It’s typically not the case that students are intentionally antagonistic toward classical China. They’re there voluntarily (it’s an elective course) and are genuinely excited to learn about the subject. But many of the assumptions they bring to the primary sources are drawn from random popular and contemporary depictions of ancient China. (And, at least at my institution, this course might be their one and only class on anything having to do with China, so there are few other mechanisms I can rely on to mitigate against such assumptions.) For this reason, initial interpretive efforts can easily slide into what Martha Nussbaum has dubbed the two “descriptive vices” of studying foreign cultures: chauvinism, which can play out in terms of viewing the Chinese material as primitive and pre-philosophical; and romanticism, a generally more receptive stance, but one that nevertheless projects upon the material a condescending innocence and exoticism.
How to confront these biases? Starting the class off by moralizing about Orientalism tends to be confrontational and alienating. And having them read a bunch of hermeneutic theory (such as Said or Nussbaum) is intimidating and diverts precious time from an already crowded syllabus. Instead, as a more engaging way of foregrounding these questions of cross-cultural interpretation, I’ve turned to artworks from Europe’s early modern encounter with China—a genre that certainly had its own share of chauvinism and romanticism. The orientalist biases evident in these artworks tend to strike students as obvious in a pedagogically useful way: once they recognize the cultural distortions at work in the art, they can better recognize and avoid their own hermeneutic pitfalls. In this way, the use of such artworks exercise helps instantiate Confucius’s advice to learn even from poor examples: “When walking with two other people, I will always find a teacher among them. I focus on those who are good and seek to emulate them, and focus on those who are bad in order to be reminded of what needs to be changed in myself” (Analects 7.22).
Toward this end, within the first week or two of the term, I devote part of a class period to showing them several different representatives of chinoiserie—a movement that swept the arts and fashions of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, and aimed at imitating what its European practitioners took to be “Chinese” aesthetics (“chinoiserie” is just French for “Chinese-y”). Much of this genre is innocent, even playful. (That’s another pedagogical advantage of the exercise: it’s visually fun and interactive.) The overwhelming majority of Europeans had very little direct knowledge of China, and so it became a convenient entity upon which to foist fantasias and idylls. Chinoiserie appealed to rich Europeans’ desire to present themselves as worldly, curious, and esoteric. At the same time, by monetizing and aestheticizing stereotypes about another culture, these artworks conditioned a damaging hermeneutic in which contemporary American students can still find themselves derivatively in the grip.
As an example, I have my class consider a variety of chinoiserie images such as these two vases, which decorated the rooms of Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, at Versailles.
In addition to their aesthetic merits, these pieces give us insight into how Europeans viewed China in the eighteenth century... and also how they viewed themselves by comparison. To get at this, I have my students work together in small groups considering the following questions:
- What adjectives would you use to describe each image?
- What or who is represented as Chinese, and what factors or appearances are responsible for this representation?
- If these images were your only source of information concerning what China was like or what it meant to be Chinese, what would you conclude?
Students usually generate descriptions such as serene, peaceful, and relaxing. There is perceived to be a delicacy and fragility that students associate as feminine (even though there are no images of women). “Naturalness” is another apparent motif, expressed by out-of-doors settings and rustic, agricultural, and floral scenes. The students read the “Chinese-ness” of the imagery through the hairstyles, the pagoda, the cart, and the conical hats. The apparent take-home message—the “argument” that these decorative pieces would seem to be making—is that China is a charmingly simple and underdeveloped place whose effeminacy and pristineness is both an invitation to colonially-minded Europeans and a way of reinforcing European self-conceptions of being, by comparison, industrial, manly, and progressive.
The image depicts a scene of lounging tranquility—what Europeans of the time called, as a term of praise not abuse, a folly, i.e. a pleasant break from life’s ordeals. As above, themes of naturalness and delicacy are evident, and the same semiotics of hairstyle, clothing, fans, unfurled scrolls, and vases communicate the Chinese-ness of the scene. Students also quickly pick up on the fact that the central characters are lighter-skinned and feminine, and that the other darker-skinned peripheral figures seem to be attending to them. Boucher’s China was a fantastical vacation destination where innocent natives were eager to wait upon the whims of white tourists.
As a class, we reflect on ways in which similar stereotypes about China are still prevalent. The message can be brought home poignantly by having students also reflect on stereotypes they’ve encountered about their own culture. For example, the majority of my students are from the American South and respond with both bemusement and irritation to the ways in which Southern-ness (the accent, the customs, the socio-politics, etc.) is stereotypically depicted in national and popular media.
There are obviously additional ways to bring visual material into comparative philosophy curricula, viz. showing contemporaneous artworks from the source culture itself. This hermeneutic activity, however, is a fun and engaging way to preface the study of classical Chinese philosophy with concrete warnings about the dangers of cultural distortion, even when it is well intentioned and “artful”. When we move on to the actual primary sources themselves, we might not thereby be totally bias-free; but at least we have learned from the history of chinoiserie, as Confucius urges us to do from all poor examples, how incautious interpretation can say more about the interpreter than the interpreted.
 See Said’s Orientalism (1978). Vintage Books.
 See Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity (1997). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 113-147.
 Slingerland translation.
Dr. Harold E. Fleming Chair of Philosophy and Chair
Department of Religion and Philosophy, Converse College