One of the most controversial comments among the thousands is from Twitter user Jeremy Lam:

“My Culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” Lam wrote.

Following that opening statement, Lam described the history of the qipao and its symbolism of women’s liberation, before concluding:

Oh well.

Across shores in Mainland China, where the qipao originally came from, this discussion has taken on a completely different tone, with many Chinese internet users expressing delight over Daum’s wardrobe choice. On Weibo, often described as China’s closest equivalent to Twitter, an account called “英国那些事儿” (“Here in the UK”), which has 7.19 million followers, posted the news (link in Chinese) and American reactions. Here are some of the top-rated comments on the post:

“Just wearing a dress, why do they bother to talk so much…” – @神奇奶头

Gangjing already went this far?” – @江莹佐 [Note: Gangjing (杠精) is a recently invented internet slang term that refers to people who argue for the sake of arguing.]

“Are they so bored? It just means she appreciates our culture…” – @我真的超可爱不信点进来啊

To get a clearer idea of how Chinese people view the cultural issue that caused this uproar on the other side of the world, I randomly interviewed some friends on my WeChat about what they see in Daum’s photos, and whether they feel any discomfort from them.

Celine (PE Investment Manager, 30):

This style of qipao is Westernized to fit a Westerner’s figure. It looks really beautiful on her! [If Americans can’t wear qipao] then is Chinese food also not supposed to be offered in America?

Mathilda (Chinese teacher, 35):

The Chinese qipao feels different on her. And she looks really happy and confident. This is good! After all, prom is an important event in her life! Well, I guess sometimes in this world… you cannot only make yourself happy, but gotta make everyone happy.

Li Xueman (Editor, 30):

I didn’t see the news… but why on earth did it become controversial? It’s just normal, yeah? We all wear wedding gowns and have Western-style weddings! She looks so gorgeous! There are so many gangjing out there… and the internet is furious that there’s no space to discuss issues seriously.

Xiaochao (IT Engineer, 29):

Just like Chinese people wearing Western-style dress in modern China, it’s appreciation for another culture, which means the current promotion for Chinese culture is going quite well.

Qiu (Chinese teacher):

My husband’s [Polish] boss and his family came to Beijing the other day. He took his daughters, who are 16 and 18, to a qipao store to take photos of them wearing qipao. It’s not a big deal. Does this have anything to do with racism and political correctness?

Sherry (Gender Studies Graduate Student):

Wow, the thigh slit is kind of high… but cultural appropriation? I don’t agree. That’s a bit too exaggerated. Only Chinese people can wear qipao? Wedding gowns are from the West. If they say so, they don’t really have a faith in the culture.

Ke Wang (Ph.D. Candidate, 29):

Oh I supported her on Twitter:

Talking about cultural appropriation, General Tso’s chicken might be the most typical one, haha. What does make people uncomfortable is when cultural symbols of tragic history or cultural meaning that should not be entertaining are appropriated against its original meaning, especially when it’s used for entertainment. Qipao is not included in this, but foot binding is. If one day fashion designers use a foot-binding factor in shoes, I will protest. Shouldn’t we be proud that an American girl wants to wear a qipao for such a big event? Qipao, even if I don’t wear it at all, is so popular now in the States!

I also wondered how common it is to see American girls wearing Chinese-style clothing in the US. Some friends of mine living on the West Coast replied positively:

Snow Wang (29):

She looks like a student who’s studying Chinese. It’s totally normal. My co-worker has a dragon robe [imperial robe] his mom bought for him when she was traveling in China.

Bruce Wang (Education, 30):

American culture is diverse, so to be fond of qipao is just to pursue beauty. I’ve seen American girls partying with kimono [Japanese traditional clothing] and Indian traditional clothes. Will Chinese stop wearing suits? And high heels?

Alina Lian (Hollywood Movie Quality Control, 30):

It’s good — shows she likes Chinese culture. This is my co-worker’s table. He is a French-Belgian mix. Chinese culture is in. It is respectful to show interest in other cultures. Unless someone wears a qipao while doing something insulting to us, it should be seen only as interest and respect.

On May 2, following the storm of social media controversy, Keziah Daum told ABC News that she did a quick search after she picked up the dress in a vintage store, and learned that the qipao eventually became a symbol of female empowerment. She didn’t regret her decision, saying, “I would wear it again.”

Well done, Keziah. If they call it cultural appropriation, we got Higher Brothers here in China — check out their interview with Highsnobiety. Trigger warning: they eat New York HOT DOGS.

Related:

Jeremy Lin Rocks Dreads, Sparks Another Cultural Appropriation Debate

Nicki Minaj’s New Thing is… Vaguely Chinese?

Designing the Chinese American Brand

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van