An ancient civilization, rich in culture and steeped in corruption. Elaborate etiquette surrounds the gold panoply of cruel rulers hidden safely behind rings of high walls, while gangs of laborers work outside under the blazing hot sun. Perfumed maidens with elaborate coiffures secured with jade sway gently as they dance to the tune of plucked instruments. Spry old men perform fabulous feats of strength and defeat enemies with lightning speed. If you look at the way popular culture views ancient China (and to a certain extent, modern China), you’ll see these images alive and well. They are part of the myth of Orientalism. But the West is not the only group with preconceptions that may be far from reality. In China, there exists a corresponding myth of the West—the idea of xifang.
In a smoke-filled room, a diminutive old man selects medicinal herbs with swift assurance from a tall cabinet of drawers, piling them together on a sheet of paper. In another room, an equally old man sticks thin needles into the body of a sickly young woman. Elaborate water clocks keep time while sages carefully track the movement of the stars in their eternal march across the sky. Monks in deep trances meditate on the mysteries for decades before emerging from their caves, enlightened. Orientalism is profoundly associated with harmony with nature and spiritual well-being. In China, however, xifang—Western—has equally profound connotations.
Orientalism is a powerful idea in Western culture. It has associations with being strange, foreign, or representing the Other. It conjures up images of an ancient society, filled with narrow-eyed, inscrutable men; willowy women with painted faces and silk dresses; and benign septuagenarians with fists of steel and a mouth full of riddles. It is a compelling image, one most Westerners treat as phantasmagoria; a myth with little substance in today’s reality. In China, there is an equally compelling myth called xifang, or Western. But unlike Orientalism in the West, this myth is still very much alive and relevant to today’s Chinese.