These Are the Real Meanings Behind Appropriated Asian Decor Elements

published May 1, 2022
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If you’ve ever entered someone’s home or a store and come across a prayer rug used as a mat in a bathroom, then you might be familiar with cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the disrespectful adoption of any element from a culture that is not your own — from architecture and food, to fashion and language. While it’s impossible to live in a globalized society without encountering such appropriated elements, it’s essential to engage with them beyond a superficial level. 

Filling your home with appropriated, vaguely Asian accents, like Tibetan prayer flags or Lotus shoes — without properly learning about their histories or contexts — only serves to flatten out all the countries that make up the continent of Asia, reducing Asia to a monolith. And as all lovers of aesthetics know, seemingly innocuous objects can easily influence the way people see the world. The least you can do is learn about where they come from and their connotations.

“There’s no one policing intention,” says Jean Liu, Principal of Jean Liu Design, “so it comes down to being honest with oneself and whether or not there is an interest in being thoughtful and sensitive to someone else’s culture and history.”

Ahead, find a few Asian decor elements commonly found in home design. The histories and meanings highlighted here can serve as jumping-off points for learning more about each item.

Buddha Statue

The Buddha is a religious icon, and should always be treated with the same reverence you’d pay any religious object. That means you should probably think twice before placing it in your bathroom, or even displaying a Buddha statue with only its head (which some may interpret as a decapitated Buddha). Instead, consider placing it in a quiet corner of your home, where you can make sure it and its surroundings are kept dust-free and tidy.

Liu recalls one problematic experience she had with a client who wanted her to incorporate a “bedazzled Buddha head” into her furniture scheme. 

“While I am certainly no Buddhist scholar, I think the use of this, as with other cultural elements, comes down to intention. Intention matters,” Liu says. “In this case, instead of wanting the statue because my client appreciated the teachings or had a sincere interest in this area, she wanted it for the wrong reasons — it was bedazzled; it was pretty.”

It’s important to be thoughtful about where you source these kinds of items — consider buying from independent shop owners or makers who also understand their cultural significance. The Buddha himself said that the best way to honor him was through his teachings, among which was the belief that desire and ignorance lied at the roof of suffering. To honor this directive, you could also educate yourself on the many positions that the Buddha statue can take, from the laughing Buddha to the meditation Buddha. Reconsider having a Buddha statue at all if you don’t subscribe to or have any genuine interest in Buddhist religious beliefs. 

Credit: Judyta Jastrzebska/Shutterstock.com

Waving Lucky Cat

For some people, Maneki-neko, this cartoonish Japanese waving lucky cat, is their only introduction to Asian culture. But not many know the story behind it: according to legend, the 17th-century daimyō Ii Naotaka once took shelter from a storm by hiding under a tree. There, he noticed a neighboring temple’s cat, Tama, beckoning him to come into Gōtoku-ji. As soon as the daimyō moved away from the tree, a thunder bolt struck it down. Naotaka was so grateful for the cat’s fortunate invite that he became a patron of the temple. 

Today, these lucky cats are amulets thought to bring good fortune to owners and are auspiciously placed at entrances to beckon people inside. Note that in Japan, people beckon others toward them by pointing their palm downwards and moving their fingers up and down in unison. So it’s not a design error that the Maneki-neko does the same, but rather a reflection of the country it’s from.

Credit: Roman Sigaev/Shutterstock.com

Moorish Tiles

At the start of the 7th century, the proliferation of the Islamic faith led to the spread of Moorish (referring to the Moors, or the Muslims of North Africa) architecture and arts. In Islamic teachings, depictions of real-life human figures were discouraged, as depicting living things was thought to be a form of idolatry or competition with God. This meant that many artists were relegated to geometric or vegetal compositions, which lent themselves most famously to the Moorish tiles we know today. With their hypnotizing, interlocking patterns and interlaced geometrics, these patterns are one of the most persisting examples of these Islamic arts and are a great reminder of the religious influence on art.

Ink Wash Paintings

Ink paintings can come from any number of Asian cultures, but Chinese ink wash paintings might be the most ubiquitous. With these, artists emphasized the use of lines, as opposed to color and shadow. They aimed to capture the spiritual essence of a subject and not to simply reproduce an image. Keeping this in mind, many Chinese ink wash paintings actually captured the unseen, and lent its paintings more meaning than a cursory look might initially suggest. If you own any ink wash paintings, remember that there’s always more than meets the eye.

According to Liu, you can respect an ink painting by understanding how it should be shown in your home. 

“Displaying it using traditional mounting techniques and materials is a sign of respect instead of taking it apart and framing it in a way that has nothing to do with the origin or historical context,” Liu says.

Credit: Kullanart/Shutterstock.com
Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god of success

Hindu Deity Statues

For those who practice Hinduism, monuments of Hindu deities are physical focal points at which believers may pray, meditate, or commune with a god. Each deity has a very specific set of characteristics, and is treated with the utmost respect. This might mean it’s placed on a specific altar and kept off the ground, or that it’s always facing a certain direction. As cleanliness is a virtue of Hinduism, practitioners also think twice before placing a Hindu deity in an unkempt living room.

Remember that as with the Buddha statue, Hindu deities respect certain rules regarding placement, including the popular recommendation that deities should not face the north. And like other religious and ceremonial objects, perhaps think twice before displaying a Hindu deity statue, such as Krishna or Ganesh, if you’re not ready to learn and respect Hinduism.