(A Little) Chinese History at ASPAC

There was, I’ll admit, a lot of Chinese content at ASPAC which I didn’t see. Such is life. I did see two papers which I want to discuss here briefly, though, from the “Globalization and Cultural Links” panel: on Qing “Dragon Robes” and transnational adoption.

Shu Hwa Lin, from the UH-Manoa Department of Family & Consumer Sciences1 reported on Manoa’s own collection, particularly on early 20th century “Dragon Robe” exemplars and the iconography and numerology of elite fabrics. I suppose it’s no surprise to our readers here that Chinese elites used elaborate patterns and multiple symbols to indicate status and rank. There were twelve symbols for sovereignty2 , accumulated over the years, as well as eight symbols of good fortune from Buddhist sources.3 The importance of the numbers 9 and 5 came up repeatedly: on the highest ranked nine-dragon robe, for example, five were visible from all angles. The robes represented about 2.5 years worth of work.4 What was a surprise, to me, was that UH-Manoa has a textile archive with over eighty thousand items, including five dragon robes and a number of other items from the Qing dynasty.5

Alexander Yamato, Asian-American Studies coordinator at SJSU, talked about “Transnational Adoption of Asian Children by Americans,” a topic near and dear to a lot of hearts. It was a very good survey of the issues, emphasizing the way in which a lot of them centered around issues of identity: identity of the children, of the adopting parents, and of ethnic immigrant groups, etc. Even what he described as the “political economy” of overseas adoption was closely tied up with issues of national identity: he talked about the black eye Korea took in the late ’80s when they hosted the Olympics and Asia Games but were best known in the West for their export of poor children and GI orphans; similarly, Chinese adoption policy has sometimes reacted to foreign reportage or their perception of reputation. There was a period when adoption was heavily promoted by the Chinese government, and even extended to “non-traditional” families — singles, homosexual couples — but policy has shifted in the last ten years to include not only heterosexual stability but health (height, weight, age) and wealth as requirements for would-be adoptive parents. This is in response to the perception of China’s population and poverty problems — unwanted girls, lots of poor rural families.6

On the adoptive side, the identity issues are pretty substantial, starting with the cognitive dissonance of growing up racially Asian in America with a Caucasian family: at what point does the family address the issue, if at all? Are these children considered “immigrants”? Would travel to the country of origin be considered a “return”? Is their identity as Asian American a racial or cultural one? How to negotiate the relationship with the country/culture of origin, particularly given the reputation many of these countries have of “unwanted babies”? There’s no answers to most of these questions: the impression I got is that there are a wide variety of individual approaches and responses, but no consensus on what results these produce or what might be a “best” approach. There is a growing economy associated with these children7 : not just the commodification of adoption on the “front end” but also the rise of a sort of “heritage industry” which includes cultural camps and classes in the US, and tours and travel to the country of origin (often subsidized by the state).

The adoption issue connects to the “Diaspora?” issue, which is something I’ll talk about over here later.

  1. I had to check. The UH-Manoa department shows up on the third page of results. I guess it’s a Land-Grant thing, from what I’m seeing. Lin seems to be from the Apparel Product Design And Merchandising side of the program, which includes a “History of Western Fashion” and several “ethnic” and regional fashion courses.  

  2. Sun, moon, mountains, dragons, a constellation of three stars, pheasants, flame, a pair of bronze sacrificial cups, seaweed, grain, an axe, and “fu”  

  3. canopy, conch shell, vase, royal umbrella, the Wheel of the Law, endless knot, lotus, a pair of fish.  

  4. This site says eight years, which sounds about right for six million stitches  

  5. What wasn’t a surprise was that the archive isn’t adequately funded to properly store and preserve all those artifacts. Lin mentioned their search for a donor to provide “a cabinet” for the Qing exemplars several times during the talk.  

  6. I can’t imagine where that perception’s come from. I only know three adoptive families with Chinese girls among my immediate circle of acquaintances off the top of my head. My wife and I have been speculating that the deep gender imbalance in China under the one-child policy combined with the exodus of adopted girls is going to produce some odd pressures over the next decade or so.  

  7. According to Yamato’s numbers, there were over sixty thousand adoptees from China over the last fifteen years, and over two hundred thousand from Korea  


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