Chinese American Identity in Literature Analysis

Chinese American Experience, 1850-1942

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The first phase (roughly 1850-1942) of the Chinese American experience is recorded primarily in three types of literature. The first type is the largely negative, or at least stereotypical, representation of the Chinese in European American writings. In popular literature, caricatures, stereotypes, and racist portrayals of the Chinese abounded. Examples include Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan. A variety of objectionable Chinese characters also populate Jack London’s stories. Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Ambrose Bierce, despite their sympathies for the Chinese, largely failed to recognize and assert their humanity.

The second type provides counterpoints to the stereotypes. This type of literature is the work of Chinese diplomats, travelers, and immigrants. Such writing is crucial to the formation of the identity of the Chinese American. A notable example is Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940 (1980), which contains a collection of Chinese poems found inscribed on the barrack walls of the Angel Island Detention Center. The common fate of a displaced people in distress looms large in the collective voice of these poems. Another collection, Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown (1987), also provides glimpses into the psyches of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900’s. Sui Sin Far’s (pseudonym of Edith Eaton) representation of the...

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Chinese American Experience, 1942-1965

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The image of Chinese Americans improved during the second phase of the Chinese American experience. This period consists of the years 1942, the first full year of U.S. war against Japan, to 1965, the year of the Immigration and Nationality Act. This improvement was in part the result of China’s being an important ally of the United States in World War II. A public awareness of the difference between Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans began to develop, at the expense of the latter. Accordingly, the literature of this period is dominated by two sentiments. The first is what may be called the diplomatic sentiment, which seeks to explain the values and virtues of the Chinese heritage to the general (that is, white) reader. Implicit in such literature is an attempt to cement the sense of alliance between the Chinese and the American. The tone may range from apology to celebration. A good example is Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945). Lin Yutang’s extensive writings about China and Chinese culture, which have been well received by Western readers but often criticized by Chinese readers, also may be placed in this diplomatic context. The second sentiment is of belonging, of claiming America as home. This sentiment emerged as a dominant theme. A good example of this sentiment is Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea (1961), a novel about the precarious attempts of a Chinese American veteran and his Chinese wife to start a family in New...

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Chinese American Experience, Since 1965

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

During the third phase (after 1965) of the Chinese American experience, the Chinese population of the United States rose from 250,000 in 1966 to 1.6 million in 1990. An important debate arises from continuing immigration: What, if any, distinction should be drawn between the native-born and the foreign-born? Frank Chin and the other editors of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) and The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature (1991) attempt to differentiate between the native-born and the foreign-born, implying that Chinese American identity should be determined on the basis of an American, rather than Chinese, mindset. Newcomers (sometimes derided as “fresh off the boat,” source of the title of Hwang’s FOB, 1979) and more recent arrivals have brought with them significant resources and skills. These conditions render moot the American-centered definition of Chinese American identity. The increased diversity of the Chinese American community has made the issue of identity complex. A case in point is the background of Chinese Indonesian American writer Li- Young Lee, the author of two acclaimed volumes of poetry (Rose, 1986; The City in Which I Love You, 1990) and The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (1995). A further complexity arises when writers (for example, feminist poet Nellie Wong and polemicist Chin) disagree regarding what, how, and for whom to write about their experience. To complicate things further, interracial families, marriages, and relationships (as in Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain, 1995, and Shawn Wong’s American Knees, 1995) can so entangle ethnic identity that it can amount to a Gordian knot. In sharp contrast to entanglement is the position of avant-garde poets such as John Yau, who appears to eschew considerations of ethnicity. Somewhere between is the case of Chinese Hawaiian authors such as Eric Chock and Wing-Tek Lum. The complex issues of ethnic identity will continue to unfold, but three discernible patterns in twentieth century Chinese American literature can be emphasized.

One pattern is the continuation of the positive literary trends started...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok, and Stan Yogi. Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.

Chin, Frank, et al., eds. Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974.

Chin, Frank, et al., eds. The Big Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Kim, Elaine H. “Asian American Literature.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Twelve Asian American Writers: In Search of Self-Definition.” In Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

White-Parks, Annette, et al., eds. A Gathering of Voices on the Asian American Experience. Fort Atkinson, Wis.: Highsmith Press, 1994.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature from Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.