A few different wardrobe approaches are possible. You can lean in and make costuming historically accurate, and be inspired by Chinese fashion. However, bear in mind that while a Chinese person depicted as a railroad worker or rice farmer ("chinaman" or "coolie") might be historically accurate, it is a caricature that Asian people are trying to move away from. Could the same choreography be performed by Chinese princes and princesses? What about leaning into the confection angle and have dancing Fortune Cookies?
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?
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.
You can also lean out of anything Chinese whatsoever; the National Ballet of Canada's production choreographed by James Kuldelka to the "Chinese" divertissement features dancing chefs chasing a turkey.
Animals are also a lot of fun and a great combo approach. Pacific Northwest Ballet's Arabian variation features George Balanchine's choreography but is danced by a peacock instead of a harem dancer. A lot of successful "Chinese" divertissements we've seen include dragons, pandas, Chinese lions and other animals associated with Chinese culture.
Please contact us! If you're unsure about your Chinese Tea costumes, let’s have a dialogue about it!