Article: Cultural appropriation

[Warning: this is me in ranty, pissed-off mood. I apologise for picking targets and basically offloading my anger on them, but I honestly feel I can’t make you understand what I mean without pointing at specific bits. Many thanks to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz for reading this before it went live]

Apropos of nothing and just for the record: when people complain about cultural appropriation, they’re not all [1] saying that outsiders shouldn’t write cultures foreign to them. However, what I suspect they’re saying [2] is this: some outsiders (rather more than you think) will get cultures egregiously and disrespectfully *wrong*. That, even if a lot of (other outsider) people think that a certain book/story did a great job of introducing them to a fancy new culture, it doesn’t change the orientalist/racist clichés or simply the bad facts that are presented in said fiction.
And when I say bad facts I don’t mean niggly details that would require weeks of research: I mean really, really bad facts akin to calling everyone in a French novel “Dracula” because everyone knows Dracula is a typically French name. Facts that should have been a part of any basic research process, and that make the reader doubt the author really cared about the culture they were so “thoughtfully” depicting. Names. Food. Religion. That kind of thing.

You’ll think that this is a tiny minority; a 0.01% of writers who get things wrong and are rightly excoriated for it. Thing is… this happens WAY more often than you’d think. This is NOT a tiny minority. I’m not saying it’s a 99.99% of fiction either, but cultural appropriation is not a negligible or insubstantial phenomenon. A significant amount of fiction out there makes me doubt much thoughtful research (or much research at all!) was involved.

To take just one example: the last few stories set in China I have read [3]. One of them, set in historical China, mangled the historical timeline so badly I wasn’t even sure it was the real China, and inexplicably forgot to have any kind of ancestor worship, which is a bit like doing medieval France without Christianity. One of them, set in a futuristic China, used the timeworn tropes of Chinese being horrible to their own women (because, you know, Confucianism [4]) and had said women rescued by Westerners (because quite obviously those poor Asians can’t rescue themselves). And the last one, set in what purported to be Ancient China, had a concerted state-supported effort aimed at imprisoning, mistreating and killing dragons (we’ve been over this before, but Chinese/Vietnamese dragons are NOT evil, they’re Heavenly beings. This is a bit like having a historical medieval Europe where kings authorise the chasing and killing of angels. Possible, but a. you’re not going to get very far because angels are way more powerful than humans, and b. you’re not going to stave off the wrath of God for very long…) For bonus points, that story also had an evil character on a quest for immortality that he later renounced because he wanted redemption. Er. No. Quests for immortality are perfectly fine in Chinese thought (see Daoist immortals. That’s perfectly OK, and in fact deeply respected).

Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me. In fact, they feel like Western thought grafted on top of what someone thought were the “cool bits” of Chinese culture. And, without exception, all of these had glowing reviews by people convinced that those were accurate and nice representations of Chinese culture. Newsflash: no, no, and no. When a writer is perpetuating horrible clichés in the course of their writing, when they’re propagating transparently false ideas of what it means to live in a place and/or a time period… This is cultural appropriation, and it’s bad–and whether said writer meant it or not doesn’t change the fact that they’ve egregiously mangled someone’s culture through lack of care. It’s the bit that makes a lot of people angry, and quite justifiably so. [5] It’s not the fact that writers take cultures that aren’t from their traditions that attract people’s ire; it’s the fact that the depiction of those cultures are badly inaccurate on mind-boggling levels.

(there’s an easy way to avoid this if you’re using a 21st-Century culture btw–grab someone from said culture and ask their opinion about the basic stuff in your story)

Anyway, that was my afternoon rant. Apologies again, and thanks for listening. If anybody wants to weigh on how they feel about the subject, I welcome thoughts and discussions!

(also, if any Chinese people are reading this and feel that any of the examples I used aren’t appropriate, I’d be quite happy to be corrected. I would have used Vietnamese culture, which is the one I’m most familiar with, but Vietnam hasn’t been the subject of quite so many books and stories and I didn’t really have enough examples for this…)


[1] Some of them are, and I understand and respect that feeling. Likely, the reason they don’t want outsiders writing about their culture is exactly what I’m going to outline in this post–too many people have been doing it badly, badly wrong.
[2] Again, not claiming to walk in people’s heads. Seen the feeling a lot on the internet though.
[3] I’m not Chinese, as is by now evident; and China itself is huge and multifaceted. However, Vietnamese and Chinese cultures have a lot of points of intersection, especially when we’re talking Ancient China and Ancient Vietnam, since the second was basically a colony of the first. And also, I can spot an Orientalist cliché when I see one.
[4] Not saying Confucianism didn’t do a lot of damage; however, you have to realise that you can’t base a description of modern China/Vietnam on mores that have gone out of fashion or been severely toned down in the 20th Century. Having China follow old-school Confucianism, again, is a bit like having Europe still follow the hard-core Christian mores of the Middle Ages. Er, no?
[5] I very probably committed bad mistakes in the Obsidian and Blood books (well, not “very probably”, I know at least two errors that I wish I could fix), though I did my best research-wise. I do hope none of them are on that egregious level of failure, but if they are, I apologise profusely. I was much less aware of that kind of issues when I wrote Servant, and it shows.

17 comments

  1. Excellent post, and with lots of points well worth considering. I saw much the same sort of problem when I studied Classics; people attributed motivations onto ancient Greeks and Romans that tallied with modern western standards, and all its baggage. So, so wrong and if that happens in academic papers it’s not surprising that it happens in fiction too.

    One of my particular bugbears is fantasy taking on all the stereotypes of a particular culture and not a lot else. Loads of writers do it to Scotland/Celts all the time and it drives this second generation Scot crazy!

    (Saying that, I am still looking forward to Brave; if only because it has actual Scots in it)

  2. Great post!

    To be honest at this point I feel that a lot of the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of editors. Authors will keep on writing junk, I don’t think that can be prevented any way, and it probably should not be prevented in either case. But these stories should NOT appear in respectable venues, and editors are the gatekeepers for that.

    I regularly read stories – yes, even in pro venues – which have egregious errors that really ought to be noticed by anyone with the slightest awareness of other cultures. Even Western non-Anglo cultures! (Non-Western cultures all the more so. X[ ) I’m talking about stuff like entire sentences in what looks worse than Google Translate German, I refuse to believe major venues cannot find a person who can check a couple of German sentences before they see print, it takes seconds for a German speaker. (Same for any other language, I’ve just come across a story like this recently.) That’s not even a matter of interpretation… with cultural details, people often claim their mistakes result from “a different interpretation” or “a different perspective” *grimaces*

    And editors for these venues are often nominated for awards. That speaks volumes.

    Again, I’m not Chinese. But Vietnamese culture has a heck of a lot of overlap with Chinese culture, and none of these feel remotely OK to me.

    I feel that way about the recent glut of bad Russian stories. I’m Hungarian, I’m not Russian, but because I’m Hungarian, I know more about Russia than the average Westerner – and because Hungary used to be occupied by the Soviet Union, I grew up reading a lot more Russian stuff than Western stuff. (The latter which was usually censored anyway – when I reread an Andersen tale as an adult, in English, I was really struck by the large amount of explicit Christian references!)

    And as there are a lot fewer stories by Westerners about Hungary, or even casually mentioning Hungary (in the past two years I’ve only found one – it was failtastic), I end up posting about the bad Russian stories simply because there are more. I’m not trying to usurp the roles of actual Russian people, G-d forbid, and I link to their own posts whenever available.

  3. @Alexa: oooh yes. It’s what I call the “costume” effect: everything looks cool, but not much actually makes sense from the POV of the culture…
    @prezzey: aw, thanks! At this point honestly, I’m going to be a little absolutist, but I’d rather writers didn’t include foreign languages in their stories–most of them don’t pass “is this dictionary German” test, but those that do can get really hilarious by failing to understand nuances and how social background and time period affect language (my fave French insult ever was an 18th-Century noblewoman calling a woman “salaud”, which has the double fail of being the wrong gender, and being totally inappropriate for the time period). And I don’t see what you gain from foreign languages other than cheap exoticism…
    But yes, totally. Failing that, editors should check. I don’t get the feeling that they often do, however…
    Ha, so glad I’m not the only one who feels that way about a huge neighbouring country! It’s a little embarrassing that I have to pick so many of my examples from China–I’m reasonably sure that I’m not off the mark, but it’s a little… iffy to criticise cultural appropriation on a culture you’re not a member of!

  4. Thanks, Aliette.

    The costuming effect is something I need to *see* more.

  5. I’m Chinese and it does bother me when the dragons aren’t done right. Particularly when they’re essentially fire-breathing western dragons in a more serpentine body.

    It still bothers me that the best known fantasy book in a Chinese setting is The Bridge of Birds, the first third of which I found terribly offensive when I had to read it as part of my fantasy literature class in college. It just felt like someone was unwilling to take my culture seriously.

  6. @Paul: the costuming effect is a bother, can be hard to pick out if you’re not paying attention, but definitely worth calling out when it does happen. Kind of cheapens the experience, at least in my opinion…
    @Laurie: aw, thank you! The Vietnamese dragons and the Chinese dragons are basically the same thing I think, bar a few minor differences (we even got the word “rồng” straight from Chinese “long”…). And yes, it’s bloody annoying to see them not differentiated from Western dragons (one of the scenes in my WIP hammers the distinction home pretty thoroughly I hope).
    The only way Bridge of Birds worked for me was by pretending it wasn’t about “real” China (a survival strategy devised in childhood I adapted for the numerous bad materials about China/Vietnam I encountered while growing up…). I still prefer going to my old fairytales books for decent “fantasy” set in China…

  7. Great post, really helps explain the issue. The foreign country where the downtrodden are incapable of any activism or even the slightest sign of resistance is my personal ant-favorite.

  8. argh, that should be “anti-favorite”…that’s what making up words gets you kids!

  9. Great post, thanks for the rant :)

    BTW, I just finished reading a YA novel (part of a trilogy) which is allegedly partially set in India, and in addition to insenstivity and the simplistic/ stereotypical depiction and stuff, it even makes grammatical mistakes in the few Hindi sentences it has, something that should have been so easy to catch out…It’s like, our readers won’t know the difference, so why bother. It’s just fantasy, anyway. But some other stories are well researched and a pleasure to read, though there may be some glitches. I guess it boils down to the author’s knowledge and attitude, and also whether the editors and publishers know/ bother enough to block major goofs and minor goofs.

  10. BRILLIANT BRILLIANT BRILLIANT. There is, however, a sub-category of cultural appropriation that to my mind is even worse: when a Western author of Asian ethnicity writes a novel set in their country of origin with all the errors of cultural appropriation.

    A novel I read by an American writer of Cambodian ethnicity had the born-and-bred in Cambodia narrator describe the durian as a fruit with “a covering designed to forestall the odour of rot and decay deep inside”. This is wrong as (a) you can smell that odour even with the thick thorny coat on, and (b) that odour is highly prized among South-East Asian none of whom would call the smell an odour of “rot and decay”, It would be the equivalent of a French chef referring to the smell of a Roquefort as putrid, decaying rot. It wouldn’t have taken a hell of a lot of research to get it right.

    In a fairly crucial plot point, the author refers to the narrator’s grandmother giving jade earrings as a dowry for his mother. I’m not Cambodian but as far as I am aware (as if there are any Cambodians reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong) as a Chinese-based culture it is more likely that it is the groom that would be required to give a dowry (or, strictly, the bride-price). And the dowry is not simply a question of an item of value, but must include a ritualised set of items to be given. And the author writes of the narrator’s mother, after marriage, praying in the Christian-style (i.e., prayer in the sense of dialogue with God) to her mother and father and includes this huge clunker of a line, “There is no forgiveness in ancestor worship, only retribution and eternal debt”. Wrong wrong wrong.

    There was so much more but as a born-and-bred South-East Asian the whole thing just made my skin crawl. Thank you thank you thank you for saying all this.

  11. @Saajan: you’re welcome! I hate the “Westerners to the rescue” trope…
    @Swapna: I am always so puzzled at the lack of correct grammar with foreign languages in books. You would think it’d be easy to catch…
    @Lim: ouch, the durian sounds like a fairly obvious one. And yeah, ethnic authors should be as careful as non-ethnic ones when setting a story in a country they haven’t grown up in…
    That said–did I miss something about the book, because Cambodia isn’t, as far as I’m aware, of Chinese culture unless the author is of the Chinese diaspora? (insofar as I’m aware, Vietnam is the only SE Asian country with huge Chinese influences in its mainstream culture, the other countries have a different bedrock).

  12. Aliette, you’re right of course. Blush blush. From the little I know, Cambodian culture has a wide range of influences: Buddhist, Hindu, South-East Asian so I shouldn’t have just lumped the Chinese label on it.

  13. No problem! Doesn’t change what seem to be pretty serious problems with the book :D

  14. First off, don’t apologise for being angry. Anger is necessary sometimes! People need to know what they’re doing is wrong and hurtful and protecting them from the anger it engenders lets them dismiss the damage they’re doing that bit more easily.

    Secondly, I don’t really understand why someone would take a foreign culture and graft their own culture onto it. I mean, surely the whole point of writing about a foreign culture is to gain an understanding of it… Mind you, there are plenty of people who go on holiday to a foreign country and never leave the resort, I suppose. Maybe it’s the same mentality. A place still recognisable as home but with a bit more sunshine and better beaches. Still, with the Internet there really is no excuse for making really, really basic mistakes. Comes to something when even reading a Wikipedia article is deemed too much effort.

    Third, a story about medieval Europe with a state-sanctioned crusade against angels is a pretty cool idea for a story. Although the whole ‘wrath of God’ thing would need one hell of a work-around.

    And forth, awesome post. Thank you for making it.

  15. Thanks for spelling this out so clearly, Aliette. Cultural appropriation can be a minefield and it’s good to get a viewpoint that isn’t solely US based. It’s particularly interesting to me at the moment because some writing friends and I have just been discussing it. I’ve linked to your post on our joint Egoboo WA blog. I hope you don’t mind.

  16. @Dylan: aw, thanks! I’m always a little uneasy when I get angry, because I get the feeling a lot of this blog is rants…
    I see what happens, actually, which is that people *think* they’ve gained an understanding of the culture they’re depicting, but because they’re not reading the right sources they’re not really getting its bedrock? The dragon book had obviously very well done research for the details, but the author quite obviously didn’t understand what made Chinese views of the universe tick…
    And hahaha, feel free to write the hunting down angels story :)
    @Helen: aw, thank you! (and no, I don’t mind, feel free to link away!). Not claiming this is more than my POV on the issue, though…

  17. THANK YOU FOR THIS. You’ve stated why cultural appropriation is so problematic in such clear terms. Also, thanks to Lim for pointing out the pitfalls in Western-raised Asians making those cultural errors; as a member of the Chinese diaspora myself, I try to do as much research and ask my parents questions on things, so it gets me incredibly irritated when I see others not doing the same for the basic of the basics.

    Brought to you by someone responding to my Goodreads review of Silver Phoenix with “It’s FANTASY. It doesn’t have to be 100% accurate or it would be a historical fiction novel!” RAGE. RAAAAAAGE. Doesn’t explain the cultural errors like plum blossoms’ delicate petals scented of rice tea…

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