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Film, Literature and Chinese American Identity

Seminar Paper 2004 37 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography

Excerpt

TABLE OF CONTENTS

PREFACE

I INTRODUCTION
I A Definitions
1. Stereotypes
2. Identity
3. American Mass Media
I B Theoretical approaches
1. Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan: Racist Love
2. Frank Chin: Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake

II MAIN PART
II A The Portrayal of Chinese Culture in American Movies
1. Lost Horizon (1937)
a Content
b Historical Background
c Observations
i The Confirmation of Stereotypes
ii Racist Love and Racist Hate
iii The Perpetuation of Miscegenation
iv Sexism
d The Construction of Chinese American Identity
i White Supremacist Definition
ii Chinese American Definition
e Summary
2. Mulan
a Content
i The Children’s Book
ii The Disney Movie
b Observations
i The Confirmation of Stereotypes
ii Racist Hate
iii Sexism
iv Linguistic and Cultural Imperialism
c The Construction of Chinese American Identity
i White Supremacist Definition
ii Chinese American Definition
d Summary
3. Summary
II B The Self-Projection of Chinese Americans in Contemporary Novels
1. Frank Chin: Donald Duk (1991)
a Frank Chin
b Content
c Observations
i Fake Customs and Culture of Chinese Americans
ii Real Customs and Culture of Chinese Americans
iii From an Identity of Either-Or to an Identity of Both-And
(1) Fake Chinese American Identity
(a) Donald Duk = 100 % American
(b) Donald Duk = 100 % Chinese
(2) Real Chinese American Identity
d The Construction of Chinese American Identity
i White Supremacist Definition
ii Chinese American Definition
e Summary
2. Fae Myenne Ng: Bone (1993)
a Fae Myenne Ng
b Content
c Observations
i Different Forms of Chinese American Identities Due to a Life Between Two Worlds
d The Construction of Chinese American Identity
i White Supremacist Definition
ii Chinese American Definition
e Summary
3. Summary

III CONCLUSION
III A Final Remarks and Open Questions
1. Lost Horizon
a A Social Commentary on White America
b A Comment on Imperialism
c A Warning
2. Mulan
a A Correct Image of Ancient China
b A Lesson For Whites
c A Reevaluation of Chinese Americans and a Positive Outlook

IV WORKS CITED

PREFACE

Before I begin, I want to make sure everybody understands that this paper is a rather simplistic interpretation of a very limited number of works. The claims I will make in the following are all based on my personal observations of the works in question.

Since this is supposed to be a rather brief term paper, I will not be able to prevent myself from essentializing the people I talk about. When I speak of Americans or whites, I do not, at any rate, mean everyone living in America whose skin is white but everyone who has bought into the media’s portrayal of Chinese Americans and the stereotypes existing in America, in other words, everyone believing in a white supremacist ideology. Likewise, when I speak of Chinese Americans, I do not mean all Chinese Americans reunited but a certain part of the Chinese American population who will react in the way I describe. All this does not take into consideration the more and more complex composition of Chinese America.

Some of what I will claim applies to other minorities, as well, especially to other groups of Asian heritage that have united with Chinese Americans under the umbrella term “Asian Americans.” This term, coined by the late Japanese American scholar Yuji Ichioka, homogenizes various groups of different Asian descent and does not take into account their respective historical, cultural, political or other background. They have united in order to fight for certain clearly defined political issues that concern all of them, such as anti-Asian violence, racism, etc. White supremacists are probably unaware of this political coalition anyways, due to their racist view that all Asians are alike.

I INTRODUCTION

This paper is concerned with stereotypes of Chinese Americans in the mass media. This is only one aspect of a complex field of interrelated political, ethnical, cultural and other aspects that influence the construction of Chinese American identity and the white majority’s definition of it.

Most Chinese Americans define themselves according to certain stereotypes that have been perpetuated ever since they set foot on American soil. The perpetuation of such stereotypes takes place, among others, in the mass media, especially in Hollywood movies and on television. The stereotypes are shown on the silver screen or in movie theatres, white people believe in them and behave accordingly, and Chinese Americans, who want to be just like other Americans but are treated like non-Americans as a consequence of the stereotypes, begin to believe in them, too. Thus, they define themselves according to these stereotypes and take part in their perpetuation themselves.

Since the 1970s, some Chinese American activists and writers have begun to object to this mechanism. Their reactions, to be found, among others, in contemporary literature, has led to a new understanding of Chinese American identity and to the disclosure of stereotypes deeply ingrained in the American and Chinese American psyches.

I A Definitions

1. Stereotypes

A Stereotype pretends to be an authentic description of a person. This description is clearly defined and invariable. If the person thus described does not conform to the description, he or she is to believe that there is a need to conform to it and that he or she is expected to change in order to conform.

According to Lippmann1, stereotypes are preconceived images, a kind of shortcut in our minds that allows us to react rather quickly in situations in which we are unable to verify reality.

Racial stereotypes in the United States are aimed at the maintenance of the status quo of a (Western) society, i.e. a racial hierarchy with whites at the top and non-whites at the bottom. Their ultimate aim is the internalization of the stereotypes by the stereotyped. With time passing by and the stereotyped group accepting the stereotypes, white society does not have to take care of the perpetuation of the stereotypes any longer for the stereotyped group has become passive and is no longer a socially, culturally, or creatively strong entity. This is what is generally called assimilation, acculturation, or simply integration into US society.

2. Identity

According to Manfred Rosenbach2, identity is a person’s conviction to remain the same person even if they or the world around them change. Moreover, identity defines a person as unique: neither can they be mistaken for someone else by their social surroundings, nor can they believe to be someone else themselves.

3. American Mass Media

In general, mass media are there to entertain, to inform, to pass on cultural norms and values, and to incite people to buy consumers’ goods.

In the United States, the mass media are owned by a very small number of extremely rich people, who are said to be closely linked to the political “elite” of the country. Due to this concentration and the close contact to politics the media can very easily be used to manipulate the population of the United States by attributing a certain meaning to particular events by way of different forms of presentation.

I B Theoretical approaches

In this paper and my interpretation of the works in question I will basically refer to two theoretical approaches. The first one is entitled Racist Love and was written by Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan3. The second article is Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake, written by Frank Chin.

1. Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan: Racist Love

In Racist Love Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan object to an idea of Chinese American identity as one of either-or, i.e. they believe that no Chinese American has to chose between the two options of either a Chinese or an American identity. Therefore, the often-cited identity crisis of Chinese Americans does not exist.4

The authors say that there are essentially two different stereotypes about Asian Americans that allow white society to control them by defining them. There is what they call “racist love” and “racist hate”.

On the one hand there are acceptable Asian Americans, rather feminine and controllable. The most known example of this type of Asian American is Charlie Chan, well-known from movies and books. Chin and Chan call this concept of the controllable Asian Americans “racist love.” Love comes up when the stereotyped group believes in the stereotypes and takes part in their diffusion and perpetuation. This is, in Chin and Chan’s words, the triumph of white racism.

On the other hand, there are the unacceptable, for masculine and uncontrollable, Asian Americans personified by Fu Manchu. This is the kind that evokes “racist hate” because, instead of conforming to the stereotypes, the stereotyped have not internalized them but rebel against them. This equals, then, the defeat of white racism. As a consequence the white majority makes certain concessions on a political or educational level, such as easier admission to certain universities, in order to make Asian Americans shut up and more easily believe in the stereotypes so they conform and can be loved. At the same time this hides the real reasons for the rebellion, i.e. the contradiction between the treatment of Asian Americans and the American ideal of equality. Such political and educational measures have created what is called the “model minority” myth. Certain groups of Asian Americans have been called, at different times, a model minority due to, for instance, exceptional educational achievements. This made sure the different groups of Asian Americans would not be tempted to get too close in order to unite and start a rebellion. Moreover, it has prevented contact between Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities, such as African Americans or Mexican Americans because Asian Americans were held up as a kind of role model for other minorities.

So in Chin and Chan’s opinion Chinese Americans are neither American nor Chinese. In America, they are considered perpetual aliens, who can only achieve a certain status by being tolerated but will never be American. In China, they are considered un-Chinese. Ostracized by two cultures, the only option they still have if they want to have an identity is an identification with their origins and their difference. In short, Chinese Americans are human beings without a clearly defined place in a white world that defines itself according to the concepts of black and white, and the only thing they can do in order not to be lost is to define themselves as non-white. Moreover, they do not have any authority over a language of their own and, therefore, have a hard time to put their experiences into words.

2. Frank Chin: Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake

In All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake , Frank Chin claims that popular novels and plays written by Asian Americans, among others Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and David Henry Hwang, very often portray Chinese culture in a racist way usually common to white supremacists and that they perpetuate stereotypes like the idea that Chinese Americans are sojourners, i.e. perpetual aliens in America, that they are either Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan, i.e. either threatening or subservient, and that they are anti-individualistic, mysterious, passive, collective, and morally and ethically opposed to Western culture. Chin calls these stereotypes a “pure white racist fantasy.”5

According to Chin, the fact that these writers perpetuate stereotypes rather than correcting them is due to the monocultural educational system they have gone through in the United States and to their being Christians. In his opinion, autobiography, a genre often used by Asian American writers, is the typical Christian medium of expression. He continues to claim that Christianity is based on acculturation and therefore cultural extinction and modification of behavior. This is why Kingston, in her book The Woman Warrior states that, in the Chinese written language, ‘slave’ and ‘woman’ share the same character. And both Kingston and Hwang ( M.Butterfly ) mention that messages were brutally tattooed on the backs of women.

Chin concludes that such stereotypes perpetuated by Asian American writers destroy the history and literature of China because they change the real stories, such as folk tales and ballads. He says that it is not necessary for writers to tell stories in a different way than the one that are already well-known in Chinese American culture because Chinese Americans may see these altered stories as a kind of manual how to behave in order to be accepted. Since the authors in question gain recognition and acceptance by telling the stories the way they do, Chinese Americans may think that they have to behave accordingly in order to be accepted.

At some point in his essay, Chin draws a parallel between the modification Chinese history and literature have to endure and a wrong portrayal of Japanese American internment during World War Two. According to the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Japanese Americans endured the camps without rebellion based on the Japanese character trait of shikataganai (‘it can’t be helped’). This is the stereotype many Nisei, i.e. second generation Japanese Americans, still believe in today. However, in reality, their quiet endurance was a reaction to their feeling betrayed by the JACL who had helped the government in getting everyone into camp without much resistance. Moreover, there was quite some rebellion during camp years, but the JACL still claims that this is not true.

II MAIN PART

II A The Portrayal of Chinese Culture in American Movies

1. Lost Horizon (1937)

a Content

In the midst of a revolution in China, the British diplomat Robert Conway and his brother George help evacuate British citizens. On their way home their plane gets hijacked and they crash in the mountains of Tibet. Much to the surprise of the survivors, they are found by a couple of Asians led by an Asian who speaks English. He leads them to Shangri-La. Robert Conway finds out that this country, founded about 200 years earlier, has magic qualities. If a person remains inside the walls surrounding Shangri-La, they can live for several hundred years in peace and harmony with each other and the world. For Robert, Shangri-La is the land of his dreams, whereas his brother wants to leave Shangri-La as quickly as possible to go “back to civilization,” as he puts it.

b Historical Background

At the time this movie was made, there had already been quite a number of incidents which would lead up to the Second World War, especially concerning the Japanese attempts to colonize Asia. One of these attempts would be the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese army, and the establishment of the puppet state Manchukuo, another would be the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which brought about the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese War.

c Observations

As I will show in the following passages, Lost Horizon confirms stereotypes about Asians. Moreover, it addresses Chin and Chan’s concept of racist hate and racist love, perpetuates the idea of miscegenation, and, finally, reveals a certain amount of sexism.

i The Confirmation of Stereotypes

The idea that Asians are followers is most evident in the leading role of white people like the High Lama, Father Perrault, and Robert Conway, a little less evident if one looks at the fact that Sondra, a white woman, is the school teacher of the Asian children, and, therefore, a leader, too. However, most leaders are men. We soon find out that Chang, who first appears to be a leader, is, in reality, only a puppet of the High Lama. Except Chang, who is, in a way, a perfect imitation of a white man and a product of Father

Perrault, Asians hardly speak or act at all as individuals. This idea of whites leading and Asians following is also apparent in the music played in the background of many scenes: tranquil and monotonous music is used to assert Asian passiveness, whereas loud music is used to emphasize white activeness. All seems to indicate, moreover, that there is a definite need for a white leader in Shangri-La. It seems unimaginable for Father Perrault to make an Asian, even his creation Chang who is the imitation of a white man, a leader. He rather takes immeasurable efforts to lead Conway, a real white, to Shangri-La.

This apparent need for a white leader reinforces the idea of white culture as superior to Asian culture6. First of all, this is a story about white people, Asians are only present in the background as a contrast to the leading white “class.” Moreover, whereas whites speak English, the Asian language sounds like an unintelligible chatter. Whites possess all the power in Shangri-La, and the yellow race is degraded to either servants or children. I especially got the impression that there is a supposed necessity for white leadership when Robert is told that Shangri-La had only been waiting for him. In addition to this, Asian culture is rendered inferior by the fact that all important culture was brought from the outside, in other words, the Asian culture Father Perrault found in Shangri-La was not important enough to preserve. This bringing of culture continues with Conway and his group who play bridge, want to teach geology and bring plumbing to the “poor people” of Shangri-La. In other words, whites are seen as teachers and creators who bring culture to an uncivilized people. That Asians are considered uncivilized is obvious when George Conway says he wants to go “back to civilization.” This alleged need for whites to take care of the Asians made me think of the idea of the “white man’s burden” which I would basically associate with Native Americans. Another example illustrating the idea of Asian inferiority is the fact that when the two Conways and Maria try to leave Shangri-La with Asian guides, the Asians do not survive, whereas Robert Conway does, and he does not need a guide to get back to Shangri-La either. And last but not least, there are two brief moments that I remember very well: when Conway and his group arrive in Shangri-La, there is a music to be heard that made me think of heaven, in this case a heaven led by whites as we find out later. This implicates that a place can only be like heaven if whites lead. The second point is the remark by Conway to Chang à la “You do speak English” which can often be found today when people do not expect someone who looks Asian to speak English.

[...]


1 Lippmann, Walter: “Stereotypes”, in: Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion. New York: Macmillan, 1922. S. 53-75.

2 Rosenbach, Manfred: ”Identitaet“. 2003. 21.05.2004. http://bebis.cidsnet.de/weiterbildung/sps/allgemein/bausteine/ entwicklung/identitaet.htm.

3 Jeffrey Paul Chan: Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University and author of essays, novels and short

stories. He currently lives in Marin County. Frank Chin: p. 20

4 Benjamin Tong suggests an alternative, three-dimensional model of Chinese American personality and identity: He says that Chinese American identity consists of transplanted elements, modified elements, and elements that have been invented or borrowed according to the historical experiences of the group in America. I think that this model is far closer to reality than the either-or concept but in this paper it shall not be taken into account.

5 Chin, Frank: “Come all ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake”, in: Shawn Wong et al. (eds.): The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian 1991. p. 9

6 In this term paper I do not want to address the question of what the term “culture” actually means. In other words, I leave it open here whether “culture” should be meant to signify a way of life, items used in everyday life, language, food, religion, etc. and if something like “American culture” or “Chinese culture” really exists as such.

Details

Pages
37
Year
2004
ISBN (eBook)
9783640475315
ISBN (Book)
9783640475247
File size
604 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v138123
Institution / College
University of Tubingen
Grade
2
Tags
Film Literature Chinese American Identity

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Title: Film, Literature and Chinese American Identity