Yesterday I found myself angrily claiming the popped collar as an American invention. Yes, the popped collar, the reviled symbol of bonehead Neanderthalism that my house in university had once mocked for an entire evening at a Popped Collar Party that consisted mainly of Pabst Blue Ribbon and shotgun drinking contests. Yet here I was on the streets of Beijing defending the popped collar from a would-be popped-collar-claim.
It’s easy to pick up a competitiveness over inventions in China. Gunpowder, printing, and paper are integral to the Chinese consciousness simply because they are Chinese inventions—they originated in China, a land where origin is everything.
Origins are so important that British historian Joseph Needham (Chinese name 李约瑟) and his monumental work pinning dates on Chinese inventions earned him a spot as a Chinese national hero and an entry on China’s official Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, that is four times as long as Chairman Mao’s.
Yet you don’t have to travel across China like Needham did to figure out that origins are imprtant in China. I learned as from the 50-year-old man sporting a Beijing air conditioner and sharing a cup of tea with me in a hutong near my home who argued that my Beijing friend sitting beside me was not a real Beijinger—even though she had spent all but two of her years in Beijing—because my friend’s family had moved there. His friend later repeated an argument for rank-ordering of nations that I here often in China: “How many years of history does America have? Just 300? No, less than that. 200.” It’s origin and seniority that count in the Middle Kingdom.
Yet because of the peculiarities of trend setting in the Chinese world, my Beijing friend was convinced that popped collars had originated first in Taiwan, just as many trends that race through the mainland start first on an island not far away. I had assumed that popped collars had originated in a beer-soaked fraternity basement, which I was now claiming as proudly and distinctly American.
Nowadays, Professor Needham isn’t around to arbitrate our disagreement and show that popped collars first saw the light of day under the Tang Dynasty scholar and inventor Ao Lingzi (凹领子) in the 8th century, so I’ll leave the matter undecided.
I think it’s best for all sides to not let matters of national pride rest on dates of inventions. And, for that matter, I take it back: Taiwan can have popped collars.