Seeing strange: Chinese aesthetics in a foreign world

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This article contributes to a theory of commensuration by examining the discursive production of incommensurability between objects, aesthetics, and practices, and by extension, “cultures” and “civilizations.” Everyday objects-such as camping tables and cloth shoes-are often taken as emblems for distinctions between China and the West. This incommensurability is reproduced through a series of semiotic processes described here: first, an historical shift in the vocabulary for everyday things, in which marked foreignness is replaced by marked Chineseness, and reflections on that history in contemporary film; second, traditionalist performances of resistance to (and repugnance for) Western aesthetics, accompanied by a tendency to deploy markedly Chinese objects as emblems of cultural allegiance; and third, an artist's lecture on the perplexity of negotiating this incommensurability in art practice. This boundary leaves out—or produces as excess—all those things that are designed, made, bought, and used in China, but which are not regarded as Chinese. I argue that this cryptocategory of the unChinese implicitly frames the work of Chinese artists and designers still called upon to produce a Chinese modern.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)93-122
Number of pages30
JournalAnthropological Quarterly
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2016


  • Aesthetics
  • Art
  • China
  • Double bind
  • Incommensurability
  • Markedness
  • Objects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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