I remember the first time I read about a foreign author making racist comments about “the Chinaman.” In middle school I started a reading group (in Chinese, a “dushuhui”) with two dear friends. Every Saturday, we would gather at my place and read foundational works of world literature. One day, my friend Shengwu pointed out to me one line from a certain short story by Anton Chekhov: “He is a fraud, just like a Chinese.”
I remember his expression, which was not of resentment or rage, but rather of confusion and a certain bemusement because the line did take him by surprise and he did not quite understand why Chekhov said it. Honestly, I did not understand either. And yet both Shengwu and I knew it was no big deal, so we just shrugged it off and moved on. Since then, I have never gone back to that particular passage (I cannot even recall the title of that piece anymore) and have never found the time to pick up Chekhov again. Still, I have a constant yearning to revisit one of the greatest fiction writers in human history.
Little did I know back then what two Chinese students considered a complete nonissue would blossom into American millennials’ single political obsession, literally the fleur du mal of our generation, and would come back to haunt me in unexpected ways.
After I decided to switch gears and move from East Asian studies to Italian, I have come across interesting references to China in the Italian canon as well. The most famous one is arguably Princess Angelica in the great Renaissance epic “Orlando Furioso.” Described as a stunning beauty with completely Caucasian features, Angelica was in fact, as Ariosto tells us, the princess of “Cathay,” a common term for China in Renaissance Europe. She would go on to marry a random soldier, and her ardent suitor Orlando, the greatest warrior of the Christian West, would lose his brains. Hence, the Italian title “Orlando Furioso,” which can be translated as “the mad Orlando.” When I realized that Angelica was Chinese, I found the bizarre link absolutely charming. It made the work more relatable to me.
I am also a great fan of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot,” a story of a fictitious Chinese princess (whose name is misleadingly Persian). Every time I listen to “Nessun Dorma,” the tenor’s soaring voice always brings me to tears. The Metropolitan Opera’s latest production of this masterpiece, which is scheduled to open this weekend, still casts a white woman, Christine Goerke, to play Turandot. So, the Met has once again committed the unspeakable crime of “cultural appropriation.”
People have asked me about my feelings “studying Italian literature as an Asian” and I always find the question odd because my “Asian identity” is not in any significant way relevant to my work. If I have found an amazing connection between Italy and China, I am not going to suppress it, since such a discovery is a natural and organic reflection of my personal experience. I am not, however, going to go out of my way to “compare” Italy and China or to use one to critique the other. (Or maybe, I should say “use non-Western wisdom to critique the West” since any critique that goes the other way would make me anathema at Yale). Not only is such forced comparison shaky, it is also lazy: catering to the intellectual fads of our age is an easy route to success, whereas mastering the Italian Renaissance tradition on its own terms is substantially harder.
I am not averse to thoughtful conversations on identity. Gods in my intellectual pantheon include Karl Marx, Michel Foucault and Edward Said. I would like to point out, however, that Said was not only a notorious academic rebel who popularized the term “orientalism,” but also an accomplished classical pianist, a diehard fan of Beethoven and Schubert and a professional critic. I do not remember him being a fierce advocate for Arabic music. The sort of tribalism we see in campus politics today would require Said to either ditch “European music” or go down the equally ridiculous path of posing himself as the pet of “diversity” in a “traditionally white-dominated field.”
Do I think Chekhov was wrong in calling “the Chinaman” a fraud? Of course. But do I feel offended? Not in the slightest. Do I want to take him off the syllabus or put up trigger warnings? Hell no. I have tremendous confidence and profound love for my culture. Growing up, I memorized dozens of Chinese poems and large chunks of Confucius and Mencius. I know China is a beautiful country with a beautiful intellectual tradition. Chekhov cannot hurt me with his insults. Instead, I can learn so much from him without being traumatized. I believe the toxic identity politics on campus today severely hinder my cross-cultural studies and corner me into a mode of defensive tribalism, so much so that I spoke out as an Asian against the creation of a program in Asian American studies at Princeton.
One of the most important things I have learned from the Italian tradition is that our life should be filled with spontaneous good cheer. Being obsessed with the “offensive” language of “dead white men” creates our own demons. I can choose to enjoy Ariosto’s charming verse and have a good laugh over the Chinese princess with blond hair. Or, I can choose to bristle over his ignorance and “appropriation.” I can choose to live a confident and independent life, rooted in the present and open to the glories of the past. Or I can choose to project my own fragility on the carcass of another age. I have made my choice, and I have made it unapologetically.
Wenbin Gao is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .