Several years ago, I attended a banquet hosted by the Mayor of San Francisco for a delegation of actors and directors from China’s film industry. After the dinner and the speeches extolling cultural exchange and friendship, it fell time for the ritual exchange of gifts. The leader of the Chinese delegation produced a square flat box with characters on the front saying ‘handicraft work’. The Mayor received it respectfully, and, with the synthetic enthusiasm politicians have in inexhaustible reserve, thanked her Chinese counterpart profusely. Then, she held up the gift for the American guests to see, to an audible gasp of disbelief. It was a ceramic plate, topped with a protective bubble of plastic that enveloped a small, fuzzy white kitten made out of spun polyester. It looked like a miniature taxidermist’s trophy; it was not only void of political meaning and thoroughly un-Chinese, but also utterly bereft of artistic inspiration.
As the banquet guests headed for the door, I walked over to examine the kitten more closely, hardly able to believe that an official delegation from the People’s Republic of China had chosen it as a gift to the mayor of a prominent American city. On the cat’s white fluffy face, there was a red felt nose and two pink plastic eyes. The insides of its furry ears were tinged in light blue. And around its neck was a crimson bow which might have come from a package of pre-tied stick-on Christmas ribbons. The plate looked like a mock-up for a Hallmark card, rather than a present from a communist country – much less a country with the oldest continuous living civilization on earth.
I turned the plate over, and was surprised to see that it had been made in Jingde, a town in Jiangxi Province renowned for its fine porcelain since the Ming Dynasty. It seemed almost unimaginable that the country which had produced Tang poetry, Sung landscape painting, Ming porcelain and Qing fiction could have produced such kitsch as this.