Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 9 April 2009

Another panda scandal… and France again

Zhao Bandi, the artist who features pandas in all of his work and who called for a boycott of the film Kungfu Panda for “insulting a national treasure”, is now getting some of his own medicine. He had a fashion show in Paris that featured 33 panda-headed costumes, representing emblematic characters from contemporary China such as the beggar, the migrant worker (mingong), the “three-accompany miss” (i.e. escort, san pei xiaojie), the movie-star fan, the homosexual, the Internet celebrity and the judge. He received a large number of emails and online comments accusing him of sullying the national treasure, making fun of the Chinese people to kiss foreigners’ arses, selling out the country and not being Chinese. He promptly posted these on his own blog. (Here is an article summarizing the story.)

The article has also quotes one  blogger who defended Zhao, in a way that is perhaps more revealing than the attacks. The author wrote that while patriotic responses were natural, one should not exaggerate , and whether or not Zhao talked about migrant workers or dingzihu (nail households, i.e. those who refuse to be resettled to make space for real estate or other projects), French people would see them anyway when they come to China, because “we can’t just hide 200 million migrant workers.” In other words, the writer agrees with Zhao’s critics that the characters he paraded in front of the French represent China’s eyesores.

The story shows the depth of imposture and frivolity inolved in performances of patriotism. Zhao may have called for the boycott of Kungfu Panda as an act of satirizing nationalists (the campaign did not find much support); or it may have been an act of public anger at studios intruding upon his turf; or he may have put the Paris show on to attract attention to the commercialization of national culture. No matter what he did have in mind, he can claim being subversive or patriotic or both.

The story also reflects the surprising naturalization of the panda — an animal that received its present name in Chinese after it was classified by a European missionary zoologist in the late 19th century, and was not widely known in China until the republican era — as a heraldic symbol at the level of, say, the American Eagle, which must be protected from associations deemed negative. An interesting example of the interpenetration between the self-cutification of pop-culture China and the state discourse of national symbology.

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