You are likely to have seen many photographs from China recently, but probably not this one:
Here models and student designers stand side by side during a fashion show at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I’ll let you guess which ones are the models. Of course, the drastic contrast between female models and designers who look like ordinary people occurs at any fashion show, but here that difference is accentuated by ethic polarization.
This post is not about the Olympics, except that this week everything is about the Olympics. Despite smug predictions in the Western press, the Chinese are pulling it off. The events are going smoothly, the bad news is not happening or quickly forgotten, and you have to admit that the place looks great. (I’d like to see a marathon course in any US city look half as nice as the one I saw Saturday night.) It looks like Beijing will achieve its objective–again. One result is likely to be a more widely held realization that China has become highly modernized. And so the question arises: On what terms are we likely to imagine Chinese assimilation into modernity?
The photograph above provides the conventional idea: the West is obviously higher, more sophisticated, and literally the model to be imitated. Likewise, modernity is thoroughly raced: the ideal is Aryan, and one acquires all the benefits of modernization by forming oneself along those lines. If there happen to be obvious disadvantages, well, just be patient and they will be overcome in time–the shorter women in the photo are not going to get any taller, but their children could surpass them. And even though fashion is all about hybridity some of the time, here it is clear that the transmission of culture is entirely one-way.
Even so, the image also contains another story as well. The Western women are there only to be draped and displayed, while the brain work is being done entirely by Asians. The West is a model, but passively so, and rendered passive by its own sophistication. If you had to pick three women to take to the moon, or the office, or the future, I don’t think there is any doubt which three should be given the job.
If a conventional image of catching up to the West contains its own internal caveat, that still falls short of more robust ideas of cultural change. Nor do we have to go too far down the road to get a glimpse of what that might involve:
This is a portrait of Li Shurui, a contemporary Chinese artist whom the New York Times says is “quietly emerging” as a talent within the male-dominated Chinese art world. Although the mask could double as a muzzle, there is nothing quiet about Li Shurui in this photograph. The story emphasizes gender equalization–currently, something featured as a sign of the West’s continued lead in the modernity Olympics–but Li is a study in conflated binaries: She is both male and female, Asian and Western, and organic and mechanical. As a cyborg she performs an important moment in modern feminism; with slanted eyes and blond hair she is actively hybrid, and her intensely focused look makes it damn clear that there is nothing passive about this woman.
Most important, perhaps, is that she can represent an alternative model of Chinese modernization–one that includes key elements of Western society and culture without being mere imitation and gradualist assimilation toward a homogeneous ideal. This is likely to be the real China. Nor should anyone be surprised–it also is the likely to be the real West.
Photographs by Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency and Natalie Behring/New York Times.