Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
CHINESE author Mo Yan travelled last week to Sweden to collect the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. The decision to give the award to Mr Mo (whose real name is Guan Moye; his pen name means “Does not Speak”) has not been without controversy. After the announcement of his triumph, Mr Mo came in for a round of criticism from fellow writers and intellectuals, including many who feel that he is too cosy with the Chinese government.In the recent past Mr Mo has spoken out in support of Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize who has been jailed intermittently since 1989 and serving an 11-year sentence since 2009. But since arriving in Stockholm, Mr Mo has also made several statements attempting to justify Chinese censorship laws as being necessary security measures, along the lines of having X-ray scanners at airports. Such statements will hardly mollify Mr Mo’s critics at home and abroad.
There has also been a kerfuffle over Mr Mo’s choice of wardrobe. Two weeks ago the author’s brother disclosed that Mr Mo was having a dinner jacket made for the award ceremony. “Netizens” called on Mr Mo to eschew Western garb in favour of something in keeping with traditional Chinese culture. Photoshopped images of Mr Mo in different styles of dress began popping up on the internet, as the netizens debated just which kind of sartorial statement Mr Mo should make at the ceremony itself on December 10th.
Ultimately—some might even say characteristically—Mr Mo has decided to try and please all parties. In addition to the now notorious dinner jacket (pictured, above, during the reception), the author also brought along that sartorial relic: the Mao suit.
It was Sun Yat-sen who popularised the iconic high-collared tunic with four external pockets which foreigners tend to associate with Chairman Mao: in China it is known as the “Sun Yat-sen Suit”. Originally it was a compromise between an idea of modernity, as represented by the Western suit, and yet in keeping with the pragmatic virtues and austere style that characterised the ideals of early Chinese revolutionaries. It became an emblem of Chinese Communist functionaries—and James Bond’s enemies—in the Cold War era. With the exception of the dapper outfits worn by Zhou Enlai on his trips abroad, most of China’s civilian leaders opted for the proletarian simplicity of the Mao suit. One of the few known instances in which Mao appeared in public wearing Western dress happened during his visits to the Soviet Union, in 1949 and 1957. On those occasions the Chairman looked distinctly uncomfortable, in a frumpy overcoat and fedora.
Not until the 1980s would China’s leaders start opening their closets and reforming their wardrobes. One of the first to adopt the bourgeois Western uniform of suit-and-tie was Hu Yaobang. A protégé of Deng Xiaoping and one of the most liberal members of his inner circle, Hu once suggested the elimination of chopsticks and the adoption of forks and knives. (Suffice it to say, the idea did not stick.)
In recent years, the Mao suit was relegated to use on special occasions, major events, or when top leaders appeared with their military counterparts. Hu Jintao donned a Mao suit for the parade and festivities that marked the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. Earlier this month, Xi Jinping had to pose for photographs as the new head of the Central Military Commission, the Party’s top military post. Standing among officers in crisp service uniforms, he chose a simple black Mao suit in place of his standard navy blue (Western) suit.
If clothes make the man, we might also say that in China clothes make the modern. Officials from the Han ethnic majority dress in Western suits, while minority delegates are encouraged to wear traditional costumes, upon which they are praised for their “colourful” and “representative” attire. Little thought is given to why Han Chinese delegates tenders dress like they are heading to insurance-sales conventions in Omaha or Dusseldorf. Of course it is Western-style clothing and fashions that dominate the malls and high streets of Beijing. Asked why people prefer Western forms of dress, one young professional says that traditional Chinese outfits were outdated and unfashionable. When he wore a Mao suit to a choir competition in high school, he recalls, his teachers faulted him for looking like a farmer.
There are signs that tastes may be changing. A young woman working in Beijing says that at formal occasions she prefers Chinese-style dresses. But to dress that way day-to-day, nowadays, would be both expensive and difficult.
While the choice of attire may seem a trivial matter, the controversy over Mo Yan’s formal wear reflects a larger conundrum. In a country where the concept of what is foreign is so often conflated with what is modern, how to represent a modernity that is distinctly Chinese?
(Picture credit: AFP)
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