By Harriet Jung of Reid & Harriet
Many Chinese Tea costumes from The Nutcracker are offensive, or at the very least insensitive, because their Eurocentric portrayal of a minority group pays little attention to historical or cultural detail and reveals no intention to honor the native culture. This sort of appropriation is problematic due to a historically lopsided power dynamic between dominant and minority groups. The Nutcracker’s Chinese Tea variation is often a dominant culture's view of a minority group. And, ultimately, the dominant group profits based on their inaccurate and outdated portrayal of a minority culture (please refer to the Choreography section for more information on the history behind the Nutcracker).
There are a few things to consider when determining if a costume is respectful:
Are the designs based on primary sources? If they are from a secondary source, what is the context?
A primary source could be an original historical artifact, like a tea cup from a specific era in Chinese history or accurate illustrations of Chinese traditional clothing from a specific time period. A secondary source would be depictions of Chinese people from films or other costumes depicting Chinese culture from dance or theater. Secondary sources can be useful, but the context has to be considered. Through what lens are these depictions being made? Where does the inspiration come from? Who created the images and symbols?
For example, the ubiquitous “Fu Manchu” mustache involved in some production’s men’s costumes for Chinese is named after a villainous character in a series of novels by British author, Sax Rohmer. These books were published during the height of the “Yellow Peril,” a xenophobic theory which claimed that people of East Asian descent were the biggest threat to the Western world, a prevalent belief during the late 19th and early 20th century. These novels also led to several movies where non-Asian actors put on yellowface to play the role of Fu Manchu, making the Fu Manchu a problematic costume component.
Research the history of what's being referenced, so as not to celebrate or make light of a serious historical event.
One example is the queue hairstyle, which is also a common feature of a men’s Chinese Nutcracker costume. This hairstyle was violently imposed on all men in China during the Qing dynasty. Therefore, many Chinese immigrants in the U.S. wore this style in the 1800’s. Furthermore, the queue was depicted in many caricatures of Chinese men before and during the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as seen in the ad below, making it a problematic choice for a light-hearted, joyous dance in the Nutcracker.
The designs should be specific.
Are the designs in reference to Chinese culture? Japanese culture? Korean culture? Asian culture is not a monolith. There are distinctions that should be clear in the designs. Also, note that E.T.A Hoffman's original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, doesn't mention anything about Chinese tea but only mentions that Japanese porcelain was used to serve Marie (aka Clara) in the Land of Sweets. Consider a more abstract route like this design on the left, inspired by Japanese porcelain artwork from the Edo period.
Please contact us! If you're unsure about your Chinese Tea costumes, let’s have a dialogue about it! And, make sure to check back frequently for any more updates and resources regarding costuming.