Several museum staff members recently enjoyed a Sneak Peak of Mo’olelo’s production of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, the comedic story of a playwright who accidentally casts a Caucasian in an Asian role, which leads the actor to claim a fictitious Asian ancestry and launches his career as an Asian American actor and activist. Both actor and playwright then become embroiled in the campaign finance controversy of 1996, in which Chinese Americans’ loyalty was called into question. Such accusations are reminiscent of the days of Chinese exclusion and the “yellow peril,” and make studies like Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America by Judy Yung and Erika Lee (who will be speaking at the museum September 11) all the more important today. Comedy is an effective means of addressing this unfortunate legacy and dealing with uncomfortable questions like whether it is possible to move past a heritage of racism, to what extent (if any) a white man can understand the experience of minorities, and what a post-race society would look like.
I’m not Chinese, nor do I pretend to be, but I did feel a strange affinity with the character Marcus, who is a white imposter in the Asian American community. I speak Chinese, run the education department at a Chinese history museum, and often lecture to groups of Chinese Americans about their own culture and history. Marcus and I are both white males who participate in and even represent Asian American culture, but neither of us has experienced the involuntary plight of a minority.
I was once called the N-word. I’m not sure why. I have dreadlocks and a tan, but I'm not that tan. Someone just yelled it out the window of a passing car. The novelty made it absolutely hysterical; I couldn’t stop laughing. So, not your typical reaction to being slurred…
All over the world, and especially in the United States, skin color is inseparable from notions of race. Despite loud and often-violent outcries about Irish, German, Italian, Polish, and other European immigrants, the Chinese were the first ethnic group to be legally barred from immigration with an 1882 ban that was later extended to all immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” While Europeans passed through Ellis Island in New York, Asians were detained, interrogated, and often deported at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. In examining immigration records, oral histories, and inscriptions on detention center barrack walls, Erika Lee and Judy Yung address some of the same issues as Yellow Face. One would hope that most people today (at least outside of Arizona) realize one’s appearance does not reveal national loyalties or likelihood to assimilate, and Yellow Face brings up the possibility that racial identity can even be adopted or fabricated.
Curly blond hair and a full beard make me look even less Chinese than Brian Bielawski (the actor who ably plays Marcus), but people still ask if I’m part Chinese all the time. I used to dress up in a Chinese-style jacket when going to teach at local schools, but I stopped wearing it because it got too hot when performing the animated gesticulations necessary to hold children’s’ attention. Now that I think of it, I was not far from dressing up in “yellow face.” When students call me “the Chinese guy,” I try to use it as a teachable moment to tell them it’s acceptable and enjoyable to explore other cultures, but some people (who haven’t seen me teach, of course) actually have said they would prefer someone more “authentic.”
As a white male, I have no room to complain, but it gets a little tiresome having museum visitors tell me that I’m not Chinese (although it was entertaining when one stated unequivocally that I was Chinese in a former life). On the other hand, the museum’s Japanese American graphic designer Jessica has to deal with people asking her why she doesn’t speak Chinese, and then, why she’s allowed to work here in light of the acrimonious history between Japan and China. Likewise, I recall pitying my poor Chinese American classmates at Nanjing University who sometimes were treated like illiterate halfwits because of their poor Chinese language skills, while I received effusive compliments for saying “Ni hao” (hello).
So, to me, yellow face, means my amateur Mandarin appears much better than an equally incompetent Chinese American’s; it means Jessica gets more awkward questions than me, but people still will be confused when they walk into the museum and see me, and I’ll never be authentic (but I would argue there’s no such thing, anyway). Yellow face means that many people might never escape the legacy of racism, and that I might never fully understand some of the experiences I try to teach. But perhaps the fact that people like my colleagues at the museum, and even “ethnic tourists” like Marcus, are willing to study, embrace, and even adopt another culture means that we eventually can move past superficial prejudice to combine and integrate our cultures into a progressively more cosmopolitan and enlightened society.
Indeed, it may be that white Anglo-muts like myself and Marcus, who repeatedly says that his “background is so mixed up,” harbor an incipient desire to belong to a community with an ancient, continuous and comprehensive historical heritage. There’s no Scottish-Italian-Russian-maybe-some-Dominican community or New Year celebration for me to participate in, and trying to rediscover, combine and claim each of these identities would be no more authentic than me claiming to be Chinese.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Curating our current exhibition on The Elite and Popular Culture of Old China presented the unique challenge of explaining stark divisions in traditional Chinese society without tacitly or sarcastically endorsing the orthodox communist narrative about oppression of the workingman at the hands of feudal landlords and greedy capitalists.
Contrasting social classes could be a delicate matter in a staunchly apolitical museum with members from both Taiwan and the mainland, and many who fled the current communist regime. But the present day situation is a product of centuries of imperial rule, so it would be counterproductive to omit modern developments from a discussion of class in China. Even as Mao Zedong 毛澤東 sought to stamp out the “four olds” 四舊 of feudal Confucian culture, he employed the traditional arts of prose, poetry, and calligraphy that had helped elites maintain and justify power for millennia.
In many ways, Mao embodied the possibilities of the meritocracy he decried. He studied the master poets, wrote verse in the classical style, and practiced the traditional art of calligraphy. Pursuing education at Peking University 北京大學 helped him rise from a peasant family to the pinnacle of power. One wonders how history would have been different if the imperial exam still existed as a goal for young Mao, or if modern Western theories like Marxism had not become a viable challenge to Confucian orthodoxy.
|Mao practices calligraphy in the 1940s|
As I prepared my presentation for the exhibit opening, Mao kept creeping into the PowerPoint in unexpected places. There was a great propaganda poster of him writing calligraphy, and images of his family home in Shaoshan 韶山, Hunan 湖南 Province provided excellent (if somewhat stereotypical) illustrations of a simple farmer’s lifestyle. And the audience was particularly amused to learn that a large portion of the building was rented to another family, which means the Chairman himself came from a family of landlords. Technically, Mao was classified as a “rich peasant,” and this oxymoronic label itself reveals the impossibility of strict class categories and hierarchies.
The traditional Confucian hierarchy 仕農工商 begins with scholar-officials, next comes the overwhelming majority of agriculturalists, then a few craftsmen, and it ends with the despised merchant class. Farmers’ taxes supported local administrators who would settle disputes and provide a virtuous example, while the other trades existed in small numbers as a matter of necessity. Of course, many other professions didn’t fit into and often undermined this hierarchy such as entertainers, eunuchs and concubines, monks and religious leaders, and wealthy merchants who could buy official posts. While Confucian scholars demeaned these other occupations and dominated the elite arts, they had to contend with these other influences to maintain their superiority in the eyes of the populace.
Popular culture, whether embodied in stories, Chinese Opera or religious movements, provides an avenue for critique and resistance that complicates the simplistic narrative proffered by orthodox Communism. An official post may have been the aspiration of all young students, but villainous officials were also a staple of the Chinese opera. The greatest Confucian scholars, along with Buddhist and Daoist sages, shared a desire to retire to a simple wilderness retreat, but during periods in history when Confucian officials had grown too corrupt and dissolute, popular religious movements have caused several dynasties to crumble.
Traditionally, the emperor could only rule by Heaven’s consent, and famine, corruption, and natural disasters were signs that he had lost the Mandate of Heaven 天命 and should be overthrown. When the people unite behind a new leader, he is said to have the mandate. Thus, Heaven’s will is ultimately manifest in the actions of the common people, and wise rulers always pay heed to popular culture.
|A Cultural Revolution-era propaganda poster|
In founding the People’s Republic 中華人民共和國, Mao sought to circumvent Heaven as a source of legitimacy and tap directly into the power of the people. Modern technology allowed him to shape popular opinion to an unprecedented extent, but censoring literature, closing monasteries, and prohibiting or reinventing popular arts like the Chinese opera also closed traditional avenues by which the government could sense the mood of the people. Officials trained in Confucian morality had a duty to remonstrate with any emperor who would fling the nation into foolhardy schemes like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, but no one could question the gospel of Mao. In a way, the excesses of Maoism proved the necessity of the traditional restraints he dismantled.
Much has changed in the days since the height of Maoism, but the party still walks a fine line between controlling popular opinion and maintaining public support. Historically, dynasties retain the mandate as long as peace and prosperity reign. Divisions between elite and popular cultures persist, as do conflicts between nouveau riche businessmen and a new generation of scholars trained in everything from engineering to medicine. But just as scholar-officials and farmers coexisted in an economically and culturally symbiotic relationship, impoverished migrant workers and Beijing billionaires are integral parts in China’s recent economic success. In the end, the Elite and Popular Culture of Old China is not about class struggle, but the power of Chinese culture to maintain peace, cohesion and continuity in spite of a tremendous gulf between rich and poor.