For the past year or so, stories and articles about China have been prominent fixtures in the national news media, whether they relate to China’s continuing political emergence and human rights repression, hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, or contaminated and dangerous consumer products imported into the U.S. In other words, almost all of that media and public attention directed at China lately has been unflattering.
To add more fuel to the fire, the Washington Post recently described the controversy surrounding the upcoming memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. to be placed in Washington DC. Long overdue, a monument celebrating Dr. King’s life is scheduled to be completed and placed in The Mall, close to the other prominent monuments Washington DC is known for. That part is certainly not controversial. Instead, the controversy centers on the sculptor of the memorial -- he is from China:
For China’s artists, the selection of [Yixin] Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the Mall, is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.
Not everyone feels this way. Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far this time. She and her husband, Gilbert Young, a painter, are leading a group of critics who argue that an African American -- or any American -- should have been picked for such an important project.
“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young says. By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America. . . .
In Lei’s hometown of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment. Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked. “He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin -- that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity,” he said.
To be fair, I can understand where those who criticize the choice of sculptor are coming from. The Civil Rights Movement was a defining moment not only for American society and history, but particularly for the African-American community. It was a proud and shining instance in which they collectively showed their strength, determination, and pride after centuries of brutal oppression. Their most important leader of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Since he was the most visible public figure from such a socially significant time period and is an almost God-like hero to the many African Americans, I can see why so many people feel insulted that the sculptor for a monument to their leader was not “one of them.”
As someone who specializes in Asian American Studies, I can easily recognize that there are parallels in the Asian American community, such as in the examples of “yellowface” where White actors are cast to portray Asian characters, the most recent example of which was Brian Dennehy playing Kublai Khan . This “yellowface” casting is a very sore spot for many Asian Americans, as it should be.
At the same time, Lei’s supporters are absolutely right when they say that one of Dr. King’s most enduring legacies is that people should be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters. In this case, the sculptor was chosen for the quality and impact of his creative work.
In recent incidents about the sub-par and even dangerous quality of goods made in China, Americans certainly have a right to complain and to be wary of such Chinese “products.” But in this case, Dr. King’s memorial is not being “outsourced” overseas like it is some kind of t-shirt, toothpaste, or running shoe. The memorial is being created by a world-renown artist who happens to be Chinese.
Some of the same criticisms were leveled at Maya Lin when she won the competition to design the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC more than two decades ago. Many veterans were insulted and offended that the lead designer was not “one of them,” (a White male), or at least someone who fit the conventional picture of an “American.”
But as it turned out, the Viet Nam War Memorial is the most popular attraction in Washington DC and Maya Lin’s simple, elegant, and poignant design has proved incredibly moving and healing to millions of Americans from all backgrounds.
My sincere hope is that this issue does not turn into another wedge that will ultimately divide Asian Americans and African Americans. Dr. King’s legacy was to unite and integrate, not to accuse and vilify. With that in mind, I hope that the African-American community and all Americans in general give Yixin Lei the same opportunity to come through with an equally impressive tribute.