History’s most racist text is helping to spark a modern, open minded, warm hearted and above all, creative cultural exchange. Upon publication, “The White Man’s Burden,” was a colonialist manifesto, a hatefully self-righteous poem by Rudyard Kipling asserting Caucasian dominance in the late 1800’s. But these days, Chinese artist Wang Pengjie is having those bigoted couplets scrawled across his face, with one of the worst lines of all— “Go send your sons to exile/ To serve your captives’ need”— is smeared along his chin. But Wang doesn’t mind. That’s because the man writing those words is his friend and fellow artist Julian Tolhurst, who has a much different intention than the author who first penned those narrow minded lines.
Tolhurst (a Canadian of British descent) and Wang (a Han Chinese who was born in Inner Mongolia) both work as painters in Beijing’s Songzhuang art district, and together they have developed a performance art piece called Assimilation Game. During the performance, each of the participants stand nose to nose, and simultaneously write a quote on their partner’s face. Each quote should be a meaningful passage from the participant’s native language.
Wang and Tolhurst debuted Assimilation Game at Beijing’s JUE festival on March 15, then opened the performance up to other participants at Beijing’s 751 Art District on May 15. The festival will mark the performance’s Shanghai debut, and Wang says anyone—from the readers of this article, to the spectators that happen to be strolling by during the performance are welcome to jump in, grab a brush and dab away at another participant’s face.
Most participants chose a song lyric or a line from their favorite novel. Tolhurst’s says he made a heavier choice by selecting a passage from “The White Man’s Burden,” because he feels its old, bigoted themes speak to issues that persist to this day.
“It’s a very harsh imperial call to arms. But it was something that they were still teaching us when I was in elementary school. They didn’t decide that it should be removed from the curriculum until I was in high school,”Tolhurst says, adding that poem haunts him in subtler way today as an expat in China. “The poem’s title is still used in a lot of books on economics or foreign policy. That’s because some people think, through different aid groups or the way the west tries to spread democracy, that imperialism hasn’t faded, it’s only grown more subtle.”
Tolhurst even notices that sneering sense of superiority in the smallest aspects of expats’ routines.
“Sometimes the way that we expats complain about life in China compared to back home, or the way we treat waiters and waitresses, can come across as really racist.”
Tolhurst says he considered all those issues while practicing the performance with Wang—a weekly ritual they’ve partaken in since November. Wang, on the other hand, decided to cover Tolhurst’s face with notes from an ancient song that he plays on his guqin Chinese harp.
“’The White Man’s Burden’ is so harsh, and it has some complex meanings, so I decided to paint some gentle guqin notes on Julian’s face,” Wang says, adding that the song he chose is entitled ‘The Water Flow.’ He adds” “That song describes rivers in nature, and it’s about the harmony of all living things. It’s a good yin to the yang that Julian is writing on me.”
Tolhurst says the best part of the performance is not having each participant carefully write a meaningful quote, or consider its themes, but instead etch it over and over again on their partner’s face, until everyone involved is coated in black paint.
“As you’re doing it, you’re thinking about the text, but after the second or third time that your write the quote, there’s so little room on your partner’s face and the words are so crammed together that it becomes indiscernible,” Tolhurst says.
The performance’s most important aspect comes during its climactic ending— by then, whatever each participant had written on their partner’s face becomes meaningless, because they have spent an hour writing it again and again, making eye contact all the while, until those words run together. The finished performance makes everyone involved look like they are wearing identical masks. Tolhurst says that final bit shows the universality that can be reached through cultural exchange.
“It’s amazing how similar everyone looks when it’s finished,” Tolhurst says with a laugh, adding: “Some people thought that I was Chinese guy at the end, they couldn’t tell because of how much paint was on me.”
Tolhurst says it can be a great exercise for people of different cultures to connect. He and Wang hope to eventually have participants from India, Mongolia, the Middle East and other regions take part, all covering each other with different quotes from different languages.
But what Wang loves most about the exercise is the way that it helps participants connect on a variety of levels—both serious, and as silly as one might expect after spending an hour on face painting.
“At the beginning sometimes it feels very amusing, like you’re a kid playing with paint. As you keep doing it, you start to focus on your partner’s face, you start to feel what you’re writing, each character, and start to notice details about the face you’re writing on.”
Wang says that process can, at times, make him deeply consider cultural differences. And at other times, it makes him laugh at the things that bind us all.
“Whenever I’m painting the guqin characters on Julian’s face, and I get to his nose, I can tell that that it bothers him and makes him itchy, because he starts wiggling his nose like crazy,” Wang says with a chuckle, adding: “At the point it’s impossible to be serious. You can’t help but laugh then.”
Assimilation Game will take place Saturday at 5:30pm and Sunday June 8 at 12:30pm at the Dragon Burn arts and performance festival. For more information, or to purchase a ticket to the festival, click here.
By Kyle Lawrence