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East-west cultural exchange, good and bad

I love introducing Sino-Immersions' clients to the rich history of east-west cultural exchange that is present all around us.


During our tours this cross-cultural interaction may be more obvious in visits to places like a museum for silk embroideries or a city wall or an ancient observatory, for instance, but it is also present in every day objects like a bowl or more mannered objects like a Chinese scroll.

I was recently visiting Boston and friends at Catholic Memorial School and went to one of my favourite places, the Museum of Fine Arts. As well as paying homage to some of my old friends like Chihuly's Lime Green Icicle Tower and John Singleton Copley's Paul Revere doing his best Jack Black impersonation, I made sure to catch two shows; namely, Nancy Berliner's China's 8 Brokens: Puzzles of the Treasured Past and Showdown!: Kuniyoshi vs Kunisada.

Nancy Berliner kindly spoke to one of my Boston College history classes (Asia in the World) some years back as part of a BC Institute of Liberal Arts funded series "China Watching", and she is one of the world's premier curators of Chinese art. This exhibition, Bapo / 八破 is in many ways the culmination of one of her life's passions.

Showdown! was the MFA showing off, in the sense that the richness of its collections of Japanese art (including ukiyo-e prints) is most likely one of the best in the world and they can choose all manner of themes to bring out riches old and new. In this case it was a chance to compare two contemporary woodblock print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Kunisada, both working in the nineteenth century during a time of political upheaval.

Both exhibitions brought together themes of loss and nostalgia and the conflicting desires of trying to hold onto that which was disappearing while also wishing to jettison things of the past to make way for modernity's rush. In this sense they both contain evocative images of the east-west cultural exchange that was happening at the time.

One instance of this leapt out at me given the recent pilgrimage I led through China for teachers from Jesuit and Jesuit Companion Schools in Australia. During that trip we visited the Ancient Observatory in Beijing, which still has instruments that were cast by Jesuit scientiests in the seventeenth century. Such scientist-priests included Ferdinand Verbiest and Johann Adam Schall von Bell. One of the Kuniyoshi woodblock prints, that showing Wu Yong (or Chicasei Goyô in Japanese, the scholar hero character from the famous Chinese folk novel Water Margin / 水浒传), contains some of these instruments at the foot of the print. This is a clear bringing together of classical Chinese imagery and the Western science promulgated by the European astronomers.

The other exhibition, China's Eight Brokens - which is a genre that formally came into being in the mid nineteenth century - consists of a dense interplay between literary forms and epochs, as well as techniques and traditions from visual art. Perhaps only a highly literate culture like China, where classical education consisted of building upon texts and tropes from generations past, could even begin to make such a new style.

By this I mean that even in daily speech people make classical illusions and references to works of centuries prior - and these are commonly understood and known. In English, by contrast, there is the apocryphal story of the person who went to a performance of Hamlet and thought it contained too many cliches; they were so removed from the original text that the actual origin was unknown. One can argue that in fact many native English speakers work within a very fluid here-and-now language environment, whereas in Chinese language / Sinophonic contexts, there are allusions and interplays with the past that allow an amazing richness, and especially in the visual world.

This is the world of 'the eight brokens', a deliberately provocative juxtaposing of ideas, motifs and artistic references. For instance, one scroll contains a painting of a fan on the wall done in the style of the painter's master. That master himself painted a fan in honour of a classical painter's style, who in turn was alluding to an even earlier artist. Thus the painting of a fan was an imitation of a real fan painting that was itself a copy of an earlier fan painting (which in turn paid homage to a landscape painter). The painting's collage also includes a rubbing of a bronze sculpture, an envelope from the twentieth century and a centuries old roof-tile. Wheels within wheels, and allusions to allusions.

Sadly, however, not all allusions are so whimsical or innocent. In addition to revealing some of the fault lines in the Chinese politics of the day, one of the works also contains a racist reference that escapes most viewer's attention. In the middle of one of the works, one which contains many scraps of calligraphy and books, there is also the brand-name of a toothpaste that was made by a British company in China in the 1930s (Hawley and Hazel, later acquired by Colgate-Palmolive). This brand was popular in Shanghai at the time and it was seen as being modern and chic in the same way that cigarettes, matchboxes and calendars were used as the mediums of coolness. Even into the late 1980s this brand continued to be sold under its original name, and with its original iconography. Eventually (!!), once the company was acquired by Colgate-Palmolive, it became obvious that the name was racist and so it was changed, but actually only in Western markets. Only later was the name changed in Asian markets, but in fact even then only in English. Even today there are still some boxes on shelves.

Without further ado, the scrap of Chinese characters in the middle of the painting contain the toothpaste's Chinese language name - '黑人牙膏/hēirén yágāo - which quite simply translates to 'black person's toothpaste'. The original English brand name was 'Darkie toothpaste' and the image was a copy of Al Jolson in blackface. The name was changed to 'Darlie', as though therefore everything's fine. OMG!

The Eight Brokens thus contains many insights into Chinese culture in surprising and sometimes confronting ways.

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