It’s prom season. High school girls in America have spent significant amounts of time and money to find the dress that makes them the prettiest girl at the party. Keziah of Utah found a perfect prom dress that she looks great in. She happily posted her prom pictures on Twitter.
— Keziah (@daumkeziah) April 22, 2018
What she didn’t expect was for a self-designated culture cop, Jeremy Lam, to ruin her perfect day by tweeting “My culture is not your [expletive] prom dress.” It went viral, and Keziah found herself having to defend herself against wild charges of racism.
Lam was upset because the prom dress Keziah picked was a Qipao, a traditional Chinese dress. Lam went on his Twitter rant by lecturing on the history of Qipao as he understands it. He concluded by saying “I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.”
However, Lam himself gets Qipao’s history wrong. Qipao (旗袍), also known as cheongsam in Cantonese, was originally Manchu women’s traditional attire. The Manchu are an ethnic minority living in northeast China. Led by their fearless leader, the Manchu army conquered the Ming Empire (an empire established by Han Chinese) and ended the Ming dynasty.
Han Chinese Appropriated the Manchu Dress First
Then and now, Han Chinese occupy the majority of China at about 91 percent of the Chinese population. The Manchu established the Qing Dynasty and ruled over the majority of Han population from 1644-1912. There were great ethnic conflicts between the Han and the Manchu during this period, as the Hans tried many times to overthrow Manchu rulers, whom they considered barbaric. Eventually, Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionaries successfully ended the Qing Dynasty and established the republic of China in 1912 through armed revolution.
The Qipao that Manchu women used to wear were loose, wide, and often bulky, with several layers. It covered the woman’s entire body except her hands and feet. After the 1912 revolution, western ideas such as equality of the sexes and women’s liberation began to influence Chinese women.
As more and more Chinese women attended schools and got into various professions, they needed new outfits to match their new social awareness. So Han Chinese women modified the Qipao by making it more form-fitting with various lengths and sleeve styles. If there’s really such a thing as cultural appropriation, it’s the Han Chinese women who appropriated the Qipao from Manchu women.
Lam was also wrong to claim that Qipao as an outfit somehow “broke the division of financial classes.” Prior to 1949, Qipao was an everyday attire. Women with means usually wore Qipao made of silk with elegant and intricate embroidery and decorated with furs or gold buttons. Women who were poor wore Qipao made out of homemade cloth with limited colors and no fancy decorations. So if anything, Qipao exaggerated economic inequity, not neutralized it.
Who Forbids Wearing Qipao? Literal Communists
In addition, Lam failed to mention that when the Communists took over mainland China in 1949, they regarded the Qipao as a symbol of bourgeois lifestyle and ideology. Thus, mainland Chinese women were forbidden to wear it. The Qipao disappeared from mainland Chinese women’s wardrobes for several decades.
It has only made a gradual comeback in mainland China after economic reform, and most importantly after Hong Kong movie director Wang Kai-wai released his melancholy movie, “In the Mood for Love,” in 2000. The lead actress in the movie, Maggie Cheung, wore a dozen figure-hugging Qipao. Since the release of the movie, sales of Qipao in mainland China have skyrocketed. Still, Qipao is not an everyday outfit for Chinese women nowadays. Women only wear it during formal occasions such as weddings, parties, and beauty pageants.
According to Lam’s own tweets, he is an immigrant to the United States. I imagine he probably has a few pairs of jeans in his closet. If he ever went for a job interview, he probably didn’t show up in traditional Chinese men’s wear. Instead, he probably dressed in a suit and tie. He has also most likely eaten pizza a few times since he immigrated. No one ever screamed at him for wearing western-style clothes or eating non-Chinese food. (If it did happen, he would surely tweet about it.)
While misrepresentation of other cultures does happen from time to time and can be harmful, cultural appropriation is a silly idea that has been taken too far. All the cultures we appreciate today are the result of cross-pollination with other cultures over a long period of time. The true “originality” of a culture doesn’t exist. If we are forced to live within only the culture that is defined by our ethnicity or skin color, life will be very boring.
If we follow Lam’s ill reasoning, no Chinese girls in America should attend prom, since prom is a western cultural activity. But Lam doesn’t own Chinese culture. Rather than slam American teenagers and take all the fun out of life, self-designated cultural police like Lam need to chill out. They have neither the right nor the authority to tell other free people how to conduct their lives.
I want to let Keziah and everyone else out there know that you do not need anyone’s approval to wear something that makes you look good. Go ahead and enjoy the diversity of life.