China Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In the last few decades in the United States, so-called “minority literatures” have begun to surface from beneath the various social and economic repressions which had previously denied them access to most printed media. First blacks and Jews and, more recently, Chicanos, Native Americans, and women have been given, or have taken, some part in the huge publication deluge which pours from this country every year. As a result, educators in literature have begun to understand that the great books tradition of Western civilization is but one voice in the cultural heterogeneity that is modern America. Minority writing can no longer be considered minor since, collectively, it expresses the multitude of experiences of the numerical majority, a majority that was previously made silent through forces of law, education, and material opportunity.

Despite these advances, one minority group, Asian-Americans, has, until the last few years, been surprisingly reticent about its unique experiences and contributions. Even considering that they have been on this continent for fewer years (about 180) and in smaller numbers (about one percent of the total population) than most of these other minorities, their slight publications need some explanation. The extent and reasons for this lacuna are most evident in the Chinese-American community.

Until 1970, the number of well-wrought book-length publications in drama, poetry, or prose by this segment of society was probably less than ten. While special problems of language and culture are partially responsible for this scarcity (in that the dominant languages here are Occidental), two other factors are perhaps more important even if they are not unique to Chinese-Americans.

Before the twentieth century the Chinese in America were not only segregated geographically into legislated Chinatowns but also, and as a consequence, linguistically. After this, however, access to print was restricted more by preexisting models of Chinese than by a relative ignorance of English. Books and iconography about Chinese were as popular as they were unfair. Stereotypes abounded in certain characters of the coolie, the laundryman, the servant, or the opium dealer. The image of queued Chinese in black silk persisted well after World War II even though they were not worn after 1911. These generic misrepresentations were often joined by famous fictional characters such as Charlie Chan, Chop-Chop, and Fu Manchu. Thus, modern Chinese-Americans found their literary slot already occupied by prejudiced works which were not easily dislodged by their own oral tradition and knowledge of the depth, beauty, and age of Oriental culture.

The other important factor limiting Chinese-American literary production might be thought to be their very assimilation into the mainstream of white culture. It is this image, however, and not its projected reality which seems to be the culprit here. Again, the stereotype forced a silence upon this group.

Asian-Americans have been mistreated, tortured, and killed in the United States since their first real immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, but it has been popular since the Korean War to represent them as productive, servile, diligent members of the white community. While this largely fictional assimilation is no longer made physically impossible by geographic segregation, the pretense of the melting pot whitewashes the special history and culture of this subset of society. Nor is this fiction totally benign: the image is used as a role model both to denigrate and manipulate other minorities. It also functions as a script for Asian-Americans themselves. They realize that compliance assures survival and relatively little interference. Thus, this device is another cork in this group’s capacity for self expression: they are co-opted by the image of assimilation into the silence of real assimilation.

This background to the Chinese-American experience is important here because this tension between white myths about orientals and the contradicting historical facts has become a central theme in much of this group’s modern writing. Writers such as Frank Chin, Diana Chang, and Maxine Hong Kingston form a now vociferous middle generation of Chinese-Americans who can see back both to original Chinese culture and past white abuses, as well as “foreward” to the images and realities of the present. As a result their writing tends to be Janus faced. They write, however, not about an identity in crisis because of its ambiguity but rather find in this plurality the material for creativity and flexibility. They, like the Japanese-American Nisei (first American-born generation), form a biological and a conceptual bridge between the old and the new.

Maxine Hong Kingston is one of the best of this middle generation of Asian-American writers. She was born in Stockton, California, in 1940—the same year and the same city as Frank Chin. She has been and continues to be a teacher as well as a writer who has published in Hawaii Review, The New York Times, Viva, The New Yorker, American Heritage, and New West. Her first novel, The Woman Warrior:...

(The entire section is 2110 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1975, Maxine Hong Kingston, a daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, published The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a reconstruction of the experiences, mythical and real, of her female ancestors. She painted a rich picture of her family, enhanced by tales from folklore and history. She had two goals in writing her book: to understand her dual ethnic and cultural heritage and to claim her identity as a female.

In China Men, Kingston turned her attention from females to the male members of her family. The book resembles The Woman Warrior in its attempt to bridge two vastly different cultures by portraying Chinese legends and popular culture and evoking the uncertainties of assimilation. Whereas The Woman Warrior was a journey inward, however, China Men is a voyage outward, an attempt to understand the experience of Chinese-American men by re-creating their lives.

Kingston’s book reconstructs the history of Chinese immigration to the United States, relying on what she heard in her family and read in books. The book has a jumbled chronology, but within it a pattern emerges: Her ancestors leave China and go to the United States either to make a fortune and return to China in glory or to stay and establish a new home that is suitable for their women. The story unfolds as she re-creates the experiences of a succession of her male relatives: grandfathers, father,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Originally, The Woman Warrior (1976) and China Men were conceived as integral parts of a larger work. For the sake of unity, The Woman Warrior was separated out to focus more sharply on feminist issues. China Men, which deals with the male members of Maxine Hong Kingston’s family, is hence both a sequel and a complement to the earlier work; in fact, the Chinese seal inscribed on the book’s and the sections’ title pages translates “Gold Mountain’s Brave Warriors.” As a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, China Men provides important contexts essential to the understanding of Kingston as a writer in particular, and of Chinese American literature and history in general.

Not unlike its predecessor, China Men defies classification because it overlaps a number of genres including autobiography, memoir, biography, history, folklore, and novel or the short story. The generic mixture apparently stems from an attempt to synthesize two important impulses, the documentary and the imaginative, that have given impetus to Kingston’s work. The documentary impulse is crystallized at the center of the book in “The Laws,” where Kingston has compiled a chronological list of discriminatory laws designed to deprive, exclude, and oppress Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. The biographies of the “China men” can be seen as extended exhibits documenting the struggles of generations of...

(The entire section is 548 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As a companion piece to The Woman Warrior, China Men has inspired discussions on gender issues relevant to Chinese American men and women. Although the primary focus of the book is on male members of Kingston’s family, it is important that the narrative is told from a woman’s perspective and that many of the sources are derived from women’s memories and stories.

Commonly regarded as having a patriarchal, chauvinistic, and misogynist tradition, Chinese men encounter serious challenges to their male-centered culture when they become China men. The tale of Tang Ao’s becoming a woman, which offers a direct link back to The Woman Warrior (where feminist concerns loom large), allegorizes such a challenge and sets up an interpretive framework for the rest of the book, where the symbolic emasculation of China men is an underlying theme. In their encounter with America, the Chinese are seen as feminized beings because of the Orientalist tendency of the West. Historically, China men lived in a world with very few women, which had a negative effect on their mental stability—Ah Goong being a case in point. The struggle of the China men therefore cannot be fully understood without grasping the fact that they are victims of both racism and a special form of sexism.

Yet an overemphasis on the theme of emasculation in Kingston’s work can lead to the kind of false dichotomy between heroism and feminism found among certain Chinese-American male critics, who thought that Kingston’s popularity among white feminist readers was a sellout of Chinese-American manhood. The solution to this issue is not to encourage feminism-bashing “heroism” but rather, as Kingston implies in her books, to bring “women warriors” and “brave men” of the Gold Mountain together. Instead of dichotomizing the two genders, as Leslie A. Rabine observes, Kingston has proliferated “gender arrangements” that operate on the principle of difference rather than mere opposition. With China Men, Kingston shows herself to be a woman writer who fights for not only women but also for men.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

China Men is less an autobiography than an imaginative retelling of the recent history of one group of Chinese- Americans. Kingston...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In a broad sense, the social concerns of The Woman Warrior (1976) are continued in China Men, although the emphasis is more on...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The one book which Kingston admits is a major influence on her work is William Carlos Williams' In the American Grain: "I wish I had...

(The entire section is 100 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Broner, E. M. Review in Ms. IX (August, 1980), p. 28.

Chan, Jeffrey Paul, et al., eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok. “The Woman Warrior Versus the Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose Between Feminism and Heroism?” In Conflicts in Feminism, edited by Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. Considering sexual politics in the contexts of the immigration experience and racial relations in the United States, the author...

(The entire section is 479 words.)