Juan Xu: The term “Orientalism” has been widely used since Said defined it. This concept signifies the Western misinterpretation of the East. I read an article titled “Post-colonial Criticism Is Still Effective” by Wang Nanming on www.artinter.net. I’ve been wondering why “Occidentalism” is rarely discussed among artists in China. Have you heard of “Occidentalism”? If so, how do you understand it?
Li Xinmo: There are scattered discussions about “Occidentalism” among scholars, but among contemporary artists, it is not well-defined. To me, “Occidentalism” opposes “Orientalism” and explores how the East misunderstands the West, often driven by illusions about Western ideologies, stereotyped imaginings, or even hostility.
Juan Xu: Exactly. I’ve read several articles by Chinese authors on contemporary art in China. It’s not difficult to identify the prevalent “Occidentalism” in contemporary art criticism here, which reflects misunderstandings about the West. Some of these misunderstandings arise due to differences in time, place, language, and context. However, more often, people simply fail to reconsider these assumptions. Considering the differences and gaps between the two cultures and languages, the contrasting mindsets are somewhat inevitable. Nevertheless, recognizing the existence of “Occidentalism” is crucial if we wish to acknowledge our limitations. While the term “West” is frequently used in Chinese discourse, its precise meaning remains elusive.
Li Xinmo: “East” and “West” are relative concepts that were commonly used in fields such as anthropology and comparative studies. The term “West” is a general designation without a specific reference to any particular country.
Juan Xu: Indeed. Is Russia considered part of the East or the West? Western Europeans view Greece and Russia, both Orthodox nations, as belonging to the “East.” Former Eastern European countries, while once deemed part of an ideological bloc, were labeled as “Eastern.” This prompts the question: Is “the West” a geographical, cultural, or ideological term?
Li Xinmo: Initially, “the West” likely referred to a geographical location, encompassing countries in the western part of the world and the northern hemisphere. Over time, it evolved into a political and cultural concept, associated with capitalist market economies, republicanism, and Christianity. Even socialist Western countries are considered part of the „East.”
Juan Xu: How about Japan? Should it be categorized as an “Eastern” or “Western” nation? Can we interpret it as economically “Western” but culturally „Eastern”?
Li Xinmo: Ideologically, China places Japan in the Western camp due to its capitalism. However, Japan is also seen as an Eastern country due to its distinct Eastern culture. Geographically, it is located in the East. Depending on the perspective, Japan can be both “Eastern” and “Western.” Therefore, the terms “East” and “West” lack clear distinctions and are overly broad.
Juan Xu: In China, the West is often associated with being the “center.” How are the notions of the “West” and the “center” interconnected? Is this “center” an abstract construct or a tangible reality?
Li Xinmo: “Center” is a concept defined in contrast to the “margin.” It’s one of the characteristics of postmodernism to challenge the notion of a singular center, despite its relevance in our world. With globalization, no country can function in isolation, rendering the concept of a distinct “center” increasingly vague. By persistently opposing “centralism,” we risk neglecting critical global issues such as ecology, energy, and nuclear pollution, which are more pressing than debates about the „center.”
Juan Xu: If we reject the concept of “Occidentalism,” can we also reject the idea of Orientalism?
Li Xinmo: That perspective holds validity. Between two equal parties, terms like “right to speak,” “selection,” “being selected,” and “catering” wouldn’t be necessary, as these phrases reflect power dynamics. Chinese people have internalized their sense of inferiority, which has been exacerbated by “Occidentalism.” This concept provides a convenient justification for such a mentality.
Juan Xu: In “Orientalism,” Said argued that the concept of the “Orient” is a construct from the Western perspective, thereby inherently biased. This viewpoint is quite original. Since the 18th and 19th centuries, during the peak of the Western industrial revolution, the “East” lacked representation and opportunities to express itself. Wang Nanming’s discussion of “Orientalism” demonstrates that China (the East) consciously acts and thinks based on its role. An example is Lang Lang, a renowned Chinese pianist, being asked why he plays the piano instead of the traditional Chinese string instrument, the Erhu. This question reflects an “Orientalist” mindset. Certain Westerners idealize Tibetan culture as pure, kind, and less influenced by other cultures. They envision Tibet as a modern society unsullied by Western civilization—a phenomenon known as “Positive Orientalism.” However, this approach reveals double standards. Accusations against the Pope while tolerating Tibetan Lamaism, which resembles medieval theocracy, stem from an “Orientalist” mentality that condescends to the East. “Occidentalism,” essentially the East’s miscomprehension of Western culture, stands in contrast to “Orientalism.” Hollywood films may present an exaggeratedly affluent Western lifestyle, but both “Occidentalism” and “Orientalism” are rooted in the concept of “exoticism.” When I returned to China twenty years ago, my friends wondered why I wore jeans and casual attire. They held the belief that Westerners lived in opulence, as depicted in movies, wearing long dresses and celebrating with champagne. This kind of “exotic” mindset involves exaggerating the strengths of an unfamiliar culture or even fearing it. Discussing “Orientalism” in a Chinese context may seem commonplace, lacking the impact that “Orientalism” carries in the West. This somewhat reflects the hesitance among Chinese intellectuals. In the 21st century, “Orientalism,” in a way, parallels communism in the 20th century, both originating from the West and expressing opposition to it. “Post-colonialism,” emerging from Western self-reflection, represents a powerful political and cultural critique. While it is significant to criticize Western dominance through the lens of “Orientalism,” built on postmodernism, China—an entity within the Western cultural sphere—finds it easy to attribute blame to “Occidentalism,” a Western concept that also saves it from challenging the government. Discussions about “Orientalism” often occur within the framework of social and political studies. However, adopting a psychological perspective might yield different conclusions. What are your thoughts on Chinese biases against the “West”? This encompasses both positive and negative biases.
Li Xinmo: Chinese people have a complex attitude toward the West. On the one hand, there is admiration, and on the other, there is resentment. As admirers, they fantasize about the West as a perfect paradise: advanced, cultured, rational, scientific, absolutely liberal, open, prosperous, romantic, and exotic. Their negative prejudices mainly focus on the relatively short history, the lack of what they consider profound wisdom (unique to the East), depth, and the money-oriented human relationships devoid of warmth. In their minds, Western culture is seen as shallow and straightforward, with little implication and elegance. Westerners are portrayed as wild, not well- evolved, and hairy barbarians. In the early socialist years, the West was demonized as opposing forces, labeled as oppressors, anarchists, and absolute egoists hostile toward socialist China. This ideological demonization of the West greatly influenced Chinese people — the rise of “Orientalism” in China is closely related to “Occidentalism”.
Juan Xu: To what extent is “Occidentalism” connected with our complex of cultural inferiority or superiority?
Li Xinmo: China indeed had a splendid past as a feudal empire. The agrarian society naturally had a sense of superiority stemming from their long self-isolation. However, this sense of superiority due to isolation was shattered by the Opium War, which marked the beginning of the collapse of the once-powerful empire and triggered a sense of inferiority. With the goal of saving the country from subjugation and ensuring its survival, Chinese intellectuals criticized themselves and eagerly embraced Western culture. It was in this context that “Occidentalism” emerged, tied to a national sense of inferiority and superiority.
Juan Xu: Due to the prolonged injustice suffered by Chinese people, a “victim complex” has developed. According to Freud, if a person experiences emotional burdens or heavy blows disproportionate to their age before adulthood, they are likely to suffer from anxiety and other mental issues, unknowingly developing a form of “self-discrimination”. This is characterized by unjustified overestimation of others, which may shift to a sense of superiority if this overestimation isn’t substantiated. For example, a Chinese individual in Germany, seen as insightful, may initially view Germans as flawless and intelligent. However, if they realize that many Germans are just “ordinary” or even mediocre, they might develop a sense of superiority. Similarly, a Chinese director named Wang in Germany once claimed that there was no worthwhile music in Germany, dismissing the music that young people were exposed to as mere noise. In both cases, we can observe the influence of “Occidentalism”. The former comparison between Chinese elites and common Germans isn’t fair, akin to having a child compete against an adult in a marathon. The latter’s ignorance about Western culture led to a misguided sense of expertise and condescension.
Li Xinmo: “Orientalism” has been adopted in China for cultural criticism. Among Chinese art critics, there’s a prevailing belief that art is Western-centric, with art history rooted in the West, while the East plays a complementary role. As the well-known critic Li Xianting has pointed out, Chinese contemporary art is often seen as a mere imitation of Western art. However, it’s essential to understand that Western art sees Chinese art as something exotic. Given your extensive experience abroad, what are your thoughts on this?
Juan Xu: I agree with Li to some extent, but I’d like to add my perspective. Western culture thrives on differences and possibilities, which grants it cultural dynamism. This openness isn’t limited to just Chinese art; art from various countries, even marginalized within their own cultures, can be considered akin to “spring rolls”. In contemporary art, there’s no definitive center. For instance, Jeff Koons was initially rejected by orthodox artists in Germany but eventually gained recognition. The perception that contemporary art in China is predominantly influenced by “Occidentalism” might be valid.
Li Xinmo: Indeed. There’s sometimes a misconception that Western art is sensational, radical, or even violent. Additionally, when Chinese artists achieve success abroad, their achievements are sometimes attributed to Western dominance, as if the West’s influence is politically motivated — a form of cultural invasion. This perception ignores the fact that Chinese contemporary art has its unique merits.
Juan Xu: To be objective, such viewpoints aren’t entirely baseless. While choices are influenced by multiple factors, they are influenced not only by the East-West relationship but also by the Western social and cultural structure. For example, when Ai Weiwei represented Germany at the Venice Biennial in 2013, some German artists criticized the decision, claiming that it seemed as if all German artists had disappeared. This perspective reflects a sense of insecurity. Analyzing “Occidentalism” in the West should encourage us to critically examine our own biases.
Li Xinmo: Absolutely. “Orientalism” in essence is Western scholars critiquing and reflecting on their own culture. When we criticize the West using “Orientalism” as a reference, we might be evading introspection and shifting blame. However, the primary responsibility of intellectuals is to critique and reflect on their own culture. While “Occidentalism” holds meaning and importance in critiquing Western culture, here, “Orientalism” becomes a footnote to nationalism and an excuse for cultural conservatism.
Juan Xu: How can we overcome biased “Occidentalism”?
Li Xinmo: First and foremost, we must adopt a broader perspective, viewing the world as an interconnected whole rather than contrasting entities. The West has often served as a reference for some Chinese individuals in shaping their identity. “Occidentalism” has roots in a system of cultural opposition and conflict, founded on concepts of duality and antithesis. The illusion of “Occidentalism” might diminish when opposition is absent.
Juan Xu: Speaking of “Occidentalism”, a paradox emerges: we lack our own methodology, and the “occidentalist” methods and tools still originate from the West.
Li Xinmo: “Said’s ‘Orientalism’ emerged from Western scholars critiquing Western society and reflecting on it. In contrast, “Occidentalism” critiques “Orientalism” and is largely formulated within the Western knowledge system. We can consider it a cautionary perspective. When criticizing the West, our biases might arise not from the use of Western methodologies or tools, but from how we employ them. It’s a valuable and meaningful approach if it helps us better understand ourselves and progress.
Juan Xu: In the early 1990s, when “Orientalism” was a contentious topic, I wrote an article about Chinese “Occidentalism” in German. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been translated into Chinese. “Occidentalism: The West Viewed by the Enemies” was only published in 2004. In China, many have been preoccupied with criticizing and interpreting “Orientalism”, leaving little focus on “Occidentalism”. Is it perhaps premature to discuss “Occidentalism” in China? What’s the significance of analyzing “Occidentalism’s” impact on Chinese culture and contemporary art?
Li Xinmo: “Orientalism” is an overdiscussed topic in China, almost clichéd. Now seems like the right time to examine “Occidentalism”. It’s a reminder for Chinese culture and contemporary art to approach matters rationally and impartially. Rather than blaming or criticizing the West, we need to understand that cultural dynamics can affect both the West and China. For a culture, losing the capacity for self-reflection is a grave concern. “Occidentalism” has the potential to guide us toward self-reflection.
Juan Xu: Contemporary art originated in the West, so can we argue that Chinese contemporary art can’t escape “Orientalism”, implying an inclination to appease the West?
Li Xinmo: I disagree. While contemporary art emerged in the West, it has been embraced and studied worldwide. This inclusivity demonstrates its tolerance. Chinese contemporary art might have been influenced by the West, but Chinese artists approach it differently from their Western counterparts. Their acceptance in Western museums and galleries occurred in a specific context, not because their art caters to Western preferences. It’s an encounter within a particular era, not a subjective or personal phenomenon. Chinese contemporary art’s global recognition has introduced Chinese artists like Cai Guoqiang, Xu Bing, Fang Lijun, and Zhang Xiaogang to the world stage. However, they face criticism in China for incorporating national symbols or elements into their art, seen as catering to the West’s perceptions of China. Such criticisms suggest that these artists are politically manipulated by the West. While Chinese contemporary art does reflect Western surveillance of socialist countries, it’s a nuanced situation.
Juan Xu: This isn’t a straightforward question. I’m drawn to some of these artworks while others fail to resonate with me. However, as a whole, they each possess unique qualities. It’s not accurate to claim that Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang, and Yue Minjun pander to the West and negatively portray China in an “Orientalist” manner. Labeling their work as “ugly” implies a sense of inferiority. European artworks like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” carry a similar tone. Europeans don’t perceive Munch’s work as distorting their culture; instead, they view it as capturing the stress of urbanization and industrialization on human nature. Accusing these artists of pandering to the West suggests a strong nationalist complex. In my view, it’s a paradox. Although I lack extensive knowledge of Chinese contemporary art, I believe that labeling it as “catering” is narrow-minded. This term doesn’t capture the complexity and variety within this field. We can’t dismiss these artists’ reputations based solely on their Chinese nationality. Many Western artists achieve fame despite their unworthiness. Ultimately, these Chinese artists have addressed subjects that resonate with the West, and while this does play a role in their recognition, it isn’t mere “catering”.
Li Xinmo: I offer critiques of certain critical artworks from an artistic standpoint rather than a political one. Art possesses inherent value and continues to be passed down due to its creation of new forms and meanings. The debates around “catering” or “selection” have limited relevance to art and are not my primary concern.
Juan Xu: Embracing a somewhat radical perspective isn’t as detrimental as some perceive; it’s better than being one-sided. Using “Chinese elements” in art isn’t problematic. Contemporary art should reflect our reality and possess a cross-cultural dimension, addressing universal concerns like environmental protection, social equality, human-world relationships, man-machine interactions, and more. Simultaneously, Chinese artists are attuned to China’s political landscape, making them the most qualified to comment on it. If Chinese symbols or elements are used innovatively and
effectively, combining uniquely with Chinese-specific techniques to express universal human emotions transcending cultural boundaries, then it can be a powerful approach. On the other hand, if “Chinese symbols” are used superficially without originality, their value diminishes. To be globally accepted, Chinese art must adopt an internationally oriented perspective and ambition. Art knows no national limits and belongs to all of humanity.
October 9, 2012