1989 / 8月
Wang Jia-fong /photos courtesy of Arthur Cheng
The Orient has been sought out by caravans traversing the Silk Road, by sailing ships plying the South Seas, by explorers, gunboats, merchants, missionaries, and scholars over the course of the ages.
Why is China still mysterious after 2,000 years? How is it seen by modern Europeans? Let's hear what Dr. Erik Zucher, director of the Visual Presentation of Chinese Culture Project, has to say on the subject.
Q: Do people in the West still have stereotypes of the Chinese?
A: Not exactly as before, because now people know what the Chinese look like. Especially now, from many places, including films from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong that they see regularly on TV.
But certain ideas, of course, are persistent. One of them, for instance, is that Chinese are not affaid of death, so human life doesn't count. That is crazy of course, everyone is afraid of death.
That is one stereotype. Another--not so much a danger I think--the "Yellow Peril" is no more--is they are a bit afraid of the economic development of mainland China. Taiwan is not so big, you can handle it. But if mainland China reaches the level of Japan, they say, then the whole world will be flooded with Chinese people. It's a fear of huge numbers, not as warfare, but rather in the economic sense.
And then you have some people who think that the Chinese are all very wise, all philosophers, like Lao-tzu and Confucius. So they read all kinds of translations, and they are amazed when they see how the average Chinese make money, have a good time, and work hard to get a good job. So that's also a stereotype.
These are quite different from the old stereotypes, for instance, the old ones of Marco Polo that China was rich, all gold, silver, and jewels. Now nobody thinks that China is rich. The image of Confucianism as very wise is still noticeable. And that they are hard working, which is true of course, hard working and thrifty and don't waste money. Especially for mainland China, that is still the image.
Q: Was the movie The Last Emperor popular here? Do you think Westerners will interpret Chinese people from some of the traits stressed in the film?
A: Yes, it was. Everybody has seen it, and everybody will probably think that China is like that.
They did a nice job of reconstructing the period at the end of the Ching dynasty. It was nice to look at, the first part. The rest was not so good, especially the last part. I think that Bertolucci really believes that in China there is an ideal prison system where people are educated and friendly and so on, and that he came out as a better man. It's a bit too optimistic. But that is Bertolucci, he believes that.
Q: It was the ideal kind of society imagined by Western people in the sixties, wasn't it?
A: Yes, the late sixties especially. Chairman Mao, Mao Tse-tung thought, and that kind of idea were popular with students then, especially in Paris and America. It sounded so nice, so revolutionary, so new--relying on young people to change the world.
Of course, since 1976, especially in mainland China itself, so much has been published about the Cultural Revolution, and nobody believes in it anymore. After 1976 people started writing about their experiences, about the terrible things people suffered. So that has changed, and I don't think many people believe all that now.
Then you have the new image, of course, like Teng Hsiao-p'ing and the development.
Q: That began in the early 1980s?
A: Yes, openness. And of course that had a big impact on many people's hopes, raising big hopes. Commercially they see a big market, to sell a lot of things to the huge population. And in general, the system is more free and open, with more exchanges and so on. Well, we know that there are ups and downs, and now it happens to be down. We have this very sad thing at the moment [time of interview: mid-June], and an enormous amount of talking about China on the radio and television.
Q: A couple of years ago, I went to an exhibition in London called "China Scrap-book" given by four young British artists who had gone to the mainland to paint their impressions of China. As a Chinese visitor, I was a bit surprised that the things they painted were so stereotyped. It seemed the impressions of Westerners toward China hadn't changed in a hundred years.
A: That's international. It's like the Japanese when they come to Europe. They want to see the big monuments and the famous things. If they go to Paris they aren't interested in Paris, they want to see the Eiffel Tower. Normal life is not so interesting. People want to see the big things and take a picture standing there. It's normal human behavior, so that's the difficult part.
Q: Speaking of ordinary things, last week we visited the National Museum of Ethnology here, and they have a lot of items of daily life from Peking or Nanking. It was interesting, but it made me quite sad, because the curator said he would never buy anything like that himself, but he wanted his people to understand Chinese taste: he was talking about a table lamp with a purple shade, a green stand, and a blue base.
A: That's the elite taste, of course. What they want to show is what the common people use, the vast majority. They have no taste. It's terrible all over the world.
Q: The problem is, I think you could search all over Taiwan and not find a lamp with colors like those, and he said that was the most popular style in Nanking. That was what made me sad. A warped sense of taste shouldn't be taken to represent all China. Of course, maybe I don't have the right to say that, because the population of the mainland is one billion, so they're the "masses" no matter how you look at it.
A: Actually if you want to show how people live in the West, you mustn't show the opera house. Nobody goes to the opera. They go to movies and the disco. So you should show them the disco. It's the same way in China. And what you saw may have been old collections. If you go to China now, the things you find in the shops are much worse. It's terrible of course. People walking around in leather jackets, with big things attached to them . . . but it's the way people live.
Q: But how can we expect people to understand each other's culture from those kinds of things? I don't mean that paintings. ceramics, and the ancient classics are the only things that can represent Chinese culture, but it shouldn't be things that look odd even to a Chinese person, should it?
A: It's not so easy to understand a silk painting, but it's very easy to understand a comic strip. So that's the danger in China, but also in the West of course. They are losing contact with their own traditions. And that's why these things are important to show them, especially the young people, who have no idea about them, who have become Americanized with chewing gum, Coke, break-dancing, and that sort of thing, which they don't have to use their brains for.
So that is the idea behind a Visual Presentation of Chinese Culture. We have to preserve and present it to people, but in such a way that they like to see it. And that is the problem, to develop a method of making it interesting.
Preserving culture isn't easy, and making people understand it is even harder.
This T shirt, sold at a vendor's stand in Belgium, is full of an Oriental feeling.
The local magistrate going out on inspection is a scene from more than a century ago.
The curator in charge of the Oriental section of the National Museum of Ethnology, Paul van Dowgen, had to resort to all sorts of trickery to get someone to buy this nightstool for him in Nanking. It may not be the museum's prize holding, but it's one of his favorites.
The exhibits at the Ethnology Museum are different in function from thos e of an art museum. They are intended to acquaint people with the daily life of different cultures.