Wednesday, February 28, 2018

2018 James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds


2018 James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds:

Applications Welcome!

The time is upon us! We are now welcoming applications for the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, initiated by a generous gift from a former student of Jim's at the University of Florida, Mead Bowen, and sponsored by the BABEL Working Group. The grant was specifically established to aid scholars to travel to the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held each May at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In brief, for those scholars who have had a paper accepted by the Congress, but for whom travel to the Congress presents a financial hardship (due, especially, to lack of institutional and other support), we have established this grant in memory of Jim Paxson, and, more pointedly, for persons presenting on topics that would have been dear to him, whom many of you will remember as an important person in the support and development of theoretical medieval studies through his role as an associate editor for so many years at Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This year, we will make FOUR AWARDS of $450 each. Please see below for the full description of the Travel Grant, and note that the deadline for applications is MARCH 31, with a decision to be made no later than APRIL 12 (and monies to be disbursed prior to the conference itself). Applications will be reviewed by a diverse and interdisciplinary committee of five scholars. 

The 2018 James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds 

The BABEL Working Group invites applications for the 2018 James J. Paxson Memorial Grant for Scholars of Limited Funds, available for presenters at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held each spring at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan). This grant honors the late Prof. Paxson, an energetic and creative scholar who was particularly devoted to exploring medieval allegory, Piers Plowman, the relations between literature and science, medieval drama, and the works of Chaucer. He produced the important monograph The Poetics of Personification (Cambridge, 1994) and authored an extensive body of articles on a variety of literary and other subjects, while also helping to steer and edit the journal Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies (a journal that has been vital to the development of theoretical medieval studies) through its formative and later years. His enthusiasm for research was surpassed only by his commitment to his students. He mentored countless men and women at the University of Toronto, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Florida, and he regularly encouraged them to present their findings at academic conferences. Yet he often lacked the funding necessary to present his own work at the conferences he urged his students to attend, and it disheartens us to think that, had he been able to do so, we might have learned something more of the work he was conducting before his passing, and more of us might have received the gift of his encyclopedic knowledge, boundless enthusiasm, and love for teaching. Prof. Paxson was also warmly supportive of the BABEL Working Group at a time when they needed such encouragement, and he was known for his helpful encouragement of those just starting out in the field. Through the James J. Paxson Memorial Travel Grant, we hope to extend the encouragement he freely gave and the funding he deserved to scholars who wish to honor his legacy of kindness, erudition, and commitment to both expanding our knowledge of the medieval world and also embracing new ideas. 

Four grants of $450 each will be awarded to help defray travel costs, registration fees, lodging and other expenses for scholars who would otherwise find it a financial hardship to present their work at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. Priority will be extended to those presenting on topics dear to Prof. Paxson: medieval English literature, especially medieval allegory, and even more especially Piers Plowman; medieval drama; science and literature; critical theory; and/or Chaucer. Scholars whose careers would benefit the most from this opportunity, such as early career researchers, graduate students and contingent faculty, and scholars from populations historically underrepresented in medieval studies will also take precedence in our selection process..

Applicants should send these materials: an abstract of their accepted ICMS paper (350-500 words), a statement of financial need (briefly outlining why this award would be helpful at this time), and a short (2-3-page) C.V. (including full contact information). Please submit these as one document by email to Julie Orlemanski (at julieorlemanski [at] uchicago [dot] edu) by March 31. Note: you should receive a confirmation of receipt with 24 hours. If you do not receive confirmation, please write to Julie again to ensure that your application has been received. Applications will be reviewed by a diverse and interdisciplinary committee of scholars. The recipients of the grant will be announced no later than APRIL 12.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Confederate Monuments and the Cura pastoralis

Image: Martin Kraft (
License: CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
[image description: photo of Silent Sam statue, with protesters]


In a recent email to UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, an anonymous group of senior faculty state that unless the administration agrees to remove a Confederate statue (known as “Silent Sam”) by March 1, the faculty sending the email will do it themselves. One can admire their missive for a number of reasons, including their commitment to direct action and their explicit, and correct, charge that the statue sends students, faculty, and staff of color the message that they are unwelcome and undervalued on the campus. But one aspect of this exchange that struck my medievalist ear with particular force is the invocation of “pastoral care,” in both the email and their subsequent press release, to describe the faculty’s understanding of their mission regarding students. Thinking about the resonances of this phrase in the context of the early Middle Ages revealed to me the strong tie between the antiracist act of removing this statue and a less tangible, but also crucial, imperative. This imperative is to render complicated ideas broadly accessible, so much so as to challenge the hierarchies by which such ideas are disseminated, in any fight for racial and social justice.

Book 1 of Gregory the Great’s sixth-century Cura pastoralis, or Liber regulae pastoralis (Book of Pastoral Rule), speaks not simply about the care of the flock but also about authority itself. The treatise describes the care of souls as governance, the weight of governing (regimen, Chapter 1; pondus regiminis, Chapter 3), and in doing so sounds uncannily pointed and prescient in our current moment. Gregory remarks on the importance of acquiring appropriate learning before assuming authority (Chapter 1) and of practicing what one preaches when in a position of authority (Chapter 2). He warns that many minds will not be equal to the distractions (Chapter 4) that offices of authority place before one. Furthermore, a leader might be puffed up (tumidus, Chapter 4) or experience a misguided sense of deservingness (Chapter 9). And Gregory acknowledges the importance of feeling reluctance to serve as an authority due to one’s own humility but doing so anyway from a sense of duty (Chapter 7), rather than greedily seeking power. In other words, for a critical account of the pitfalls of governance that anticipates, by over a millennium, exactly the kind of leadership to which we are now subjected, see Book 1 of the Liber.

But I’m not that interested here in giving airtime to the specific problem of Trump through Gregory the Great, or in analyzing Gregory’s attitude toward dominion itself. I am interested in the reception of Gregory’s cura pastoralis in the English Middle Ages and how that reception extends the implications of the pastoral care that the UNC faculty enact. In the late ninth century, King Alfred translated Gregory the Great’s Latin words about pastoral care into English, along with other works of religious and philosophical learning. Alfred’s response to Gregory’s work shows us that the critical stance toward an expression of authority, as well as the duty to attend to the flock (both accomplished by taking down the statue), must connect to the work of making difficult, subtle, and complicated ideas accessible to everyone. In a preface to the translation of Gregory’s text, Alfred observes that learning has decayed in England because Latin literacy has declined (afeallen wæs). Alfred declares it his mission to promote learning and wisdom by translating important works into English, for many know how to read English writing (monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan). His preface specifies that he will send a copy of the translation to every bishopric in England, and while that copy may not be removed from its minster, the better to ensure its continued accessibility there, it can be re-copied to promote its accessibility elsewhere. The Middle Ages often seem overrun with dragons of ecclesiastical and monarchical power, and thus it is easy to criticize this period as deeply committed to hierarchy and even responsible for hierarchical systems beyond its own time. But within that context, Alfred’s impulse to vernacularize and disseminate this work represents an intriguing experiment (one that he sees as having ancient precedent) in reconfiguring the channels of access to learning.

And even if Alfred’s motives are more complicated and less equitable than this formulation suggests, we as modern readers have something to gain from discerning in Alfred’s program an experiment in access. For in advocating this access, Alfred specifies what it really means to speak in a way that everyone understands. Re-reading the preface clarified to me that making concepts available in a language familiar to us (we ealle gecnawan mægen) is not the same thing as plain speaking, a concept that has become a misguided anti-intellectual ideal. Vernacularity does not mean “telling it like it is,” or expressing opinions that justify ignorance and bigotry by costuming them as directness. It is not the easy comprehensibility of simple vocabulary and syntax. It means doing the work of translating – at every educational stage and in every educational setting – a complicated architecture of concepts concerning governance, systems of privilege and control, and responsibility to care. It also means translating these ideas in ways that will promote further thoughts and actions toward justice rather than stifling them. For these reasons, I think the “Seventeen Tar Heel Faculty”’s identification of pastoral care as a guiding principle is especially fitting. This idea’s long history focuses on ministering to the flock, and even, as the UNC faculty enact it, empowering through that ministration those most vulnerable to injustice and harm. But in considering what pastoral care means and requires, the medieval ruler Alfred also heard a call to promote a more inclusive, and therefore a more productive, rigorous, and challenging, means to learning than had existed before.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Dear Fellow Iberianists: Where Are We?

Cover image, Dario Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016)

by Chad Leahy

This is the first of three posts by Chad Leahy on Iberianism in today's medieval studies.

Dear reader of ITM: you don’t need me to tell you that an awful lot has been happening in Medieval Studies. I’d wager that most of us can rattle off a list of 2016-2017 highlights that might include #femfog, Leeds IMC, the Brown vs. Kim controversy, Charlottesville, and #AltCrusade17. And even if we aren’t publicly engaged in responding to this moment, I’d guess most of us are at least aware of the work of disciplinary awakening swirling around us: Work to acknowledge and redress the complicity of our silence. Work to reclaim Medieval Studies from the medievalist fantasies of white supremacists and misogynists. Work to confront the disciplinary practices and ideologies of exclusion that mark our past and present for people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups.

You know this already. In fact, the gesture of signaling the moment-ness of the moment is becoming almost routine. So routine that I fear the gesture itself threatens to be replaced by the meta-cliché of complaining about it.

For you, dear reader, let me offer that you are already aware of all of this in part because you are not an Iberianist. Maybe you work on Late Medieval England or Anglo-Saxons, Old Norse or Normans, Gaul or the Franks, Celts or the Crusader States. But Iberia? My question: where are all the Iberianists and Hispanists? What is behind our thundering absence from these conversations?

I think there are a number of ways we might respond to this question, but in what follows, I’d like to entertain just one theory. Maybe we aren’t experiencing the aforementioned moment-ness of the moment in quite the same way as some of our disciplinary cousins simply because we feel that we’ve already been engaged in this sort of business for years, toreando in this plaza at least since 1948, when Américo Castro published España en su historia. (See this overview if you aren’t familiar).

As Nadia Altschul suggested almost a decade ago, Medieval Iberia is “enmeshed in midcoloniality. In contrast to other language-based disciplines, the existence of a so-called ‘multicultural’ Middle Ages is neither counterintuitive nor new within Ibero-Medievalism” (“The future of postcolonial approaches to medieval Iberian Studies” 9). We understand racial, cultural, and confessional complexity to be basic to our field, and long decades of interpretative struggle over those fundamentals have always served as unvarnished referenda on the political and ideological struggles of the present. Whether as a means of decentering Eurocentric historiography or imagining an alternative to the horrors of the Holocaust or refracting anxieties over contemporary extremism, the War on Terror, and Islamophobia or negotiating the essentializing politics of Spanishness under Franco, we’re accustomed to seeing Medieval Iberia as a tool to think through some pretty big, relevant problems. (And this, even though we often default to a position of problematic neutrality that sometimes borders on “criminal non-intervention,” as Simon Doubleday has argued).

So, is it just that we don’t consider more recent developments–especially those surrounding inclusion, violence, race, and nation–to be a disciplinary novelty?  

Even if the answer is yes–and I’m not sure it is–I would like to suggest that this shouldn’t exonerate us from remaining engaged. On the contrary, our passivity here has real consequences that we have an obligation to take seriously.

Let me offer just one example of what I mean: why did the publication of Fernández-Morera’s rabidly polemical The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2016) not give rise to a more vigorous public response by scholars in the field in 2017?

The thesis of this last monograph is, effectively, that al-Andalus was a violently retrograde hellscape of militant jihad, crucifixions, beheadings, sexual slavery, and female circumcision. This, in contradistinction to the relatively more open Christian communities of the North who, despite it all, heroically managed to keep alive the flame of Roman-Visigothic greatness in Hispania. Just think: if it weren’t for the reconquista, today we would be facing the inconceivable horror of a Spain bereft of wine and ham, and if it weren’t for Byzantium there would have been no medieval transmission of Classical knowledge, since on that front, the role of al-Andalus has been hugely exaggerated. The author passionately claims that all of us in the U.S. academy have been deliberately ignoring or misrepresenting this story both because we lack the methodological and linguistic skills to get at the real truth and because, either way, we prefer to remain duped in our ahistorical liberal fantasy of convivencia, which for the author always and only signifies a dreamy amalgam of inter-confessional brotherhood, artistic-intellectual glory, and multicultural tolerance.

The brazen absurdity of this should be patent. To begin with, this argument is built on a gross mischaracterization of what those in the U.S. academy have actually written. Case in point: Kenneth Baxter Wolf, Brian Catlos, Ann Rosemary Christys, David Coleman, Olivia Remie Constable, Jean Dangler, Jerilynn Dodds, Simon Doubleday, Denise Filios, Thomas Glick (with or without Oriol Pi-Sunyer), L. P. Harvey, Richard Hitchcock, Chris Lowney, David Nirenberg, Pamela Patton, Jonathan Ray, Teófilo Ruiz, Janina M. Safran, and Maya Soifer are among just some of the relevant scholars that don’t even appear in the author’s bibliography. It is true that some (very few) of these folks are in fact quoted in the book’s frequent epigraphs, but in de-contextualized ways that in no way constitute a deep engagement with their work. (Carly Fiorina, too, gets an epigraph.) Even more noteworthy: also largely absent is María Rosa Menocal, who I would suggest is nevertheless everywhere here, with The Ornament of the World (2002) operating as a kind of haunting specter or token of everything ever said about al-Andalus in the U.S. academy. As a point of fact, those of us in the field know that there is a robust scholarly consensus about the shortcomings of Menocal’s work and the interpretative trend it embodies. (See, for example, this review article by Anna Akasoy). Fernández-Morera demonstrates no effort to acknowledge such work because, as S. J. Pearce has argued, “The entire book is constructed against a straw man… The Myth’s myth is a myth.” Even my undergraduates just reading a few selections from Constable’s anthology of source materials (Medieval Iberia)–a book I’d hardly call an arcane secret of the forgotten catacomb-archives–already know that the narrative against which Fernández-Morera rails is about as real as cynocephali and sciopods.

As if this weren’t concern enough, what should we make of the fact that The Myth was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute? According to their dogwhistle-laden mission, ISI is dedicated to promoting the advancement of “Western civilization,” a topic evidently under threat and “rarely taught” in the U.S. classroom. ISI also actively promotes “The values, customs, conventions, and norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition” because these “inform and guide a free society” and “[w]ithout such ordinances, society induces its decay by embracing a relativism that rejects an objective moral order.” In brief, this is an Institute with some very loaded ideological axes to grind. And Fernández-Morera is happy to do the grinding. Even if we accept the archaeological reasoning deployed here—i.e., that Fernández-Morera has indeed restored to truth realities hitherto ignored in the archive—the book’s particular rhetoric warmly and dangerously invites an Islamophobia that is in direct harmony with ISI’s political agenda of safeguarding the embattled civilization of Western Judeo-Christianity.

So why are we silent? Why no #MythFail hashtag? Why no #AndalusiaGate? Why no symposia or op-eds to set the record straight?

Maybe the case is simply that we have chosen to not dignify this work with a response. In one of the few negative reviews of the book that I’ve been able to find, self-professed conservative historian Thomas Madden predicts just that: “This book will change few minds. Professional scholars will dismiss it as an angry screed, unworthy of serious attention.”

I agree. But our resulting silence has serious consequences. It is probably not at all surprising that Fernández-Morera would be championed by a conservative publication as their number 3 on a list of “Top Ten Contemporary Academics Helping the Political Right” or lauded in a review by the author of a book called The Left is Never Right. One can imagine how this line of thought might go: see, Muslim tolerance is a liberal myth! Sharia lawyers are coming to force your daughters to wear hijab! Travel ban time (#MAGA)! On the other hand, maybe it is a little surprising that even liberal media outlets like HuffingtonPost approve of the debunking of a myth whose stranglehold on the field itself constitutes a myth. And more injurious still, even some very well-respected Hispanists, like Noël Valis (Yale University) and Antonio Carreño (Brown University, emeritus), contributed publicity blurbs for the dust jacket, praising the book’s iconoclasm. I genuinely trust that this last move reflects their own status as researchers who work primarily outside of Medieval Iberian Studies and who are thus simply less familiar with the broader bibliography that so deeply undermines the book’s claims. And yet, their names are there, communicating scholarly legitimacy.

But the problem that I consider far more upsetting here is that by not more vocally resisting The Myth, we have been party to its weaponization. Through our silence we passively condone the poisonous ideologies that champion Fernández-Morera’s work in places like Occidental Observer (a publication dedicated to “White Identity, Interests and Culture”) or on the white nationalist, neo-Nazi website Stormfront or on /4chan hate forums, where Fernández-Morera is referred to in the most enthusiastic terms. Here’s a sample: “Please—nothing annoys me more than politically-correct dolts that believe the ‘Moorish Occupation of Hispania’ was a magical, multi-cultural Utopia where unwashed, barbarian, Christian Whitey learnt [sic] at the feet of his benevolent, clean, civilised [sic] Arab and Negro Muslim overlords. For any interested in why the ‘benevolent, enlightened Moorish overlords’ thought that the negroes were little more than ‘animals,’ and liked destroying cathedrals and killing Spaniards, I advise Stormfronters to read Darío Fernández-Morera ‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.’” (Note: I refuse to link to such sites). We needn’t even go that far down the rabbit hole. Youtube also houses an abundance of abhorrent responses to The Myth.

The problems here obviously go way beyond the fact that Fernández-Morera’s book suffers from defective methodology or suspect ideological biases. This isn’t about the book itself in a vacuum, but about the social and political practices it underwrites. It’s about a worldview of hatred and violence that draws strength from this book. Even if we are radical believers in academic freedom and don’t want to critique Fernández-Morera’s approach, our silence in not responding to the appropriation of his work by white nationalists and supremacists equates to tacit approval. Are we ok with Fernández-Morera misrepresenting our work? No, but maybe we’d rather not bother fighting scholarship that is so evidently absurd. But what about letting our work be appropriated (via The Myth) by hate groups as a means of justifying their abominable views? Such are the wages of our passivity. This is a real-world problem. This is serious.

So, where are we? That is the question. We appear to have been relatively reluctant to visibly enter the fray in 2017, whether it be over what I earlier called #MythFail or other aspects of our work. I’ve wondered here if this may have been due to a measure of confidence that we are already engaged in relevant struggles. Maybe that’s it, but there is clearly much work left to be done: Work to educate the public and our students. Work to educate even our own colleagues. And, most especially, real work to resist hatred. This is work that we need to acknowledge and embrace. I would like to suggest that we take this work seriously. That we do it visibly, openly, loudly. These struggles are not the proprietary domain of Anglo-Saxonists and specialists in Celts or Vikings. Dear Fellow Iberianists: can we please make some noise?

Chad Leahy is an Assistant Professor of Spanish at the University of Denver. His research centers on the politics of Jerusalem in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain. He has published on a range of topics including Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and the morisco expulsion, and teaches regularly on al-Andalus.  

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Slow Thinking and Swift Action

by J J Cohen

Last autumn I was elected co-president (wth Stacy Alaimo) of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, the oldest and largest environmental humanities organization. I'm happy to serve a community that means so much to me.

Stacy and I recently composed a Message from the Presidents for the ASLE website. I'm copying it here because it means so much to me. If you feel inspired, please consider joining ASLE, a supportive and vibrant collective of artists and scholars.

ASLE is where slow thinking (scholarly and artistic research and writing) meets swift action (we cannot truly be environmental humanists unless we are willing to become environmental activists). We study, write, compose and create because we care about issues like biodiversity, environmental justice, survival in a time of endemic precarity and global catastrophe, and the effects of climate change on humans and nonhumans alike. These concerns have long histories, and we believe that we can look to the past to imagine alternative futures. We do not have easy solutions to the problems that face us, but we do have faith that widened community is our best way forward.

ASLE has long offered a vital intellectual community: there are few scholarly organizations that possess so strong sense of camaraderie, mentorship, and shared ethical and political orientations. It has been exciting to see the organization grow and the field flourish over the years, becoming more inclusive in its membership and more capacious in its ambit. We want you to find in ASLE a refuge and a welcoming home. In these times of ecological peril, we look forward to increasing our public visibility as well as working with like-minded organizations to effect social change. Please join us as we intensify our strengths and ensure ASLE’s vibrant future.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Antiracist Medievalisms: Lessons from Chinese Exclusion


[Early Chinese American voices (left to right): Wong Chin Foo, Yan Phou Lee, and Edith Maude Eaton / Sui Sin Far.]

Racist appropriation of the Middle Ages is a disturbing aspect of contemporary culture. Among the most notorious recent examples are the use of medieval iconography by white nationalists and related displays at (neo) Nazi rallies. As a Chinese American I’m acutely aware of the role that toxic forms of medievalism have played in a long history of discrimination and violence. One particularly painful aspect of such history is the era of Chinese exclusiona decades-long period when legislation denied Chinese immigrants in the US (and Canada) full rights of citizenship, and anti-Chinese riots were enabled by a toxic mix of nativist and xenophobic medievalism. As Illustrating Chinese Exclusion reveals, dehumanizing caricatures of the unassimilable “Chinaman” with slanted eyes and long “pigtail” were often contrasted with idealized exemplars of (Christian) white masculinity; moreover, such propaganda gleefully exploited “medieval” imagery to appeal to a popular audience (e.g., Thomas Nast’s political cartoons “Pacific Chivalry” and “Martyrdom of St Crispin”).

Toxic medievalism (medieval-ism referring to popular fantasies of a medieval past) was not just pervasive in visual media.[1] Such toxicity infused the political rhetoric of “Yellow Peril.” In the words of US Senator James G. Blaine, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination: “The question is [whether] the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific Slope or the Mongolians will possess it.”[2] Elsewhere, Blaine asserted that states such as California can “[maintain] a vast population of Anglo-Saxon freemen, if we do not surrender it to Chinese coolies.”[3] Throughout the 1880’s, anti-Chinese riots were orchestrated by members of the Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, a group that deployed medieval iconography and nativist nostalgia to provoke violence and expulsion (and as early as 1870, a trade union styled the Knights of Saint Crispin held mass meetings in San Francisco and other cities decrying “coolie labor”).[4] To make matters worse, “progressive” reform movements in Chinatowns—whether led by white women or by white men—exploited missionary discourses of social uplift and moral crusade to assert the superiority of Western civilization over “barbarous” Asian influences.[5]

The Chinese Exclusion era is one vivid example of how nativist appropriations of “medieval” imagery and discourse can fuel animus against immigrant communities across North America (and immigrant diasporas around the globe). Rather than write another piece lamenting the “abuse” or “misuse” of a medieval past, I consider the targets of toxic medievalism. How did Chinese Americans transform a hostile sociopolitical environment? What strategies did they employ to resist discrimination?

In the following sketches, I explore how early Chinese Americans created space for antiracist medievalism.[6] Not only did people of Chinese ancestry turn “medieval” tropes and rhetoric against their contemporary detractors, but they also found affirming possibilities to assert a shared humanity and to claim cultural belonging.[7]

Chinese American Voices

[Closing of a handwritten letter by Wong Ar Chong – entire letter here]

One way to address toxic chivalry was simply to rebuke it directly.

In an eloquent letter addressed to civil rights advocate William Lloyd Garrison, Chinese immigrant and Boston tea merchant Wong Ar Chong was an early voice from within the Chinese American community expressing opposition to nativism. In 1878, Denis Kearney—himself an (Irish Catholic) immigrant—had published an “Appeal from California” (co-signed by H.L. Knight) decrying a “Chinese invasion” and announcing a readiness to take “arm … if need be.” In his handwritten letter dated February 28, 1879, Wong decries Kearney’s ideology (see this Smithsonian website for images of the letter; you can also read a full transcript).

Wong’s letter offers an antidote to toxic chivalry by appealing to Christian charity, equal rights, and gentility—all sensibilities coded as elite masculine virtues. Wong reveals the pervasive legal disenfranchisement of Chinese immigrants, endorses a quintessentially American ethos of hard work, and—whether or not he identified as Christian himself—he invokes the Golden Rule: “I ask you, where is … your Christian charity, and the fruits of your Bible teachings when you talk about doing to others as you would have them do to you?”

As is the case with any act of communication, the medium is the message. Kearney and Knight’s nativist and populist “appeal” is rebutted by Wong’s direct appeal for civil rights. Wong’s decision to write in his own hand on account ledger paper not only reminds the reader of his writing body; the document also asserts the social and economic value of Chinese immigrant labor.

[Wong Chin Foo – via bio on this Smithsonian website]

Activist, journalist, and lecturer, Wong Chin Foo (王清福) took a divergent strategy for Chinese American advocacy. Rather than plea to allies for aid, he called out allies for their hypocrisy.

Wong Chin Foo has been dubbed “the first Chinese American” (among other things, he was likely the first to use the term “Chinese American” in reference to a social identity). Naturalized as a citizen in 1874 in Michigan prior to the Chinese Exclusion Act, he founded the first Chinese-language newspaper on the East Coast, aptly entitled The Chinese American.[8] In his scathing essay “Why Am I A Heathen?” (1887), Wong sparked a great deal of controversy for pointing out the bigotry of self-proclaimed Christians and rebuking their greed and imperialism. He sarcastically ends the work by “invit[ing] the Christians of America to come to Confucius.”

By claiming an ethical stance as a “heathen,” Wong cleverly upended the “Heathen Chinee” stereotype. Popularized by a poem published in 1870 by Bret Harte that was intended to mock anti-Chinese sentiments, the character of the shifty and untrustworthy “Heathen Chinee” became a “meme” in visual culture. Even though Harte had intended to expose and satirize racism, the wide circulation of the “Heathen Chinee” stereotype had the disastrous effect of reinforcing anti-Chinese prejudices (read and judge for yourself). Through his deliberate “heathen” posture, Wong suggests that white allies such as Harte can prove dangerously unreliable. Even when attempting to be antiracist, white supporters can do more harm than good.

In addition to reclaiming an ethical “heathen” status, Wong’s works of literary fiction challenged white audiences in surprising concurrent route: by reshaping chivalry for Chinese Americans.

Wu Chih Tien, The Celestial Empress (1889), which Wong claimed was an English “translation” of an (unverified) ancient Chinese romance, was published as a serial novel in The Cosmopolitan and featured a healthy dose of nostalgic heroism. As literary critic Hsuan L. Hsu observes, the novel “[takes] as its protagonist the handsome, robust, intelligent, and sympathetic prince,” and it “resists the equation of whiteness with imperial manhood” so pervasive in historical romances.[9] Published in the same year as Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), Wong used the same illustrator as Twain did—but instead of producing another medieval romance with a white character, he casts a Chinese man in the lead role. Alluding to illustrious classics of Chinese literature such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Wong’s newly-invented historical novel shrewdly repurposed a familiar set of narrative and visual conventions, all the while inviting white readers to identify with a seemingly unlikely hero.

[Yan Phou Lee – via Wikipedia]

Wong Chin Foo wasn’t the only Chinese American to adapt medieval mentalities to reach white audiences. Yan Phou Lee, one of the first Chinese students to earn a degree in the US, sought to assimilate to his new home, publishing a memoir When I Was a Boy in China (1887) and all other works with his surname “last” just like Anglo-Americans. Although he submitted paperwork around 1887, an amendment to the exclusion law prevented him from claiming citizenship.[10]

Reflecting the views of a committed Christian, Lee’s “Why I Am Not a Heathen: A Rejoinder to Wong Chin Foo” (1887) addresses white audiences from an “insider” position. Arguing that violent Christians are not upholding the faith and emphasizing that the ethical Christians are those who have helped Chinese immigrant communities, Lee asserts that “when I have found ‘fraternity’ I invariably found it in the Christian church.” Mindful of outraged white reactions to Wong’s essay, Lee not only aimed to manage the anxieties of white middle-class readers; he also discovered his own path for denouncing anti-Chinese racism.

Divergent in personality and tactics, both Wong and Lee “re-coded” the possibilities of Chinese American masculinity—and they did so through a shared idiom of chivalry.

[Edith Maude Eaton / Sui Sin Far – original image here]

Born in England to an English father and a Chinese mother, Edith Maude Eaton evades simple identity categories.[11] Although she was able to pass as white, she wrote most of her famous works under the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far (a transcription of the Cantonese 水仙花 for “water lily”)—among other pen names and fictive authorial personae.[12]

In “Leaves From the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1909), Sui Sin Far relates episodes spanning her childhood and young adulthood in England, Montreal, New York, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.[13] Although she strongly identified with her Chinese background (in the text and in real life), the first-person narrative—related in a perpetual present tense—reveals the shifting ways she was perceived across time and space.

Sui Sin Far’s autobiographical writing integrates white heroism and Chinese victimhood in one body. The first encounter with racist violence transpires after the family enters the US. In New York, white children on the street find out she and her brother are Chinese and hurl insults: “Chinky, Chinky, Chinaman, yellow-face, pig-tail, rat-eater” (222). The narrator proclaims she (and by extension her brother) “would rather be Chinese than anything in the world,” and in an ensuing skirmish “the white blood in our veins fights valiantly for the Chinese half of us” (222). Informing her proud mother afterwards that the siblings “won the battle,” and the narrator awakes in the morning shouting lyrics to “Sound the battle cry”—a hymn laden with chivalric imagery (222-223).

Alluding to anti-Chinese violence through this tale of childhood harassment, Sui Sin Far uses medieval imagery to express a dual identity. Internalizing “white savior” tropes of progressive missionary uplift, she imagines a chivalric white self fighting on behalf of another self that is vulnerable and Chinese.

Later in the text, she declares that she loves “poetry, particularly heroic pieces [and] fairy tales” and “dream[s] dreams of being great and noble” (225).[14] She takes “glory in the idea of dying at the stake and a great genie arising from the flames and declaring to those who have scorned us: ‘Behold, how great and glorious and noble are Chinese people!’” (225). By invoking potent imagery of Joan of Arc, Sui Sin Far anticipates the more famous women warriors in later Chinese American writing.[15]

The prophetic dream of the narrator is fulfilled when the text shifts into a hagiographical third-person voice. She cites a Chinese writer in New York who states: “The Chinese in America owe an everlasting debt of gratitude to Sui Sin Far for the bold stand she has taken in their defense” (226). In her later work as a journalist, advocate, the author indeed wrote movingly on behalf of immigrants in Chinatowns (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Montreal).[16] Sui Sin Far rerouted what might otherwise become tropes of toxic chivalry, expressing through medieval intertexts a sustained commitment to racial justice.

Lessons Learned

What lessons can these early Chinese American voices offer?

  •  Toxic medievalism has real consequences (physical, financial, social, and psychological), and work on race and medievalism should center targets of toxic medievalism, not just examine white intentions (malicious or benevolent). Chinese Americans were not just passive “victims” of misrepresentation; they were active participants in popular forms of medievalism and they found ways to advocate for themselves.

  • Antiracist medievalism takes many forms. Early Chinese Americans expressed resistance to discrimination and rerouted notions of nobility, chivalry, and virtue to antiracist ends—but they achieved their goals through divergent social positions (varying by class, profession, gender, and religion).

  • Targets of toxic medievalism exhibit courage—and integrity—in calling on mainstream society to do better. Writing in English, these Chinese Americans aimed to reach majority-white audiences. They invented new forms of self-representation, created platforms when none were available, and kept supporters accountable.

Early Chinese Americans made use of platforms that are still in use: letter-writing, journalism, activism, public discourse, creative writing, and combinations thereof. These figures not only reveal powerful strategies for antiracism and resistance in the historical past; they also provide models for advocacy, art, solidarity, and action today.

[1] The term “toxic” has a particular resonance with histories of anti-Chinese racism and (white) anxieties about Chinatowns; Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitcs, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 170-171; esp. Ch. 6, “Following Mercurial Affect,” 189-221. The phrases “toxic medievalism” and “toxic chivalry” are used along the lines of present-day feminist understandings of “toxic masculinity.”
[2] Paul Yin, “The Narratives of Chinese-American Litigation During the Chinese Exclusion Era,” Asian American Law Journal 19, 4 (2012): 145-169, at 147.
[3] Henry Davenport Northrop (ed.), Life and Public Services of Hon. James G. Blaine: The Plumed Knight (Minneapolis: L.M. Ayer Publishing Co., 1893), 218.
[4] Elmer Clarence Sandmeyer, The Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 47; Brian Donovan, White Slave Crusades: Race, Gender, and Anti-vice Activism, 1887-1917 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006).
[5] On “Chinese invasion fiction” and Christian missionary literature, see Edlie Wong, Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship (NYU Press, 2015), 130; on “Mongolian” as a racial stereotype and legal category tied to medieval Eurasian contexts, see Guenter B. Risse, Plague, Fear, and Politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 5-6.
[6] I use the term Chinese American (without the hyphen) to denote people of Chinese ancestry writing in the US who specifically identified with Chinese immigrant communities. Nevertheless, I acknowledge the contingency and flexibility of identity terms along the lines of David Palumbo-Liu: “As in the construction ‘and/or,’ where the solidus at once [marks] a choice between two terms … ‘Asian/American’ marks both [a] distinction … and a dynamic, unsettled, and inclusive movement (Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier [Stanford University Press, 1999], 1).
[7] My discussion of medievalism in Chinese American writing implicitly speaks across time to first-person writing by present-day people of color and ethnic minority medievalists so often positioned (to borrow a phrase from Cord Whitaker) as “other to the European Middle Ages” (5). Cord Whitaker, “Race-ing the dragon: the Middle Ages, race, and trippin’ into the future,” postmedieval 6, 1 (April 2015): 3-11; see Cord Whitaker, Wan-Chuan Kao, Dorothy Kim, Adam Miyashiro, and Carolyn Dinshaw, “Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer’s Texts and Their Readers,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 19-41; note related work by Candace Barrington, Michelle WarrenDavid Wallace, and basically everything by Helen Young. On adjacent postcolonial approaches to medievalism globally, note Nadia Altschul and Kathleen Davis (eds.), Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of “the Middle Ages” Outside Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
[8] Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong University Press, 2013).
[9] Hsuan L. Hsu, Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain’s Asia and Comparative Racialization (New York University Press, 2015), 132.
[10] Yan Phou Lee: When I Was a Boy in China: Edited with Introductory Comments by Richard V. Lee (2004), 20.
[11] Patricia Chu grants the author status as “an isolated foremother of the yet to be written Asian American literature, anticipates later writers’ concerns with identity, racial and gender oppression, the search for ancestry and filiation, and the problems of Americanization embodied in Asian American versions of the immigrant romance” and what makes her distinctive compared to other writers is that “her decision to claim Chinese American identity and authorship is more obviously her own deliberate and individual choice” (Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002], 100). David Shih maintains it’s too limiting to claim the writer as an “Asian American” foremother and “discrete racial and national subject” (“The Seduction of Origins,” in Form and Transformation of Asian American Literature, ed. Zhou Xiaojing and Samina Najmi [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005], 49). Mary Chapman considers both “Asian American” and “Asian Canadian” claims to the author, but she concludes Sui Sin Far is best read transnationally as “border-crossing, border-straddling, and border-crossing” figure whose first-person personae enact complex modes of racial and gender passing (Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton [Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016], xxiv).
[12] Her sister, Winnifred Eaton, styled herself as “Japanese” writing romances under the pen name Onoto Watanna (to commercial success). On the divergent trajectories of the sisters’ careers, see Dominika Ferens, Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002); on the divergent effects of Orientalist marketing of the works by the Eaton sisters, see Yoonmee Chang, Writing the Ghetto: Class, Authorship, and the Asian American Ethnic Enclave (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 61-66; for a sympathetic reading of Watanna’s medievalism through intertextual allusions to the classical Japanese romance Tale of Genji, see Shoshannah Ganz, Eastern Encounters: Canadian Women’s Writing about the East, 1867-1929 (Taipei: National Taiwan University Press, 2017), 37-38 and 142-159.
[13] Page numbers for “Leaves” follow Hsuan L. Hsu (ed.), Mrs. Spring Fragrance: Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2011).
[14] This claim is confirmed by her early publications. As Edith Eaton, she published (for instance) a work integrating prose and interpolated verses entitled “In Fairyland” Dominion Illustrated 5.120 (18 October 1890): 270; note the literary context for her medievalism (Chapman, Becoming Sui Sin Far, xxxii-xxxiii).
[15] Born in 1905 in Los Angeles, Louise Leung Larson was given the name “Lau Lan, after the most famous woman in France, Joan of Arc” (Sweet Bamboo: A Memoir of a Chinese American Family [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001], 225); see also Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976); David Henry Hwang, FOB and Other Plays (New York: Plume, 1990); Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints (New York: First Second Books, 2013).
[16] For instance, “A Plea For the Chinaman” (1896) addresses anti-Chinese legislation in Canada. Patricia Chu notes that the author signed this publication as “‘E.E.,’ at time when she published under the name Edith Eaton and was perceived as an English woman” (Assimilating Asians, 102). In this instance, passing in print as an English woman allows her pro-Chinese arguments to land more effectively with a white Anglophone audience.