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.


Anna Wilson said...

Fascinating piece, Jonathan. Thank you for writing it.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks, Anna! I'm glad you found this of interest I'm gratified that this is making the rounds. Hope that we can tell more of these kinds of stories and consider what lessons/inspiration we can draw from the past!

Unknown said...

I am with Anna: "fascinating piece". I am a Jamaican with Chinese cousins,East Indian half brothers and sisters, European great great grand uncles and aunties on my grandmother's side.
Thank you for the understanding;the lesson.