An off-shoot thought from RaceFail ’09: Steampunking Asia

Tonight, I finally sat down and started to read through the whole whole big RaceFail’09 drama over in the sci-fi writing world. I had read the first bits on Elizabeth Bear’s blog back in January, but now saw how much it had morphed into this huge, sleep-depriving, time-suck that triggered all of my political kinks.

When I first read it in January, though, it brought up a lot of concerns I had been having about steampunk. Particularly about “Where am I?” in steampunk culture. After all, steampunk is all about the sci-fi, and if people of color are having issues with sci-fi in general, then would the turf here be any better?

Now I’ve only been gaining interest in steampunk since the end of last year, because a bunch of Ash’s friends had their own steampunk crew and she was always telling me about the cool stuff they do. And so, I looked into steampunk and realized how awesome it simply was.

There are waistcoats and coattails and tall boots and lovely lace patterns and pocketwatches and all that glorious fashion and cool gearwork! And Victorians! I mean, I’ve been wearing and squeeing over this stuff for years and now, look! There was a whole movement about it that I never fully realized!

So, spurred by the RaceFail debate and my own curiosity, I tried to find what steampunking Asia was like. I did a lot of Googling. I did a lot of LJ-journal reading. And, well, what did I find?

I found some awesome examples, but those were few and far between. For the most part, I found…. Nothing. Or what I did find, upset me.

Like this website:

The text on this steampunk site gives this opinion about Asia in the Steampunk world: (Bold parts are my own emphasis)

“With the increasing contact with the East and its ensuing colonization, people in the West became increasingly fascinated by this strange new world. For centuries adventurers, novelists and romantics had been interested in these lands beyond the horizon. Europe had all been explored and people became more and more familiar with the world they lived in. The Orient was still a realm of mystery, inhabited by alien people, exotic and sometimes cruel, with customs that Enlightened Europeans thought of as barbaric; a place where time had apparently stood still.

“An age-long orientalist tradition of those who studied the East has in our times been criticized for its presumed bias and even racism. In the realm of steampunk fiction however, we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it. In steampunk all the myths and miracles of the East that enchanted the Victorians can come true.

What? Safely recreate the Orient? That’s like saying now that lynching African-Americans is frowned upon today, we can “safely recreate” pointy white hoods as a fashion statement. Or that we can “safely recreate” half-naked men in deerskin loincloths and feathered headdresses as “Indians from the Weird West” because, since we know that image is racist, so it’s okay to use today.

And then I realized something that made me sad about this cool, geeky subculture that I’m so eager to participate in: The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.

And so, questions arose.

By participating in steampunk, am I further endorsing it and shunning my family history as an oppressed colonial?

Silly question at first, until you realize that my family history does not mean I’m coming from somewhere generations past my ancestors were surfs or something. I’m talking about my parents. I’m talking about not only that, but the idea that steampunk, could be, just could be, rooted in an attitude that promotes European/American culture, once again, as superior to other cultures. That every other culture, once again, does not count.

And even more discomforting, another question: by participating in steampunk, are my fiancé and her friends, indirectly, promoting racism?

That thought made me kind of sick, because I know that obviously is not their intent.

But then again, all of them are also white. They may have never thought about this at all. Are they even aware of the thoughts I’m having? Ash knows, because I’ve talked to her about this already, but I’m not sure if I want to mention it to her other friends, because they don’t know me too well and I don’t want to be “that” type of “minority with an agenda.”

And now, enter my conflicts.

If I cosplay wering a Brit-influenced wear, do I see myself as being assimilated into Western culture? If I decide to “go eastern” and happen to wear Chinese/Japanese influenced clothing, I’m promoting the stereotype of “only two countries in Asia” (because, of course, India isn’t part of Asia at all :p)? Is it fair that in order to participate in a subculture that appeals to me, I have to either pretend to be European or Chinese (while I’m not either)?

A second issue, besides flawed (and lack of) representation.

Whenever I see Asian steampunk mentioned in steampunk journals or fashion websites, the word “oriental” pops up a lot. In fast, in the steampunk fashion comm on LJ, all Asian-inspired steampunk wear is tagged as “oriental.” Is it un-PC to use this term to describe Asian-influenced steampunk fashion? After all, you can’t call an Asian-American “oriental” in today’s world.

The site could have its own basis for using the term “orientalism”: it could refer to an artistic movement at the turn of the century, when Western nations became obsessed with the Near East after the British and French built colonies there; later on with the open contact with the Far East lead to Japonisme . But as a result of that obsession, many (not all, but many) portrayals of the Middle East and Far East Asia emphasized those peoples as the eroticized, backward, morally corrupt, and racially inferior “Other.” (I encourage you to read more about this definition of Orientalism by prominent post-colonial academic Edward Said.) From a “steampunk historical” perspective, then, is it still offensive if someone is simply being faithful to the Victorian attitudes during this time period?

I say we should own up to the fact that steampunk takes place in an “alternative” universe, and not use old terms, such as “oriental” to describe Asian steampunk, even if it was in reference to “orientalism.” Yes, because aspects of the artistic Orientalist movement had been patriarchal and racist, and, even in a fantasy-world, we don’t have to promote these same “White Man’s Burden” concepts about people of color and about non-Western cultures. Not only is it insulting for People of Color, but, in my opinion, dangerous, to promote these ideas. Because portraying “orientalist” attitudes, even if the original steampunker knows better, will lead to stereotyping and generalization by people who don’t know better. And, with so much of that ignorance already rampant in modern, mainstream culture, reinforcing it in minor, geeky subcultures won’t help.

In the end, does it really matter?

Sure, here I go ranting about how much of steampunk portrays Asian culture inaccurately and possibly offensively, if it is portrayed at all, but what about how steampunk portrays the entire Victorian era in general? It isn’t all accurate; sometimes, it isn’t even meant to be accurate. Essentially, steampunk is artistic expression, rooted in fantasy-escapism and based on a cross between Victorian pulp fiction and a wave of New Romanticism. It’s freaking running around in top hats and waistcoats firing souped-up Nerf guns at each other. If taken as simply a fashion concept and entertainment trend, why should people be concerned? Why should it matter? Should white fans suddenly have to worry about Bigger Implications, and thus, spoiling the fun they’ve having?

And then I realize oh YES it matters, and YES other white steampunkers should take note (and Steampunkers of color should consider, if they haven’t already). Because every time someone says it doesn’t matter, they’re further promoting that outdated attitude that a diverse and complex portrayal of Asia does not matter. That it can be packaged into chopsticks, jade dragons, and kimonos for general consumption, to conform to any fashion trend, to mold to any entertainment purpose. And I’m not comfortable with being part of a packaged deal.

Steampunk bucks a lot of the norms concerning actual Victorian culture, such as their attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, and class. If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity. So we’re going to go steampunk in a non-Victorian, non-Europeancentric/America-centric sense – drawing from not only Asia but Africa, the Middle East, or the aboriginal peoples of America, as well – we should also take some revisionist thinking along with it.

And thus, my Mission

In the end, I did create a steampunk character. Her name is Ay-leen the Peacemaker. I think she has the potential to kick a lot of ass.

But why does Ay-leen exist? And why did I see the need to explain her to you?

To the first question – well, I decided to jump into the steampunk movement, headfirst. But if I’m going to create a character, I’m going to help broaden the steampunk culture while doing it. Ay-leen, I hope, will help knock some down some misconceptions about Asia, and Asian culture. And, at the same time, be an outrageous, ironical character to boot – became damn, I want to have fun too. And not have to be British or Chinese.

And the second? Because, I’m hoping to find some fellow, representation-mindful steampunkers to join me. And that we can get together for some crazy shenanigans together.

Or we can at least be MySpace buddies.

That’d be awesome.

Advertisements

25 Comments

Filed under Essays

25 responses to “An off-shoot thought from RaceFail ’09: Steampunking Asia

  1. So it took me a while to get past the safely recreating the Orient part because my jaw hit the floor. Even if that sentence is about the art movement – and honestly, I suspect it isn’t – the way it’s phrased makes me think the author has never even heard of Orientalism.
    Also: If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity.
    Yes, THIS.

  2. hm
    I might re-interpret that line saying steampunk ‘can recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it. In steampunk all the myths and miracles of the East that enchanted the Victorians can come true…’ in this middle ground fashion:
    ~ to a steampunker, they’d probably be limited in their knowledge of the Orient based on those authors and artists — just like in Victorian times, that’s all they had to go on. SO that, to me, would be more acceptably allowable.
    – BUT. Were they to be visiting someplace in the East, barring the addition twists of the steampunk world (for instance, women wearing things they wouldn’t have been able to get away with so well if it were real), it should be more authentic to reality. I’d want the Victorian steampunker characters to suffer many disillusions as they discovered for themselves what ‘the Orient’ really was. I’d expect the characters to go OH HEY THAT’S NOT WHAT I THOUGHT AT ALL!!! And react accordingly. That make sense?
    – Though yes, as a steampunker in the Orient, you can add in a real Shangri-La or a romanticized opium den, because it’s a fuzzier shade of reality and you want those exotic plotlines and those ‘myths and mysteries tof the East.”
    Admittedly, I am inclined for the sake of historical accuracy to alow references to ‘the Orient’ because while more repugnant today, to the bit of history they do cling to, that would make sense. A character who has supposedly been to the East, though, should have gotten a good education (unless they only hung out with the white colonists there or such.)
    Gotta run, more I anted to say, so…to be continued…!

    • Re: hm
      Thanks for your thoughts, and I know that you’ll have more to add, but I wanted to response to what you’ve mentioned so far.
      to a steampunker, they’d probably be limited in their knowledge of the Orient based on those authors and artists — just like in Victorian times, that’s all they had to go on. SO that, to me, would be more acceptably allowable.
      This might be going a bit meta, but are you referring to the steampunker as the cosplayer, or as the steampunk character? Because if it’s the cosplayer, then they really should do their research of Asian culture before they include it in their cosplaying.
      And, here is also the conflict between being “historically accurate” (I put this in quotes because, ultimately, this is a fantasy world where we can create our own histories) and being racist — I think it’s allowable for a steampunk character to have misperceptions of Asia if they haven’t been there before. BUT I don’t think it’s allowable for them to say things like, “Oh, Asian women are so weak and submissive, that’s why I’d love to visit Siam!” or “It is our right in the name of the Queen to teach these savages the proper, civilized way of life.” Because I think those attitudes don’t *need* to be included in steampunk culture or history. This is, ultimately, an alternative universe after all. I think, just as steampunk fights the ideas against gender inequality and class that prevailed during that era, it can also fight those imperialist attitudes too.
      BUT. Were they to be visiting someplace in the East, barring the addition twists of the steampunk world (for instance, women wearing things they wouldn’t have been able to get away with so well if it were real), it should be more authentic to reality. I’d want the Victorian steampunker characters to suffer many disillusions as they discovered for themselves what ‘the Orient’ really was. I’d expect the characters to go OH HEY THAT’S NOT WHAT I THOUGHT AT ALL!!! And react accordingly. That make sense?
      Yes, it does. And if a steampunker does decide to go to Asia with his/her character, it would be a fascinating read to see that character’s development arc in that sense.
      Though yes, as a steampunker in the Orient, you can add in a real Shangri-La or a romanticized opium den, because it’s a fuzzier shade of reality and you want those exotic plotlines and those ‘myths and mysteries of the East.”
      Still this really walks the fuzzy line, imho. Partly because today, people *still* believe these romanticized ideas as being true. Not to take the fun out of traveling to distant places in a fantasy world — people should have fun and be able to be creative like that. But if they choose to create these “exotic plotlines” and “myths and mysteries,” I think they should still do their research about what those societies and cultures are like before being involved in them. Because to not do so would encourage people to write and cosplay based on stereotypes and assumptions.

  3. I know pretty much nothing about Steampunk, but this was a fascinating read. And Steampunk bucks a lot of the norms concerning actual Victorian culture, such as their attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, and class. If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity. sounds absolutely spot on.
    And your character does look like she could kick a lot of ass. Awesome 🙂

    • Steampunk has intrigued me for a while, but your post has really changed my view of it. The whole idea of promoting 19th century views of non-Caucasian people is morally abhorrent and an absolute waste of potential for the steampunk universe. Meiji-era Japan for instance was a society that was characterized by a very quick adoption of Western technology and a culture that had been isolated from the world for 200 years. That kind of clash could make for some very interesting characters and settings. Queen Min of Korea would have been an awesome addition to the Steampunk world in both being a strong female leader and having an interest in technological advancement.
      I think that the whole ‘orientalism’ of Steampunk is reflective of a modern tendency in the US and Europe to ignore the misdeeds of 19th century imperialism. Native Americans have some of the worst living conditions in our country, but you almost never hear about them since the reservations are so remote (trust me, these are unbelievably depressing places). A Rhodes Scholarship is seen as an honor, but the whole thing was founded to specifically advance ‘the Anglo-Saxon race’ and funded with money that rightfully belonged to modern-day Zimbabwe. Much more education about the truths of those times is desperately needed.
      Ay-Leen the Peacemaker sounds like an amazing character. Hope to hear more from her!

    • Thanks! I know my fiance’s friends are actually running a panel about steampunk culture at ICON in the few weeks, and I’m thinking of taking that opportunity a a little wiggle hole I can use to talk to these ideas with them. Because I know I have a limited amount of knowledge about steampunk and would like to know more and I think I have something worthwhile to contribute too.
      I guess I just get intimidated about approaching them, y’know, because they are Ash’s friends and I don’t want to come off the wrong way if I don’t phrase myself right.

  4. I have to ask: in the steampunk world, *is* the Orient full of marvels and mysteries? Because that’s what it sounds like to me, in the description of it — “we’re recreating the Victorian world so it’s just as cool as it was actually described in books!”
    And I use the word “Orient” to refer to something very specific: Victorian Britain 19th century fantasies. In them, “the Orient” is practically synonymous with fantasy, or adventure, or the exotic. Does Steampunk actually make it so?
    Steampunk seems like it’s just as much of a romanticized depiction of Victorian Britain as it is of “the Orient”. (I mean, come on, the vast majority of people in steampunk culture would have been working in factories all day until they died at 40 of tuberculosis.) But that doesn’t mean that just because it’s romanticized, it can have full rein to be racist.
    And your character looks awesome!

    • I have to ask: in the steampunk world, *is* the Orient full of marvels and mysteries? Because that’s what it sounds like to me, in the description of it — “we’re recreating the Victorian world so it’s just as cool as it was actually described in books!”
      To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Partly because the Asian aspect is so marginalized that I could barely find anything about it. I did find some awesome things that people did concerning steampunk culture in Asia, and I intend to do a follow-up post about it. But I also found a lot of not so awesome things.
      And I know we’ve talked about the whole “but Asian culture has been portrayed as so awesome!” concept when we had talked about the RaceFail’09 at the Gaiman signing, and I think that concept is related to steampunk too. Because, sure this is fantasy and aspects of Asian culture can still be awesome. It should also have room to suck too, and to be interesting but not fetishized. Because I think that what happens a lot with the “But Asia is so awesome!” concept is that it does end up to with cultures becoming stereotyped and the people objectified. Like, because martial arts is awesome, then every Asian *must* know kung-fu! Or, because all Asian women are so pretty, then they *all* must look like Japanese geisha dolls (in the sense that Asian beauty is a certain stereotyped beauty: petite, porcelain-pale, and with cute bound feet and Westernized, small noses. That dark-skinned, flat-nosed, or ethnically diverse Asian beauty doesn’t exist.)
      And thanks about Ay-leen. (I’m especially proud of the Peacemaker. I’ve been working on that baby for weeks.)

      • I’m curious. Does it not balance it out that people seem to be — and, granted, really what I know of steampunk is Girl Genius, so this may not be completely correct — stereotyping and objectifying British culture in the same way? Or only acknowledging the parts that they find cool and exciting and sexy?
        I mean, you say people are going around wearing top hats and waistcoats, when if I was in Victorian culture I would have been wearing — I’m not actually sure what Jews wore, precisely, but I wouldn’t have gotten to wear a hat like that. It’s likely I would have been lower-class, but even if I was upper-class, I’d be covering up everything from my neck to my ankles with multiple petticoats and layers, and I’d definitely have to be covering up my hair rather than sticking on a jaunty tophat. Corsets aren’t the sexy pieces of lace and leather popular at ren fairs — they are monstrosities that actually dislodge women’s organs in their bodies.
        I know that you’re saying “people are stereotyping and ignoring my culture without caring,” and that is wrong, and I agree with you, and I think your character is awesome. But I kind of see steampunk — from again, my very not-involved eye — as a sort of fetishization of a time period. They aren’t just doing it to your culture — they’re doing it to everyone’s. Again, I see it being down without malice, but with ignorance. Which is why your character rocks so much!

        • Does it not balance it out that people seem to be — and, granted, really what I know of steampunk is Girl Genius, so this may not be completely correct — stereotyping and objectifying British culture in the same way? Or only acknowledging the parts that they find cool and exciting and sexy?
          Hence my intellectual angst. Because you’re right in that regard — that steampunk, in part, is a fetishization of British culture and the Victorian time period. A lot of people like dressing up in cool-looking clothes and LARPing about. So I was struggling whether this was worth caring about and why was I caring so much and not just letting it go.
          The difference really came to me when it came to actually creating a character. Because, most steampunk characters are British or American. Even the Japanese cosplayers had British or American names. Steampunk, as a culture, basically takes everyone and paints then as white and Western. And, well, I didn’t want to pretend to be a white person…and that always keeps on happening with my experience in sci-fi/fantasy stuff. Every time I did a cosplay thing, I always ended up being a white person; not because I perferred cosplaying white people, but because all the cool characters I liked happened to be white. Hell, I didn’t want to show up at all those Harry Potter book partys as Cho Chang all the time (And I never was. But people always assumed I was, except for when I was Bellatrix, because I had a freaking Azkaban prison shirt on).
          Assimilation in general is a big issue for debate within the Asian-American community. Many Asians-Americans either want to be white, or non-Asian people assume as all of us want to be. And it leads to a lot of self-hatred and feelings of alienation for those who “want to be white” and hatred toward other Asian-Americans who “act too Asian,” and vice versa for those who dislike Asian-Americans who are “bananas” or “twinkies.” On top of that, the general public plays down any discrimination against the Asian-American community because we’re “just like white people.” And we’re not.
          So that’s my point of contention with steampunk as I’ve experienced it: I don’t want to be white. Again. Sure, a part of the community is a fetishization of British culture, but I don’t want to partake in that fetishiziation.
          And, if I did the same thing with Asian culture, the playing field isn’t the same. Besides the fact that I don’t want to stereotype myself and my culture, but if I did, then the social effect isn’t the same. Because people know that when a person does Western steampunk, that it plays upon a fantasy version of the culture. Take it the other way, though: if, say I were to walk around dressed as a geisha girl and bowing and waving about my samurai sword, the general public wouldn’t know it was a stereotype. And it would reinforce all those generalizations that people have about Asian culture already. And that’s the difference: British culture is in some aspects fetishized in steampunk, but it is also the dominant culture. The implications of fetishizing a minority culture does not imply that same level of understanding, and reinforces the balance of inequality between the dominant culture and the minority–not just in the fantasy world, but the real one too.

        • No, that makes perfect sense. It clarifies a lot for me, particularly, because I have a lot of the same issues with being both Jewish and American, and by being very much an example of the former to the latter. (That I’m very much not hyphenating myself is just one of the ways I’m dealing with it.) I know my issues are less severe, but I do get it.
          It stinks so much that your urges for fun are checked by other people’s stereotyping, and there’s no really direct way to change that. We do what we can, we try to do what we must…but you’re absolutely right.

  5. Steampunk is a lot more interesting, I think, when you do account for race and gender issues. I know I’d feel better about someone deconstructing the idea of Victorian Orientalism than I would about just reenacting it — the former contributes to the bizarro feel of the whole thing, while the latter just kind of perpetuates the problem.
    Not to mention that the imperialism and massive social injustices are part of what made the real Victorian era worthy of historical study, so part of the interest in steampunk (which is essentially deconstructive as far as I can tell) would be to actively address these issues.
    (Also, this is absolutely not as serious and deep a comment as this post, but I have to ask: was Ay-leen’s gun made from a cookie press? Because if so, that is deeply awesome.)

  6. You should include “very very fascinating” in your cut text for this entry–I’ve been thinking about various things inspired by it for a good portion of the day since I first read it.
    First, word to your developing an awesome character who both totally rocks the Steampunk aesthetic and who simultaneously slips in a non-stereotypical Asian presence in Steampunk. And also, to “Steampunk bucks a lot of the norms concerning actual Victorian culture, such as their attitudes toward gender roles, sexuality, and class. If steampunk can have women wear trousers and become sky pirates, endorse the public mingling of street urchins and aristocrats, then steampunk can – and should – treat ethnicity with the same modern respect and understanding towards diversity.” I say AMEN SISTER.
    I do have a question though– is there a place in Steampunk for playing with and confronting the problematic Victorian attitudes that you mention. They loom very large in my mind, in part because I have a hard time latching onto a historical period or fictional setting without contradictions and problems to wrap my brain around. Is there a place for saying, we are steampunk and we still have to confront the issues of race and gender that our age struggles with? Can you have the nationbuilding and world-expanding without the imperialism?
    (The other thing you have done is started my brain down the path of trying to figure out what a Steampunk Jew would look like if I were to jump into a world you have made sound darn interesting here, and trying to stop my brain from going to Dutch banking magnates. Damnit, internalized stereotypes, go away. You are not wanted.)

    • I do have a question though– is there a place in Steampunk for playing with and confronting the problematic Victorian attitudes that you mention. They loom very large in my mind, in part because I have a hard time latching onto a historical period or fictional setting without contradictions and problems to wrap my brain around. Is there a place for saying, we are steampunk and we still have to confront the issues of race and gender that our age struggles with? Can you have the nationbuilding and world-expanding without the imperialism?
      Frankly, I don’t know if there is, but I would love to find one! From what I’ve gathered, a big part of steampunk is the DIY aspect and then there’s the Verne/Wells-fantasy literature aspect, but I couldn’t find a place whether people openly talking about subverting the Victorian established norms, as well as confronting our own (aka, the “punk” in steampunk). And there really should be a place for that.
      I’m looking askance toward people I know for resources, but am considering starting up something myself. Somehow.

  7. I’m with you
    How do you feel, and I know we’ve talked about this ENDLESSLY about causaion people portraying elements from other cultures?
    What does one have to keep in mind if cosplaying elements from another culture?

  8. hmm, i don’t have much to add, but i am both fascinated and enlightened by your careful attention to reality! whether or not steampunk begins to encompass more of a deconstructive attitude toward the darker sides of east-west psychology, it and all of us are benefited in myriad, explosion-inducing ways by your loving interest! yay!

  9. Pingback: #17 The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing “Victorientalism” « Beyond Victoriana

  10. Hi, I found this entry while googling “Asian steampunk.” I just joined my local steampunk group and am making the first tentative steps into costuming for the first time.

    I must say, I hugely agree with everything you write in this essay. I’m Chinese-American, and while I’ve never gone through a lot of angst while straddling my two cultures, I am generally aware about race and racial privilege – and since I’ve lived in primarily white communities, I’m acutely conscious about being the “exotic one.” One of the first things I noticed while I was trawling through all the fabulous steampunk groups and websites was, well…White White White. Unfortunately, like most geeky subcultures (at least here in the Midwest US, though this seems to bear true on the majority of pictures I saw regardless of geography) the majority participation group is white people. And the overwhelming prevalence of European-centric clothing just highlighted the lack of minority individuals and minority cultural references.

    I doubt that anybody specifically set out to exclude minorities – I’ve found that steampunkers are usually lovely tolerant geeky people, especially since there’s an overlap with general nerdery and Ren Fair communities – but, again, that’s one aspect of privilege. I hadn’t even thought as deeply as you have about the use of “oriental” and romanticizing the ugly parts of the Victorian Empire, but I think it was tickling at the edges of my uneasiness. Besides my desire to see deeper portrayals of Asian-inspired steampunk (and not just Edo-punk!) I also noticed the distinct lack of reference to what was going on in India, Africa, and the Middle East at the time.

    However, another aspect which I’m uneasy about is race-appropriation. I deal with a mildly aggravating version of this in nerdy anime communities – as an actual Chinese person by genetic and parental heritage, I’m annoyed when white anime fans continually strive to make themselves “more Asian” via wearing Disney-fied versions of traditional Japanese or Chinese clothing, but fail to try to understand the true cultural heritage beneath the pretty trappings. In steampunk, this has the potential to become even more egregious considering that it draws inspiration from a historical era when yellowface and blackface was considered legitimate entertainment. As much as I would love to see more reference to India, Africa, China, and the Middle East in steampunk, I would not be comfortable with seeing (for example) a white person dress up as a servile China doll, or painting themselves black to play a steampunk tribesman.

    I’ve been googling a little bit more, and I’m truly, truly uneasy that so many white steampunkers are tossing out phrases like “exotic” or “oriental elements” without much thought. “I want to add some exotic touches to my costume.” It really serves to reinforce the impression that the only culture is European culture of that era. I’ve noticed that many of these race and culture discussions assume the position of a Euro-centric steampunker looking at non-European cultures and how to behave accordingly. Are there ever any costumers who assume the position of a Chinese steampunker looking at European culture? (Insert Indian, Turkish, etc. as appropriate.) To someone living in the alternate-universe China, the “exotic elements” would be the Western clothing and machines, but hardly anyone seems to think about it from that point of view.

  11. I love this topic.

    I am a white man that has married into a Chinese family. I knew my wife’s cousin from childhood and had been exposed to Chinese culture from a young age. However, it was only upon marrying my wife that a lot of the differences really started to hit me, beyond some of the basic things like ‘ancestor worship’ (a term I think is incredibly misguided) and Chinese New Year.

    I’m trying to write some steampunk of my own, and my experiences with my family, the Chinese societal theme-elements and conflicts with Euro-American cultural beliefs is something I definitely want to address.

    For example, the successful Victorian businessman in America was typically also part salesman, selling himself as the “superior product”. On the other hand, my mother-in-law found it hard to “sell herself” in a resume or interview because in China, it was best to take a more humble approach. You were supposed to state that you were “okay” instead of stating that you were god’s gift to the employer. I would not be surprised if this cultural standard existed back then as well.

    I’m researching the behaviors of that time period in China right now, but given what I know so far, it seems that many things like my mother-in-law’s perspective go way back to Confucian teachings. I don’t think that asian culture is going to get described very well until we move past the fortune cookie sayings and get into how it affected the society as a whole.

    When no one even recognizes language to express differences, it makes it very hard to cross the divide. The term ‘filial piety’ had never come up in my family until I brought it into discussion. Most had no idea what I was talking about until I explained the definition. My white family has a hard time with definitions as well, and fall back into platitudes and white-inspired explanations all the time.

    I think stereotypical steampunkers are more than capable of ‘getting it’ when it comes to asian steampunk, but nothing is going to express that like good old fashioned culture-clash. I’d personally be very interested in a debate-dialog on such a topic, if any one is game.