Older generations love to stockpile ammunition for intergenerational warfare. Their inventory spans everything from millennial entitlement to the desecration of language, but their slander of choice is narcissism. Something about the confluence of screen and self spawns baby boomer/Gen X vitriol like nothing else. But think about my mother. Last month, she went on a week-long cruise to Tasmania and returned with a 40 x 60cm canvas bearing a professional portrait of herself, face swathed in cinematic light, skin airbrushed back to 1999. 1 It’s framed to mount the wall of her bedroom. 2
My chief sentiment was amusement, then alarm. People generally do not like to think of their mothers as the type of people who pay good money to hang photos of themselves in their own bedrooms. “Everybody does this in China!” she said, and she’s not wrong. I once saw a photo of a friend taking a selfie on a phone ensconced in a plastic case featuring a photo of herself taking a selfie.
Might we come to see the obsession with physical self-image not only as an intergenerational phenomenon, but an intercultural one too? Narcissism, as we know it, is a distinctly Western personality construct – built on a tradition of individualism, with deep demarcations between self and other. Viewed through a largely collectivist Chinese perspective, the idea is intrinsically odd. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) was introduced by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, but has no Chinese correlative to this day. My cultural diagnosis is anecdotal, but a number of psychologists have probed the situation. Using modified versions of Western NPD scales, research has identified the highest instances of narcissism in heavily modernised cities, implying Westernisation as the culprit. But simply blaming the importation of individualism clarifies very little.
In most cultures, there is a kind of collective narcissism that esteems the desirability of a prototypical look. Of course, rigid beauty conventions are a plague around the world, but in China, they operate with seemingly less aesthetic diversity. There, the ubiquity of the very pale, very slim and very cute reigns as the cultural paragon. Such is the collectivism that countless standardised beauty “tests” – mostly based on pseudoscientific ratios – have gone viral on Chinese social media over the past few years. The nose-to-face ratio finger trap test? The is-your-waist-wider-than-a-sheet-of-A4-paper test? Feel free to Google these and lament that your cartilage does not align perfectly with the tip of your chin, you disproportionate underling!
The fact is, visual representation of the self occupies a considerably different role in Chinese history. The excoriating Western legacy we’ve built around vanity is nowhere to be found. In the West, pictorial culture has a nice history of self-portraiture. Rembrandt’s glowy, quizzical selfies spanned 40 years of his career.3 Velázquez painted himself into Las Meninas, probably tired of sketching inbred royals and their dogs. 4
In traditional Chinese art, there are barely any self-portraits to begin with. Portraits, in general, were made for the veneration of the sitter’s social role. Stylistic differences also clue us in – traditional Chinese art is less strictly mimetic than its Western counterpart, preferring brushstrokes laid bare to the detailed trompe l’oeil of Baroque masters. 5 The image of the self is never subjected to intense corporeal scrutiny. Almost all the Qing Emperor portraits I’ve seen have skin with the textural intrigue of an egg.
While the majority of NPD cases occur post-one child policy in 1979, it’s not difficult for nostalgic pre-’79ers to get swept up in it all. In China, there is a dearth of deep-rooted cultural bulwarks against narcissism. You won’t find the self-flagellating religiosity of Dante, where pride is the first, and worst, sin in Purgatory. There are no intellectual heavyweights like Voltaire publicly denouncing the false pleasures of vanity. The absence of a longstanding moral objection to physical self-obsession makes it considerably easier for me to set a picture of myself as my screensaver and escape judgement.
We balk at narcissism, but only because our society has attached such negative moral weight to it. I speak to relatives and family friends of my mother’s generation – they’re baffled by how easily I equate pride in appearance with self-obsession and self-adulation. The corollary we take for granted just isn’t there.
There is an inclination to believe that all cultures tend towards one historical timeline, but if there’s anything to take from these intercultural excursions, it’s that they often deal with disparate issues at the same time, and the same issues at different times. My mother and I try to bridge both our temporal and cultural gaps, but I still don’t know what to make of the canvas in her room. I do know that she looks hot as hell.
- Disclaimer: My mother is also the most selfless person I know. Does anything for her friends, literally left a country and an established life for her kid, etc.
- She also bought four individual, matte-finish A4 portraits of herself, but I (unintentionally) spilt tea on these last week. Possibly a metaphor?
- My personal favourites are: jocular Rembrandt (c.1628), yung Rembrandt (c.1629), wtf is happening!? Rembrandt (c.1630 – this one’s an etching).
- Occupies a spot in the weirdly-intrusive-portrait hall of fame, alongside van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. Painted under the rule of Philip IV in 1656, it depicts the Infanta Margaret Theresa with her posse in the Royal Alcazar of Madrid, ft. maids of honour, a bodyguard, two dwarves (?), some guy hovering in a distant doorway, and a very silky-looking dog.
- Literally translated to “trick of the eye”. Resurrected Christ so real it feel like he’s in your dining hall.