China Focus  


By Dr CS Lim

I often share this view: design must be built on a people’s cultures and traditions. I think most would agree with this view. Of course, there will be some who will differ.

While in agreement, the common belief is that it cannot be practiced in China, at least for now. The most direct reason often given is that customers do not like such designs - the customers like “European-American” designs. In reality, these so-called European- American designs are Chinese interpretations of European and American designs.

Another reason is the interference of the factory bosses. Although they are not trained in design and often with little formal education, they like to influence their designers and meddle with the design process. Factory owners believe they are close to the market and understand the needs of the customers. They also believe in gearing designs towards products of other companies that are selling well. What about traditional culture? These bosses do not understand nor do not want to understand!

Under the circumstances of market economy, those designers who agree with me are unable to do much either.

Some of those who do not agree with my point of view feel that:
• Design ar e without bor dersl
• Modern people do not accept traditional culturel
• We should lear n good for eign designsl
• The facade of our buildings are mostly European- and American-styled, and so are the decoration. As such the furniture design should match them.
• There is nothing good in our tradition

As such there are some designers who think that my point of view is too narrow, and even some pedantic. These designers are very keen on Nordic and Italian designs, going for their “pilgrimage” in Milan to worship and come home bragging about the greatness. However, I have always believed that these are foreign which belong to other people. No matter how much you praise and imitate, you can never be as good.

This self-imposed “weakness” has a long history. It started during the May Fourth Movement, when China abandoned all traditions, with the belief that our ancestors are inferior in every aspect. Therefore the eagerness to learn from the “foreign teachers”. This happened in philosophy, politics and so on.

In the furniture domain, it happened during 1911-1949, with the introduction of the socalled “Republic-styled furniture”. The Chinese people were desperately trying to imitate Western furniture. There were foreigners who brought drawings to allow the Chinese people to copy. Materials used were largely redwood such as rosewood and ebony. The carving methods were still Chinese style with many lines, patterns. It was a poor imitation producing “hybrid” products, which became the characteristics of the “Republic-styled furniture”. There were two broad categories:
• Predominantly Western with Chinese elements
• Predominantly Chinese with Western elements

Such hybrid designs have blossomed once again with the opening of the Chinese economy. However, now even the Chinese element has even been done away with. The current hybrid is to start with Italian and end with Spanish. I believe one cannot produce first class with such a foreign hybrid. If you do not believe, just look at Youyou Tu, a Chinese who had won the Nobel Prize in medicine. There were all kinds of talk regarding Tu Youyou’s winning. She did not have a PhD; she is not an academician; she did not study abroad nor even understand English. However, she took the right path focusing solely on the study of Chinese traditional medicine. She first gathered more than two thousand kinds of traditional prescriptions, screened them and adopted modern means of extraction which helped her to finally developed antimalarial medicine.

Her path, and also the way for our designers, is the direction and way forward for many other disciplines. This is a living example that only by building on our traditions and cultures can we generate first-class results. If our designers still subscribe to the old thinking, we will never excel. And we will carry on going to Italy to be criticized.

President, Council of Asian Furniture Associations Professor, Beijing forestry University , currently the Chairman of the Council of Asian Furniture Association (CAFA). He read at Nanyang University in Singapore and completed his PHD at Beijing University of Forestry. He holds a Post Doctorate from Michigan State University and is a visiting scholar there. Dr Lim has been active in the Singapore furniture industry, chairing both the Singapore Furniture Association and Furniture Association of Asia and Pacific previously.