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).

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."

She 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 Shing."


(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 foolishness.

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 century.

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 compositions:

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 remorse.