Written by John Hartley.

In my research field of Cultural Science, the role of ‘we’ and ‘they’ groups in organising knowledge is seen as crucial. Knowledge is rarely neutral. ‘Ours’ is trusted, thick with meanings that bind ‘us’ together, and applicable to all situations, while ‘theirs’ is untrusted, possibly threatening, and not in the least applicable to us. The earliest evidence of this phenomenon is of course language itself, or rather the differences between languages, which protect a given culture’s ‘intellectual property’ behind a wall of incomprehensibility, and unmask foreigners as soon as they speak.

Learning from others, and influencing them in turn, is not just a matter of ‘knowledge transfer’ or mechanical ‘information exchange’. It’s fraught with cultural, political and even tribal tensions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the knowledge-domains most concerned with aesthetics, meanings, identity and relationships: the creative industries – the expressive arm of the knowledge economy.

The creative economy is nothing if not global. Media, publishing, fashion, design and the performing arts operate at planetary scale. National cultures engage in international dialogue through their trade in new ideas.

But vestiges of ‘we’ vs ‘they’ thinking persist at the very heart of international relations in creative culture. Indeed, discussions of the creative industries in a given country often neglect the international dimension of creative engagement. This is especially true for China, which has yet to emerge fully from ‘they’ group status in international thinking. On the one had there’s global fashion; on the other hand there’s Chinese fashion. They have a fashion industry, but it’s regarded as ‘in-house’. It can learn from the fashion world, but (goes the logic) not the other way round. There is little curiosity about what ‘they’ may be saying to ‘us’.

This habit is encouraged by the exceptionalism inherent in the oft-used formula of ‘X … with Chinese characteristics’, where ‘X’ can signify anything from socialism to pick-up artistry, including fashion. Thus, Jianhua Zhao, in The Chinese Fashion Industrywrites of “fashion with Chinese characteristics”, in the context of the peculiar relations between the state and the market in post-Deng China, where the state is a leading investor in enterprises across the economy, including clothing and apparel. However, Zhao sees the fashion industry, “not just as a means to achieve modernity by the state in China, but also a medium through which a Chinese notion of modernity is articulated and contested,” (p. 155). In other words, the state is not the only actor in this drama, and one of the contested values in play is the meaning of ‘China’ in relation to fashion.

Such emergent meanings are comparative and contextual from the start. ‘Chinese characteristics’ beg comparison with external sources, often a generalised ‘West’. But the thing about ‘Chinese characteristics’ is that the term describes how China adapts an idea imported from the West – for example socialism, (or maybe not, now?), imperialismglobalisation, even exceptionalism itself. It does not describe an international dialogue. It’s just part of the rhetoric of national competitiveness, speaking to China’s own ambitions – often couched in the language of ‘catch-up’.

Brand China is talking to you

What exceptionalism doesn’t do is describe how China internationalises its own new ideas. It may be that China supplies 60% of the world’s shoes and 43% of the world’s clothes. The world is a net importer of commodities; China is a net importer of ideas. The West wears Chinese clothes; the Chinese wear Western brands. But an asymmetry remains in this familiar story of low-cost manufacturing versus high-end design. Can you name a Chinese fashion label? And even if you can, how does it compare with other national-global brands, such as Zara from Spain; H&M from Sweden; Uniqlo from Japan; Superdry from the UK – the latter a canny fusion of ‘vintage Americana styling and Japanese inspired graphics with a British style’?

Give up? OK: here’s one: the ZhuChongYun fashion label, together with 400 Marisfrolg stores in China, both owned by Shenzhen-based, Forbes-listed billionaire Zhu Chongyun. Why choose this brand? Well, first, unlike the first generation of clothing billionaires, Ms Zhu is interested in making apparel as well as making money. She is a maker as well as an entrepreneur, and her vision is, as they say, ‘fashion forward’. Second, Zhu has plans for the West. In 2014, she bought veteran Milanese designer Mariuccia Mandelli’s label Krizia, once the equal of Versace and Armani, for a reported $35m. The South China Morning Post concluded a recent profile of Zhu with these portentous words, “’We are going to take Krizia into China and,’ she adds with a smile, ‘we are going to take the good things about Brand China into Italy.’”

Brand China: that’s the new thing. But the next step is not quite so straightforward. As Zhu illustrates, China is now a net exporter of capital as well as goods, investing in everything from Australian coal and African railways to Western luxury, lifestyle and fashion brands. In the geopolitical shift that this implies, the next question is about how China’s own meanings will travel across the world.

And that in turn raises the question of what ‘Chinese’ meanings might be. Are they traditional statecraft, as increasingly cited by President Xi Jinping? Are they medieval fantasies, such as Wuxia films, and popular remakes of the ‘four great classical novels’? Or are they forged out of China’s unique struggle over the meaning of modernity? What indeed can China ‘mean’ after a ‘tradition’ of unequal treatment by powerful neighbours, the crucible of catch-up, a controlling party-state, tempered by an aspirational and digitally connected population with affluence on its mind?

Of course there are top-down answers to the question, one of the latest being President Xi’s ‘one belt one road’ foreign policy, which envisions a new Silk Road ‘belt’ from Xi’an to Rotterdam, and new a Maritime ‘road’ from SE Chinese ports to Africa and the Mediterranean.

But what about bottom-up, self-organising, entrepreneurial and artistic visions of Chinese meanings? Here, ‘fashion forward’ points to newness; the future; possibilities as yet unspoken. It points not to exceptionalism, but something much more interconnected, a mixture of home and foreign, East and West.

Take Zhu Chongyun’s Autumn-Winter 2015 collection. As one onlooker put it: “She proudly looks back to her Chinese roots to create a whole new concept of femininity, which stands somewhere in between the Eastern and Western cultures and traditions”. In other words, she answers the question in the cut of her clothes.

This is more like it. Here’s where ‘Chinese characteristics’ turn into communication, a dialogue with the West and with fashion, linking painful past and promising future in a ‘serene’ and ‘sagacious’ spirit. It’s translating ‘they’ into ‘we’ and it’s catching on fast.

John Hartley is a professor at Curtin University, Australia and Cardiff University, Wales. His new book, Creative Economy and Culture: Challenges, Changes and Futures for the Creative Industries, co-authored with Wen Wen (Shenzhen University) and Henry Siling Li (Curtin University), is published by Sage in September 2015Image Credit: Chris by Christopher Bu, ‘Double’ Collection SS14. From: Fashion China.  pp. 14-15.