Chinese American Identity in Literature Analysis

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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 Chinese and the Chinese American experience in Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912) is informed by an intimate knowledge of her subjects and enhanced by her mastery of the English language’s literary idioms. Far, who was Amerasian, chose allegiance to her Chinese heritage at a time when it was demeaned. Such courage in the struggle to establish an ethnic identity has been required of many Asian Americans.

The third type of literature dealing with the first phase of the Chinese American experience involves the more-or-less-historical re-creation, by later writers, of the lives of their forebears. One example is Kingston’s China Men (1980), in which the narrator attempts to reconstruct the tribulations and struggles of her male forebears who labored in the Hawaiian plantations, built the transcontinental railroad, and survived as Americans. Another example is Ruthanne Lum McGunn’s Thousand Pieces of Gold (1981), which chronicles the immigration, destitution, survival, and independence of a Chinese woman pioneer in the late nineteenth century. McGunn’s second historical novel, Wooden Fish Songs (1995), covers the period from 1842 to 1915 and the life story of Lue Gim Gong, whose contribution to citrus-growing technology was instrumental to the industry. In this type of literature, historical research and creative imagination are employed to open a window on the past, describe the beginnings of Chinese American identity, and affirm the connectedness between the past and the present. A significant instance of the historical imagination is Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), in which the author traces the protagonist’s ancestry to the Hakkas, the ethnic Chinese group that started the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), one of the most cataclysmic events in Chinese history.

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...

(The entire section is 2,053 words.)