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Asia Through a Glass Darkly

Stereotypes of Asians in Western Literature

Chinese were often portrayed as stupid, outlandish and exotic. Illustration: Thomas Nast (public domain).

Chinese were often portrayed as stupid, outlandish and exotic. Illustration: Thomas Nast (public domain).

Stereotypes of Asians in Western Literature

We all like to think that we are unprejudiced, but stereotypical
thinking plays a more powerful role in our dealings with people of
other cultures than we care to admit. Perhaps stereotypes are so
persistent because they seem so useful: a sort of mental shortcut from
strange territory to familiar stomping ground. But even given the difficulty of knowing Asia, we in the West have done poorly.

I hope to provoke you with a few stereotypes of Asia and Asians as they
appear in both academic and popular literature. (For my purposes
popular literature includes film, comic books, television shows, etc.,
as defined in the introduction to this issue.) Most of the examples I
will give relate particularly to China, the Asian subject with which I
am most familiar, but these can be generalized to include the whole of
Asia. Westerners typically do not distinguish much among Asians;
stereotypical thinking requires that we blur or eradicate distinctions
between individuals and groups, so that what we think of China
generally applies to all of the East.

In our thinking these stereotypes have disastrous effects day to day;
in our writing (and perhaps televising) these images become more and
more impervious to change. Timothy Lomperis, Vietnam veteran, professor
and author writes, "The struggle for political control is a struggle
for the images in our heads. We draw our lessons from our images. We
write our truths from our images. They are racist, and cannot be easily
erased. But perhaps they can be overcome if their deficiencies are
recognized." Let us then recognize these deficiencies, and help our
students recognize them, so that we may substitute clear thinking for
stereotyping and responsible problem solving for sabre rattling.

We have consistently demonstrated a willingness to channel our
fascination with Asia into stereotypical images, positive and negative
-- both, as we will see, sides of the same coin. Throughout this
intellectual history we added layer after layer of imagery, stereotype
upon stereotype. New images do not drive out old ones; they all
accumulate like geological strata, even when they force us to hold
contradictory beliefs simultaneously.

In the 16th and 17th centuries a series of treatises, reports and
letters from Jesuit missionaries in China, filled with favorable
scholarly observation of the upper strata of Chinese society, presented
an exaggeratedly positive view of the Chinese. Because the Jesuits were
sheltered from a cross-section of Chinese society, associating almost
exclusively with scholars and nobles, they pictured the Chinese as wise
scholar-kings saturated with wisdom and knowledge. Equally important,
the Jesuits wanted to justify and buttress their missions in China. The
primary sources of information about China in Europe in the 18th
century were these Jesuit writings, and the impression they made was
profound indeed. Much of the philosophy of the Enlightenment, as it
relates to theories of equity, justice and natural theology, if not
derived from China, takes China as one of its most important examples
-- a foil against contrary theories in Europe -- so that we, as direct
heirs of the Enlightenment with our Bill of Rights, owe much to those
overly optimistic distortions by the Jesuits.

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, the idealized
imagery of China gave way to a more ominous vision. The Chinese,
willing to sell tea to Great Britain, wanted no English manufactures in
return. The Chinese took only silver in trade, and, as the English
drank more and more tea, they experienced a severe drain on their
coffers. Chinese trade restrictions also frustrated the English, who
were confined, with all Westerners, to the Port of Canton. Opium, in a
trade deliberately fostered by British merchants, was transported from
India to Chinese smugglers. The opium was sold in China for silver
which then paid for the tea sent back to England. Opium not only
stopped the silver drain, but also tipped the trade balance back in
Great Britain's favor.

Now if you are going to sell opium to people -- and especially if you
know that opium is not a particularly healthy substance (if, in fact,
you have outlawed it in your own country), it becomes psychologically
necessary to change your opinion about the people to whom you sell it.
To sell this material you can hardly admire or think the buyers great
natural theologians and philosopher kings. Moreover, European merchants
in Canton, dealing with their Chinese counterparts in a
rough-and-tumble (and often corrupt) commercial milieu, had some reason
to reject earlier idealizations of the "gentleman of Cathay." Near the
beginning of the 19th century Western views about China changed
dramatically. Chinese became heathen barbarians chattering in an
incomprehensible tongue. From an article in the Edinburgh Review, 1805:
"There is no instance we believe on the face of the earth of a language
so imperfect and inartificial. And it is difficult to conceive of how
any race of people could be so stupid or so destitute of invention as
to leave it in such a state of poverty. Of the Chinese what more is
needed to know but the singular imperfection of their language, their
cowardice, uncleanliness and inhumanity."

Throughout the 19th century negative images of the Chinese increased
and were disseminated to a wide audience. After the humiliating defeat
of the Opium Wars (1839-1842) and the long series of concessions wrung
out by the West, China became the incompetent victim.

One image came to be known as "John Chinaman." The Chinese, seen as
stupid and outlandish, became objects of curiosity and contempt. The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine of 1868 ran a little article called "A Sketch of Tea Land," a short account of the manners and customs of the Chinese.

At dinner we were surprised to see no knives or forks,
for which instruments they make use of a couple of chopsticks for the
purpose of throwing food into their mouths . . . John Chinaman has the
reputation of being the most patient of animals in the harness of
business, and he equally maintains it in his steady pursuit of pleasure.

Somewhat later one E. J. Hardy wrote a book called John Chinaman at
Home, in some ways a fairly sympathetic account. Hardy actually seems
to like the Chinese, but simply cannot overcome his amusement at their
quaintness and backwardness. He wrote:

A Chinaman always appears to be looking round the corners
of his eyes at you and to have a meaning that you cannot get at. He
gives you the impression that somebody, when he was born, sat on his
nose, and he has been lamenting the calamity ever since.

Along with John Chinaman we find the "heathen Chinee," a subject of
great attention from 19th century missionaries in China. No longer was
China the 18th century land of natural theology which only needed
Christianity to be perfect. Now it became a land of degraded and
sinister heathens who could be saved only by Christianity, a land of
little yellow brothers to be led by the hand and scolded when necessary.

John Chinaman and the heathen Chinee were amusing or contemptible, but
no threat, as long as they stayed in China. In the United States later
in the 19th century the Chinese fared much worse. The threat to our
labor force which Americans perceived in Chinese immigration led to the
Exclusion Acts, outright racial violence against Chinese and the use of
vicious rhetoric to justify our attitudes. Bayard Taylor, the
Philadelphia journalist, said,

It is my opinion that the Chinese are morally the most
debased people on the face of the earth. Forms of vice which in other
countries are barely named are in China so common that they excite no
comment among the natives . . . deeps on deeps of depravity so shocking
and horrible that their character cannot even be hinted. Their [The
Chinese] touch is pollution . . . justice to our own race demands that
they should not be allowed to settle on our soil.

And Bret Harte even gave this view the status of folk wisdom. His poem,
"Plain Language from Truthful James," contains these lines:

Which I wish to remark
And my language is plain
That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar.

I want to stress that the case I make for China in these pages is true
for other Asian cultures. In the 19th century, for example, John
Chinaman had his Indian counterpart in Gunga Din, who, like John
Chinaman, could be quite complex. Kipling, who seems to us now a
virulent racist, experienced sympathy for Indians, whom he viewed from
a deep ideological commitment to the supposed benefits of imperialism.
But quality of feeling does not determine the suitability of its form
of expression. If what we do not understand, we consider servile,
stupid, or sinister, our best intentions may lead to great cruelty.

American images of China in this century, as they developed in the
1920's, 30's and 40's were also complex. They were a mixture of
inherited images with a pile-up of later, equally significant elements.
China was viewed in part as a victim of exploitation by Europe and
Japan, deserving our sympathy, but it also roused old images of "the
yellow peril" (a phrase popularized by Jack London), resurrected with
our fears of Bolshevism. To add to the ambivalence, in the 1940's the
"New China" of Chiang Kai-shek became our stalwart wartime ally. Other
images of China from this time are of sufficiently recent memory to be
familiar. Everyone has heard of Fu Manchu, a descendant of the heathen
Chinee of the 19th century, by the '40's a stock figure in popular
literature. Sinister, threatening, violent, he also has other avatars:
Emperor Ming of Mongo in Flash Gordon, the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates.

We have, at the same time, Charlie Chan -- clever but ridiculous,
pompous, comical. He talks funny. He's a good Chinaman trying to be a
second-rate Westerner. He's no threat because he'll obviously never
make it as one of us. So we can laugh at his foibles and wish his
number one son well.

The Good Earth, Pearl Buck's extremely influential novel,
features an Horatio Alger hero in conical hat and black pajamas. Wang
Lung exemplifies unchanging China. The timeless peasant, he talks in
timeless language, a pseudo-biblical prose that supposedly sounds like
Chinese (but doesn't). He's ignorant. He's superstitious. He has
strange and disagreeable ways, but basically he means well. In his
enjoyment of success and his love of the land, Wang Lung, we can
magnanimously admit, is just like us -- as long as he stays over there.

The stock characteristics attributed to the Chinese, freely expressed
in the popular literature of the '30's and '40's, continue to the
present. John Chinaman, for instance, is still much with us in endless,
unfunny racial jokes containing "Confucius say." Even Deng Xiaoping,
the Chinese leader whom we profess to admire, is not immune. From a
Newsweek report of 1979:

He is a compelling and exotic little man in his charcoal Mao suit, white socks and enigmatic smile.

Would we seriously describe any other great statesman in these terms? I think not.

Asian women have not escaped their share of stereotypes. Burdened also
by the heathen Chinee, as we noted in the Dragon Lady, and by John
Chinaman, found in the morbid 19th-century interest in bound feet and
concubinage, Chinese, and Asian women generally, are still branded with
other disturbing images. Two of these are Suzy Wong and Ahmah, the
Asian equivalent of mammy.

Whatever century, whatever Asian culture, whatever situation, a Western
hero in Asia will find a passive, charmingly innocent and sexually
accommodating Asian woman with whom to "sympathize" -- a Suzy Wong. In
James Clavell's King Rat we find a typical version in N'ai Jahan, a Malay girl.

She had come to his hut one night when he was preparing for
bed. She had laid her bed roll beside her feet and bowed low before
him. ". . . My father has chosen me to share thy life, for it is not
good for a man to be alone. And thou has been alone for three months
now." N'ai was perhaps fourteen, but in the sun-rain lands a girl of
fourteen is already a woman ...

And in the same author's Shogun, Blackthorne learns about the Lady Fujiko:

As a consort she will look after your house and your
servants. And your needs -- any of your needs. You must have someone to
do that. She will see to the running of your house, everything. You do
not need to pillow her, if that concerns you -- if you do not find her
pleasing. You do not even need to be polite to her, though she merits
politeness. She will serve you, as you wish, in any way you wish.

Note how use of these women becomes a moral imperative in these
"strange" Asian cultures. Of course, our hero will be polite to Lady
Fujiko and will not mistreat her. He is, after all, a Westerner, and by
implication, morally superior to his Japanese hosts.

The Ahmah's long-suffering endurance symbolizes Asia as our own
victim-dependent, our guilt transmuted to the warm condescension we see
below. In Jean Fritz's account of her childhood in China, Homesick: My Own Story
(a Newberry Honor Book for middle school students and winner of the
American Book Award), we find this account of her Ahmah, Lin Nai-nai.

We were good friends, Lin Nai-nai and I, so I didn't know why I felt so mean.

"If I meet an American on the street, how do I greet him?"

I looked her straight in the eye and nodded my head in greeting. "Sewing machine," I said. "You say sew-ing ma-chine."

repeated after me, making the four syllables into four separate words.
She got up and walked across the room, bowing and smiling, "Sew Ing Ma

(Several days later)
"Oh, Lin Nai-nai, I love you," I said. "You haven't said it yet, have you?"

"Said what?"

"Sewing machine. You haven't said it?"

"No," she said, "not yet. I'm still practicing."

"Don't say it . . . Say 'good day.' It's shorter and easier. Besides it's more polite."

Why Mrs. Lin would have to practice four syllables for several days,
especially since she is a rather well educated woman, is beyond
comprehension -- unless we understand her as a figure of cringing

On the too positive side, when Communist China opened to us in the
early 1970's, visits by ordinary Americans who got their first closeup
look at China brought almost totally unskeptical adulation -- a sharp
reaction to the hatred and isolation of the '50's and '60's, and also
an expression of relief that the Chinese do not have horns after all.

Doak Barnett, one of the most prominent experts on the People's Republic of China, said in 1973

One of my most striking impressions, in fact, was of
continuity with the past. There is a timeless quality still about the
Chinese, despite all of the factories that have been built, the many
signs of creeping modernization in the countryside and the far-reaching
political and social changes that have occurred.

This pure nostalgia hearkens back to the Cathay of Marco Polo; a
Westerner looks for the China on willow-patterned porcelain rather than
welcoming its reality.

Another positive stereotype, curious perversion of the Enlightenment
admiration for the East, is the "Wisdom of the East Syndrome." All
around us like toy store fads are Zen, Hari Krishna, Yoga, dozens and
dozens of mass market translations of the Book of Laoze, Shiatsu, and
acupuncture. This phenomenon dates from Alan Watts and the beat
generation, or even earlier from Yeats and Pound, and it grew
dramatically in the 1970's. We believe the East offers a deep, ancient,
penetrating wisdom that, tapped into, will rid us of our shocking and
disgusting materialism.

We want to go back 2,000 years to a time when, presumably, philosophers
communed with birds and beasts. On a more popular level, this syndrome
appears in Kung Fu, a television show of past decades, and in Bruce Lee movies.

These exaggeratedly favorable stereotypes are not beneficial to us or
Asians; they are, simply, the other side of the coin of overt racism.
Whether better or worse these people are not like us. We still have to
shift mental gears to deal with them -- in this case to a state of
catatonic awe. The philosopher kings of the Jesuit letters, the
ancient, wise Tibetan monks of James Hilton's influential novel, Lost
Horizon, are not harmless romanticisms we can dismiss; great thinkers,
modern scholars, and well-meaning writers have fallen prey to them.
They obscure reality and justify irrational expectation, with
consequences both palpable and damaging. When I taught at Dartmouth,
several quite average Asian American students complained bitterly to me
about the extreme pressure they were under to excel because all Asian
American students are cast in a genius mold (an unfortunate corollary
of which is the bucktoothed wimp with thick glasses).

We profess admiration for those who pursue the American dream through
hard work and enterprise. But a century ago, Chinese immigrants were
vilified not only because they were "the other," but also because they
were too successful and hard-working: they "worked like slaves" and
saved all of their money, living on a diet that "no decent American
would touch." Today in New York, Korean immigrant grocers are faced
with the same hostility, accused of "unfair competition" or lowering
overhead with family members working undercutting wages. Their
"unfairness" consists of being hardworking, frugal achievers, but
viewed through the distorted lens of racial stereotypes and language
barriers, these admirable qualities are made somehow sinister.

Our negative stereotypes have caused a most disturbing ambivalence
toward our involvement in Southeast Asia and toward Southeast Asian
refugees. Rambo, of course, epitomizes our refusal to accept our loss
of the Vietnam war; in these films "heathen Chinee" govern a society
directly equated to the jungle, where life is cheap. In the very
difficulty we have admitting we lost the war lies our assumption of
superiority. How could we lose to them? On the other hand we feel the
humiliation of losers; we do believe we lost the war or we would not
need to find these antidotes to humiliation years later.

Southeast Asian refugees, many of whom immigrated in response to our
promises of help, have met with much fear and suspicion. To us "they
all look alike," and they all have the same strange ways. We are
unaware of even the grossest differences in their cultures, and we see
them as a threat to our labor force, as we did the Chinese of the last

For "A Curriculum to Promote Intercultural Understanding," from the St.
Cloud, Minnesota Department of Special Education, Southeast Asian
American high school students were asked to write a composition,
"Prejudices and Discrimination." The following are excerpts from three

Some of the majority groups are prejudiced because we
wanted to rent a house. We looked in the newspaper and we called him.
He said someone has rented his house. After a few days we saw that ad
again and we called him again. He said someone rented it already. A
week later we saw the ad again and we didn't want to call him again.

Sometimes the prejudice make me feel very angry. I think I am not
animals and I'm not their enemy. How come they do that? I have been in
the United States about three years now. At first when I came here, I
saw that the Americans in this city were very friendly. But now
sometimes I feel very sad because some people discriminate against our
color of people. I don't know what did I do wrong? I'm not against
anyone or any group of people because I'm a refugee. I just painful
because I lost my country.

Sometimes the bus was crowded. Some of the kids didn't let us sit with
them. When I had to, they moved to other seats. They also said we
stink. I didn't say a word because everyone did the same way.

I think our attitudes, and the barriers to world peace attending them,
will persist in every situation in which America finds itself dealing
with the nations of Asia, until we realize that racism, inherited
stereotypes, the plain inability to see Asians as themselves -- until
we realize this thinking is just not good enough. Fu Manchu, Charlie
Chan and Suzy Wong are not silly jokes. They are insidious,
self-inflicted wounds infected with our own sense of inadequacy and