Destabilizing the Imperialist Narrative with Chinese Graphic Tees

WRITTEN: Atalanta Shi

EDITED: Fizza Joffrey

It is a trend of globalization to want to mutually understand cultures and respect one another.

I say fuck that.

People only want to appreciate cultures under the pretence that western culture is superior and other cultures are for their entertainment. I want to start this with an excerpt from Minh Ha Pham's life-changing article at the Atlantic:

The idea that an Asian country like Indonesia might be the deliberate, self-aware originator of a fashion trend, rather than simply the third-world site for manufacturing cheap commodities, is an “inappropriate” one: it doesn’t correspond with the binary of high and low culture at the heart of cultural appropriation critiques. An “inappropriate” critique would point out that Western fashion designers are not only extraordinarily late to this plaid trend, they are following the followers of the trend. By locating the source of their inspiration in the Chinese-made bags (which are themselves based on cheap copies of the Bugis textiles), Philo, McCartney, and Jacobs are following in the tradition of earlier European and Asian trading companies who were already copying this textile. These illustrious Western fashion designers are, in effect, knocking off knock offs. The only thing “reinvented” by the Céline, Stella McCartney, and Louis Vuitton pieces is the notion of the Western fashion industry as the most important site of design innovation—an idea that is itself an invention.
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This idea of inappropriation relates to my interest in t-shirts with nonsensical English slogans/sentences for how they position the English language. What exactly are these? I suppose you can just categorize them as mass fashion, quickly manufactured and widespread. They are just like any other graphic tee, with a simple slogan, not intended to stimulate any sort of deep thought. But westerners and English-speaking people sure get a kick out of reading them, since they don't really make sense. Where else have we seen a language been used for not literal meaning, but visual?

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Classic, no? Chinese and Japanese characters are stripped of meaning by the West for their "admirable aesthetic qualities" and are used on apparel and tattoos; in a sense, they brand the users as worldly and interesting because they are brave enough to admire "exotic cultures". On the other hand, English started to appear on shirts in China purely for the status of the English language - it too has been objectified and stripped of meaning. It is assumed that if you know English, you are educated - and by association, hold high social status.

It is clear that the English language and East Asian languages hold different social connotations. When Chinese languages are objectified, it reduces the entirety of Chinese history and culture to a visual accessory. When people from the West see Chinese people wearing nonsensical English, they think of the Chinese as uneducated, non-creative, and imitative as a whole. But, is this the only reality? Is it hard to consider that Chinese people might have a perspective on your ugly-ass Chinese tattoo? Do all Chinese people, over a billion of the world's population, care so much about what white people think of them that they want to wear English on their shirt to prove that they speak English?

When Chinese-speaking people look at Chinese tattoos, they laugh a little and move on with their day. When English-speaking people look at these pictures of English t-shirts, they laugh a little and move on with their day.

The point is not even to answer these questions, but to start posing them for people who have not yet conceived them - because at the end of the day, these assumptions lead to published articles on New York Times that tell people "some linguists and cultural historians believe so much mental energy and brain space is taken up by rote learning of the [Chinese] language, that little is left over for innovative thinking."

Have these so-called historians ever read about Chinese history? Or are they just doing work that is a self-serving reassurance for the West: that China is non-threatening because they can't even learn their own language, the oldest written language in history of over 6000 years, well enough to start thinking about innovation?

Also, have you seen American graphic tees?

This matters because let's not forget that we live in a globalized world where Western imperialism is the foundation of global politics and economy that 'trickles down' and affects individual lives. Hegemonic Western culture is the culture that demands to be the standard, the norm, and that all other cultures are in relation to it as the Other. The expectation of people to know your American language and your cultural references is an oppressive, colonialist idea that Western culture is the only relevant culture and all other cultures are backwards and obsolete.

History is only so much as what people write it to be. The imperialist narrative will impose that these t-shirts exist as a result of Chinese people being uneducated, cheap, and not having a culture of their own to show; in fact, it is actually destabilized already by the existence of these t-shirts. We just need to write it accordingly.

For inquiries regarding this article, contact Atalanta Shi @addydydy. You can find more of Atalanta Shi's work here: