In the introduction to The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, Frank Dikotter tells us that race remains an essential part of Chinese identity.
“‘Chineseness’ is seen primarily as a matter of biological descent, physical appearance and congenital inheritance,” writes the historian of modern China. “Cultural features such as ‘Chinese civilization’ or ‘Confucianism’ are thought to be the product of that imagined biological group: they are secondary and can be changed, reformed or even eradicated.”
I had these words in mind while watching Discovery Channels’ four-part documentary Chineseness: The Rise of Chinese Art — Li Chen (李真 ), Zhang Huan (張洹 ), Yang Chi-hung (楊識宏) and Xu Bing (徐冰) — because under the guise of portraying “Chinese” artists, it has perpetuated, albeit under the rubrics of art, religion and culture, the notion that there is something intrinsic to being Chinese. The documentary is currently being aired throughout Asia.
The documentary’s purpose is to expose four artists that Discovery and its producer’s feel are outstanding representatives of “Chineseness,” and in the process uncover what host and narrator Agnes Hsu (徐心眉) says is “the new Chinese consciousness.” It situates the artists within China’s 5000-year history, the implications of which are nostalgic, eternal and nationalistic, but largely fails to show how historical China has had to break with tradition in order to be modern; in Chineseness, too much of the old Chinese consciousness remains.
The artists revel to a greater or lesser extent in the influence “the West” has had on their artistic practice, particularly the theories underlying avant-garde and conceptual art. But one questions the sincerity of Discovery’s enterprise when Yang, who has lived over half his life in the US, says, “Even if you are influenced by Western culture, you are still Chinese,” or when he later remarks in English: “to be born Chinese, or huaren, is something you cannot choose.”
Huaren (華人), often translated as a cultural signifier, is here synonymous with race, something you cannot change because it is something you are born into. “Race” isn’t uttered in the documentary, but as Dikotter reminds us, “racial discourse cannot be reduced to the mere appearance of the word race.” In other words, it is implied through what the artists say and do, and the editorial decisions as what to leave in, and take out. Yang’s utterances are buttressed by the importance that Hsu, who reminds us in the documentary and press blurb that she is a “descendent of” respected Ming Dynasty scholar-bureaucrat Xu Guangqi (徐光啟), places on lineage, a folk notion that the documentary suggests continues to have strong resonance on the identity of these artists.
The point here is that “Chineseness” means different things to different people. In using the term without reference to its broader implications and the fact that Discovery allows huaren to be employed as a racial category (“born Chinese”), perpetuates a form of racialized identity.
(One can imagine, incidentally, the sniggers of derision that would result with a documentary called “Caucasianess.”)
Underlying this is the patronizing manner in which the narrator revises the outdated notion of undeveloped societies living in a state of primitive bliss. Zhang, having spiritualized himself on the narcotic of Tibetan Buddhism, says that this is the antidote for those people — stressed out, overworked, rife with anxiety — moving to and living in China’s big cities. We learn this through the story of “Shanghai girl,” who apparently operates a business of meditation rooms in that city. Hsu, as she moves through these rooms, says that she “sees an earnest desire on the part of these people to seek something missing,” suggesting that they need to look back to “areas development has not reached,” where “people seem most content.” Considering China’s repressive policies towards the Tibetan people and their culture, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the camera pans to a giggling Tibetan child playing on a dirt road or three guffawing monks walking in front of a monastery.