Zoe Zhang/MiC.

During my childhood in China, there was one particular advertisement that occupied my memory: De Rucci sold mattresses. Its advertisements were plastered all over billboards, trucks and lost-and-found style on lampposts and electricity posts. The graphic was simple and minimalistic, without any flamboyant design elements. It was merely a middle-aged, lanky white man in rounded reading glasses, smoking a Holmes-style pipe in a white dress shirt. We, of course, can reasonably infer from the cursive text “De Rucci furniture,” that the man is the founder of the company, and his brooding, contemplative expression can only be produced by gazing at his masterfully crafted mattresses.

In reality, the man was not the founder of De Rucci; he wasn’t even a businessman, actor or model. He was the product of a nationwide manhunt for the perfectly enlightened, suave white man to pose as the founder of the company. The company found that figure in an English teacher in rural China, who agreed to do the photoshoot for $1,500. He was blissfully unaware of his notoriety and the company’s success until much later. The company, on the other hand, was never Italian: it was Chinese. However, the iconic advertisement of a fake European luxury brand worked. The company now has over 4,000 store locations as of 2019 in 17 countries, many of which are in America and Europe.

The rebrand of the Chinese mattress company as a European family business exceeded the company’s expectations, taking on a mystic, enchanting allure to its Chinese customers. Consumers viewed the European persona on the advertisement, littered all over major cities, as a symbol of success and alluring Western prosperity which certainly contributed to the company’s success. The idealization of the West sold. Chinese consumers chose European worldliness and an Italian brand name over domestic “tackiness.” Many similar instances of proximity to whiteness, falsely equated to noble taste, character and quality, as product or advertisement, followed suit. I vividly remember my father often opting for French restaurants that served steak and creme brulees for family celebrations rather than Chinese ones that served classic dishes. I also remember him dragging me downtown to Tiffany & Co. for my mother’s birthday gift, instead of shopping at a much more affordable (and equally renowned) Chinese brand such as Chow Tai Fook.

Back in China, these phenomena can be somewhat explained by cultural hegemony, the dominance and perceived superiority of Western culture due to a global history of Western imperialism. Growing up, I had always gotten the sense that the West was a utopia of freedom, beauty and self-expression. My white English teachers from kindergarten and elementary school always dressed in better, more fashionable clothing. In a curious way, they also inexplicably smelled better, like colognes or baked goods, and were more charming to me, based on my perceptions of sophistication, than their Chinese counterparts. 

However, my stunted notion of “Westernness” back then largely differs from what people living in the West understand it to be. It is an abstract notion of prosperity and material, where the continents of Europe and the United States are morphed into one and reduced to merely mainstream Western culture, such as popular movie franchises and fashion brands. Aspects of popular media like “The Avengers” and other art forms I was familiar with rarely showed the plights of  working-class people, but a mere silhouette or an idealized society in which everyday people were represented by beautiful models and actors. Even if the actors were just normal-looking people, they were considered more attractive due to their whiteness and features that adhered to eurocentric beauty standards. These arts, cuisine and culture are falsely equated with worldliness due to their higher monetary value and how they paint the consumer of these goods as sophisticated and opulent.

The demand for Western goods that portray white American and European suaveness is similarly tremendous. The Chinese appetite for Hollywood movies has become so massive that Chinese companies took notice. Product placements have been sighted frequently in Western blockbusters, accompanied by appearances by Chinese actors and even several scenes set in China. But often, Western brands’ attempts to appeal to Chinese customers with their perceived “Chineseness” backfire as they attempt to court an audience by appealing to their traditional culture. For example, to appease the growing demand in China for designer goods, Balenciaga released bags that feature declarations of love written in Mandarin for Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day). However, the campaign and handbags themselves were far from well-received by the public. The ad campaign employed Chinese models instead of white models, who made up the majority of campaign models targeted towards Western audiences. It also incorporated an aesthetic of poor graphics and low-quality, highly-saturated backgrounds reminiscent of photos taken in a low-end, ‘90s Chinese photography studio. Perhaps the abandonment of Western grandeur by including Chinese characters and aesthetics was what prompted one Chinese netizen to say that “the ad campaign is downright ugly and tasteless. It reminds me of the style used by photography studios in rural China in the 1990s.” A large portion of netizens also called for the boycott of the brand altogether.

The controversy’s corresponding hashtag, “Balenciaga’s Qixi-themed commercial is tacky,” had amassed about 180 million views. In an online poll conducted in Mandarin by Toutiao News on Weibo, about 57% of the roughly 13,000 respondents said that the ad campaign was “unacceptable” because the images were “too tacky.” In Chinese, the word for tacky is “土气,” while its antonym, “洋气,” literally translates to “oozing westernness.” While “土气”  is often used as an insult towards someone’s unpolished appearance, “洋气” is used to complement one’s stylish dress or demeanor. For instance, someone in a traditional Chinese cotton blouse and pants may be condemned as “土气,” whereas someone in a trench coat and knee-high boots may be praised as “洋气.” In the case of the ill-received Balenciaga campaign, the inclusion of vintage Chinese graphics is considered tacky, while Balenciaga’s more Western campaigns that feature majority American and European models and dress were considered sophisticated and just what the Chinese consumers desired.

Even without any knowledge of the history of Western imperialism or the Western cultural hegemony, in my youth, I have always associated Western goods and culture with quality and status. For Christmas, after I turned eleven, I received a pair of Coach women’s low top sneakers from my parents. In hindsight, those sneakers were far from what I consider fashionable now. They were monogrammed, quite flat and shapeless, as they were composed of fabric instead of the usual, chunkier materials sneakers are made of. However, the fact that Coach is a semi-luxury American brand was enough to make them my favorite shoes and at the time; I couldn’t wait to show them off to the world. The night I received them, I laced them up tightly and strutted up and down the streets of the neighborhood I lived in as if it was my personal runway. Eventually, my parents, who had gone on the walk with me, and I ran into my best friend and her mother. Crazed in my new kicks, instead of greeting them, before I had even realized, I blurted out, “Look at my new sneakers, they’re Coach.” In the moment, my excitement had trampled my grasp on politeness; I came off as arrogant and obnoxious. 

The incident had earned me a shouted lecture from my parents about manners and materialism. However, in hindsight, I now know that they had wanted to get me something nice for the holiday season, and to them, that meant American designer shoes. I was never supposed to verbally declare the tacit sense of status that came with those sneakers. Ironically, flat, fabric shoes were also a prominent design in traditional Chinese garments. In my childhood, I had also received a pair of fabric shoes for a Chinese New Years’ performance I was a part of. Despite the almost identical designs of the two pairs of shoes, the Chinese fabric shoes did not receive even a fraction of the love I had extended to the Coach sneakers. They were tossed aside and stuffed in a dark corner of my closet, never to see the light of day again.

My childhood experiences with Western commodities and the idealization of the West may seem like a display of cultural ignorance upon first glance, but this idolization is rooted in a long history of Western interference with Chinese sovereignty. China’s modern history from 1849 to the present is a tale of exploitation and occupation by the West and Japan. The “century of humiliation” describes a period of time between the first Opium War and the founding of communist China. At the end of the Qing dynasty, China’s government had yielded large portions of strategic and portal cities such as Hong Kong to Western nations as a result of lost warfare. This period of occupation eventually became a key element of modern China’s founding narrative. In many ways, Chinese people have yet to recover from a modern history riddled with warfare, civil wars, revolutions and famine. In colonial Shanghai, plaques that read “no dogs or Chinese allowed” were put up at Huangpu Park, an establishment exclusively for Westerners. That kind of humiliation persisted in the Chinese people’s collective identity and memory. The sense of cultural inferiority that seemed to haunt the Chinese people can be explained when considering that in recent history; not only is China still troubled with these conflicts, but American and European culture hegemony still dominates the world today, further contributing to this sense of inferiority. The domination of the West has taught the Chinese people that they possessed a lowly place in the world that could only be altered and improved upon through rigorous development and at times, emulating the same material opulence that Western countries possess proudly. To be outwardly sophisticated, one must imitate the countries that once exploited the Chinese people, Chinese resources as well as Chinese wealth. China’s past of Western colonization has shaped the collective Chinese psyche, but this might not be the case anymore in the not-so-distant future as China continues to develop and take center stage in the world.

The idealization of the West emerged from a country in ruins and persisted in a nation that is increasingly opening its doors to the world at large. As world politics continue to shift and China continues its miracle trajectory towards economic boom and progress, perhaps the sentiment of cultural inferiority and the disillusionment of the West will be a thing of the past, leaving the Chinese public to laugh and gawk at stories akin to that of De Rucci. If the Chinese people were to better understand the West’s history of colonialism and the oppression of its capitalist system, the veil of mystery around the West’s prosperity would be largely lifted, and its idealization would be replaced by scorn and become a phenomenon of the past. Because China’s economic boom in recent years and increasing weight on the global stage coincided with a rise in “国潮,” or Chinese fashion, it is evident Chinese youth are rediscovering the beauty in classical literature, dress and traditions. Perhaps one day, pride in one’s Chinese heritage and Chinese fashion will overtake the worship of the false Western sophistication in popular culture.

MiC Columnist Zoe Zhang can be reached at zoezhang@umich.edu.