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ChinaFile: Two Sides of China

The highlight of high society in Beijing last week was the awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Chinese architect Wang Shu.

Wang Shu Beijing

Wang Shu accepting the Pritzker Prize in Beijing.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Last week, the highlight of high society in Beijing was the awarding of the Pritzker Prize. The event took place in the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the Chinese Congress. Out of national pride, the site has never been loaned to a non-Chinese event. And it just happened that the Pritzker went to a Chinese architect, Wang Shu, this year.

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Wang made quite a fashion statement by not wearing a suit. He was dressed in a black Mao-Nehru Jacket with black pants. His acceptance speech was also unusual. He said he feels that the fast-growing economy has erased Chinese culture. Wang has spent the last 10 years working with craftsmen in China, trying to preserve some Chinese heritage and craftsmanship. He considers himself an amateur architect and has stayed away from all commercial developments in China.

I asked Wang about his fashion sense. He said he likes traditional Chinese clothes because they are more comfortable than Western suits. When asked whether he ever thought of wearing a suit, he said he does not own a tie. Wang also has no business card. “Contact my wife,” would be his reply if you ask for a phone number. Old-school. Meanwhile, rumors are going around that Wang’s ensemble is catching on; lots of Chinese tycoons are looking for the Wang Look.

There is a Chinese-ness that has filled the atmosphere of Beijing recently. People are trying to look for their Chinese roots. Wang’s award seems to put an emphasis on re-creating a Chinese lifestyle.

In London, a young Chinese fashion designer was applauded for exploring his Chinese roots in fashion design. Huishan Zhang’s Dragon Dress was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of its permanent collection. It will be shown in the T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese art to show the progress in Chinese craftsmanship from ancient times to the present.

It is natural that Chinese people, after making such remarkable economic progress, are looking for their cultural roots. Unfortunately, the Pritzker and the V&A were overshadowed by a CCTV anchorman who was openly calling for the expulsion of “foreign trash” on his Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. His antics were protested by the expat community. The fact that a CCTV anchorman on the English channel can express prejudice so vehemently on a public platform was very disturbing. It should be duly noted that this anchorman wears a suit and tie most of the time.

So, looking for Chinese roots in design is quite different from calling for expulsion of “trash,” no matter what you’re wearing. And it should be noted that today’s xenophobe was yesterday’s worshipper of all things foreign.