Some food for thought: many industrialized countries have each made its mark on modern design—the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Italy, Japan, recently South Korea, just to name a few—could China do the same? More specifically, can Chinese design be as prominent as the others have been during the 20th century and today? Right now, I would categorize Chinese design, in general (there are always exceptions), into two main groups: the copycats and the cliché. We are all familiar with the former. The latter arose from decades (if not centuries) of cultural misunderstanding that started before the Cold War, through China’s own Cultural Revolution, and then under a deluge of entertainment (e.g. Kung Fu) imports from the only Liberal link to the West during most of the last century: Hong Kong.
Stereotyping is easy. Much like the way in which the great Ancient Egypt is often typified by pyramids, pharaohs, and an awkward 80s dance move, over five thousand years of rich Chinese artistic history have often been replaced by cliché symbols of dragons, jade, and badly written tattoos. While designers are helping to create products whose manufacturing fuels the world’s factory, China is being typecast by raging criticisms of the social and political kind. In response, the Western general public and designers are left simultaneously ignorant and wary of a waking giant, and looking for excuses to not understand it. But as we tip-toe gingerly into the second decade of the 21st century with arguably more caution than optimism, it’s important that we are not blinded by the headlines but instead take an active role in defining things beyond our geographical boundaries (unless we are willing to give the sole responsibility of maintaining healthy, cultural exchange to our political leaders!) If we take a moment to open up our eyes, our ears, and our minds, we’ll see that the actual question is, what can design be and what can the Chinese culture bring to it?
The Chinese made significant contributions such as the invention of print, gunpowder, paper, and the compass. Over 2,000 years ago, it also gave the world two major schools of thought: Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism teaches extensively about compassion, humility, and being in harmony with the world. Meanwhile, Confucius taught the importance of bearing the responsibilities of a righteous citizen and leader in society. (Of course, these are generalizations for the sake of brevity, but I invite all who have an interest to read the two books of wisdom, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching and The Analects by Confucius, both of which are available in various translations). In fact, for the past two millenia, Confucianism has been and still is the foundation for much of today’s Chinese culture and thinking. And as a way to promote Chinese culture and language, dozens of Confucius Institutes are being established all over the world. Now, if these two philosophies are so significant and applicable to today’s needs, couldn’t a genuinely Chinese-rooted design be just as universal and meaningful?
Two years ago, I thought about this question during a search for–and subsequent finding of–a shortage of good, prominent Chinese designs, and so I spent the next two years researching and meditating on why it’s been a challenge for a culture so rich with history and knowledge. My personal take is this: in order for Chinese design to be of a level of significance on par with its rising influence (in whichever way it’s measured), it must look deeper into what make Chinese Chinese. To be imitative of other cultures and other societies will never bring out a true Chinese sensibility. With confidence I have decided that true Chinese design must be a “design of philosophy.” This term is intentionally distinct from the various “philosophies of design” such as minimalism, user-centered, sustainability, etc. (You can read more about what I mean by design of philosophy here). In short, Chinese design must supersede what has come before it by being more humanistic and free of the limitations of what we currently consider to be culturally reflective. Yes, it can be universal and also distinctively Chinese at the same time, just as its philosophies have been. As Lao Tzu and Confucius would have surely agreed, being a good person is to be an upright citizen of whatever profession, origin, and social status; and to be clear about one’s role in society and to contribute to it in the best way you can is to be in harmony with the world. Although the desires driving environmentalism, social equality, and user-friendliness are constantly re-labeled as various goals-of-the-year, they simply denote the same honorable sentimentality–to perserve our ways of being decent human beings. The vision of specialized philosophies of design–neatly compartmentalized by a company’s needs and market position–and cultural design was perhaps appropriate for the previous decades, but in a world more interconnected and aware than ever, design simply cannot afford to be so fragmented and undisciplined. Instead, design will need to be increasingly self-reflective and moral in order to continue to bring true changes and benefits to the world.
There is little doubt that China will take on a rapidly more influential role in design; its status as the economic engine of the world dictates it so. Designers may feel the need to stand on the tracksides of the incoming train, but if we can see that these borders have been arbitrarily drawn all along, then design doesn’t need to be constrained by them. With constant dialog and today’s technology, we have the resources to influence and shape the way in which Chinese design can be meaningful not only to its people but to the world. We can help design evolve–no, improve–beyond consumers, brands, market shares, sustainability, and even our very own profession. Sure, Chinese design is still in its infancy, but in its future we will find also the future of design.