The Tao of S: America's Chinee & the Chinese Century in Literature and Film

The Tao of S: America's Chinee & the Chinese Century in Literature and Film


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書系名稱:East-West Cultural Encounters in Literature & Cultural Studies

THE TAO OF S is an engaging study of American racialization of Chinese and Asians, Asian American writing, and contemporary Chinese cultural production, stretching from the nineteenth century to the present. Sheng-mei Ma examines the work of nineteenth-century “Sinophobic” American writers, such as Bret Harte, Jack London, and Frank Norris, and twentieth-century “Sinophiliac” authors, such as John Steinbeck and Philip K. Dick, as well as the movies Crazy Rich Asians and Disney’s Mulan and a host of contemporary Chinese authors, to illuminate how cultural stereotypes have swung from fearmongering to an overcompensating exultation of everything Asian. Within this framework Ma employs the Taoist principle of yin and yang to illuminate how roles of the once-dominant American hegemony—the yang—and the once-declining Asian civilization—the yin—are now, in the twenty-first century, turned upside down as China rises to write its side of the story, particularly through the soft power of television and media streamed worldwide.


“Sheng-mei Ma guides the reader on a journey to the West’s East through a provocative reading of the unending cycle of desire, fear, and loathing that constitute America’s Orientalist fantasies. Ma’s deft deployment of yin–yang dialectics is incisive and insightful and important for understanding the current moment.”
--- Robert G. Lee, author of Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture

“The Tao of S is a poignantly crafted and eloquently argued monograph on the sources and evolution of American Orientalism and its influence on Anglo-America’s China discourse as well as its impact on Chinese/Asians over the past 150 years. Shedding light on a critically important aspect of the ongoing discourse in the Asian American experience, this thought-provoking book represents a unique, constructive, and timely contribution to the fields of Asian American studies, Asian studies, transcultural and transnational studies, and literary criticism.”
--- Xao-huang Yin, author of Chinese American Literature since the 1850s

“Employing wordplay, alliteration, metaphors, and other grammatical devices, Sheng-mei Ma cleverly fashions the Tao of S as a philosophy, based largely on the nineteenth letter of the alphabet, emphasizing Sinophobia, Sinophilia, and the disemboweled ‘s’ in Chinese (Chinee). The Tao of S provides an abundance of carefully researched, critically analyzed, and interestingly written material
on the representation of the ‘Chinee’ during 150 years of American literature and film. Superb.”
--- John A. Lent, professor emeritus, Temple University


SHENG-MEI MA is professor of English at Michigan State University, specializing in Asian Diaspora and East-West comparative studies. He is the author of over a dozen books, including Off-White and Sinophone-Anglophone Cultural Duet.

Series Editor’s Preface
by Bennett Yu-Hsiang Fu

Sheng-mei Ma’s The Tao of S is the first single-authored book of the new interdisciplinary and collaborative book series, East-West Encounters in Literature and Cultural Studies, copublished by the University of South Carolina Press and the National Taiwan University Press. The series seeks to trace the reality of cultural interactions and proffer new global perspectives. Tao (道), denoting “principle” and “direction” in Chinese, well sets the tone and paves the path for the series. Perceived pictorially as in the Taoist circle (☯), Tao conjoins two contesting forces yin and yang, east and west, earth and heaven, black and white, or two oppositions in the rather ambivalent, elegant curve S. Epistemically an encounter is often associated with hostile factions crisscrossing, conflating, encroaching, or conflicting, but the ambiguous yet powerful S, as the tao itself, engenders multiple readings beyond a rigid binarism, while fusing the jarring oppositions into certain harmonious renegotiation.

Ma’s clever strategy of accentuating the S as a site–sight of cultural encounters elevates the literary rhetoric to a yet higher level of philosophical, epistemological rethinking, thereby allowing the dialectic twain Asia and America—or what Ma calls “search and rescue”—to reposition how the East, the West, and the Globe stand against–for each other at this critical juncture of millennial global history. Certainly, Ma’s trope of the Oriental “slant” of “one’s own shadow slanting Eastward or Westward” can also slant toward a Dickinsonian “certain slant of light” to shed light on more volumes to publish. This monograph is a textual globetrotter, spanning one hundred fifty years of Anglo-America’s and China’s cultural polemics and traveling extensively from China to Pacific Asia, to Europe and to America, from the US East Coast to the Midwest to the West Coast, and from literature to film to pop culture. Ma’s The Tao of S traces the long-standing love-and-hate, Sinophobia-cum-Sinophilia complex, nascent in Harte’s fin-de-siècle Sino-American encounter, to 2020 “post-racial” America. It is a milestone bridging current East Asian and Anglophone scholarly debates to address a global readership across continents. The Tao of S, published symbolically during the ongoing pandemic, ushers us to new reflections on the intimate relationship between Western and Eastern borders among discursive and disruptive categories and taxonomies. This first single-authored monograph of the series will help scholars, researchers, students, and teachers open new cultural vistas and produce groundbreaking work on East-West and global contacts, blazing a trail for cutting-edge research as we revisit beyond Orientalism, Occidentalism, globalism, and their beyond.

Introduction: The Tao of S

May I have a word, Beautiful Country, about the ugly word “Chinee?” Meiguo (美國 “Beautiful Country”) is the centuries-old Chinese translation of “America” by cherry-picking the second syllable, stretching and third-toning it to “mĕi” (美) for “beautiful” in Mandarin. Americans such as Bret Harte in “The Heathen Chinee” (1870) and his fans returned the favor by dropping the “s” to disfigure “Chinese.” The long “ee” suffix of Chinee raises the specter of turn-of-the-last-century laundrymen’s “No Tickee No Washee,” Harry R. Williams’s popular tune “Ah Sin: Chinee-Song” (1877), and the party game “pin the queue on the chink,” a riff on “pin the tail on the donkey.” The 2016 MacArthur Genius Awardee Gene Luen Yang wears the epithets like a red badge of courage in his graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006). Yang’s alter ego, white wannabe protagonist Jin, homophone of “Gene,” is haunted by his conscience Chin-Kee—“Chink” pidginized—in the Asian stereotype of buckteeth, slanted eyes, and transposing “r” and “l” ever since his debut “Harro Amellica!” (48). Whitewashing oneself presupposes self-hate. Yet each page of Chin-Kee’s chapters bears a header in red, a square Chinese colophon inscribed with 錦西 (Jinxi, or “Beautiful West”). Jinxi not only transliterates Chin-Kee, but it travesties Jin’s fetishism of the West as the object of beauty. Given the American Harte’s (“Heart’s?”) racial slur and ABC Gene Yang’s code-switching riposte of Chin-Kee/Chink/Jinxi, this Tao (“Way”) of S, pregnant with the ampersand “&,” conjoins the contesting circles of Part I’s American and Part III’s Chinese

Century through the wasp waist of Part II’s Asian America. Turned slantwise and merged, the stacked rings of “&” sharpen into one Taoist circle (☯), as in one world, one earth—no matter the splits between the First World and the rest. This way, please, readers lay and academic, for a belated reckoning with the interdependent hologram of Anglo-Original Sin and Sino-Song of Self.

Emptying the “s” of self or soul leaves, in its stead, a stranger less than us, spelled “U.S.” Let us, for a moment, reboot our cultural memory, namely, the popular children’s game Maxine Hong Kingston satirizes in Tripmaster Monkey (1989): “‘Is it true what they say about Chinese girls’ twats?’ They think they’re sideways, that they slant like eyes. As in Chinese Japanese Koreean. He put his fingers on the tails of his eyes, and pulled them up, ‘Chinese,’ pulled them down, ‘Japanese,’ pulled them sideways, ‘Koreean’” (317). Kingston could have been more phonetically accurate had she transcribed what Harte and other Western—both from the American West Coast and the Western hemisphere—writers had on the tip of their tongues or deep in their hearts as they make (three) faces: chinee, japanee, KOHlean, all of them distorted by violence against language and anatomy, race and gender, Oriental eyes and Oriental vaginas.

In order to “cherchez la Chinee” in the “Beautiful Country,” this book commences with Bret Harte’s white lie, which debuted in San Francisco as “Plain Language from Truthful James.” It was subsequently republished across the US like a game of Chinese Whisper under the title “The Heathen Chinee.” The missing letter “s” in “Chinese” is the synecdoche of, or embodies in and of itself, the stereotypical physique of a “Chinaman.” Conspicuous precisely because of its absence, the invisible “s” visualizes a bowing head, a slant to the hunched shoulders with hands hidden in loose sleeves, a hairpin curve at the buttocks, and yet another curve in reverse at well-nigh bended knees, stopping at slip-on cloth shoes. The disappeared “s,” as in “stereotype,” only invites readers to fill in the blank, to conjure up that Oriental idée fixe. Instead of Genesis’s “Let there be light,” the Tao of S springs from “Let there be S-less.” Extracting the crooked spine of “s” from “Chinese” in effect debones the Other into food for thought-lessness, onto which America imposes its fallacy. Unlike its racist cousin Blackface, Yellowface—and the twisted body below it—has been worn with relative impunity in Western consciousness. Lest one dismiss Chinee, like slant eyes and pigtails, as prejudice from a bygone era no longer relevant, behold the carnage wreaked by the Trump virus passing itself off as the sharpied “CHINESE” virus, fomenting resentment against Asians and Asian Americans in the hearts of their fellow Americans. Judging from the fact that nearly half of US voters favored Trumpism in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections, that viral regressiveness has already made its way from the White House to the greater White House of America—or the other way around—in a feedback loop, a transmission route.

This book on the twain of East and West spans one hundred fifty years of Anglo-America’s and China’s debates with themselves and with each other. As Western colonialism reaches a fever pitch toward the end of the nineteenth century, the West’s overheating body contracts into a defensive posture to fight lowly, insidious outsiders, inhaling and holding its breath throughout global expansion. When the mid-twentieth century rolls around, the body of the West cannot but breathe out the stale nativist air, relaxing its muscles in the flight to Oriental high, opening to the “cool” East, the “yEast” for its self-kneading. This swing constitutes the poles of thesis and antithesis of a Hegelian dialectic. The nativist Sinophobes Harte, Jack London, and Frank Norris set forth the thesis of the Yellow Peril of negative stereotypes, overcompensated by the mid-century antithesis of Sinophiliac Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, and counterculture pilgrims to the East with a crush for positive stereotypes. If Sinophobes share what Richard Hofstadter calls “the paranoid style,” riddled with conspiracy theories, then Sinophiles soar into ecstasies of Oriental tranZENdence. As Collen Lye puts it in America’s Asia (2005), “in a fifty-year period, a vision of California as a post-frontier about to be engulfed by coolie hordes and Oriental despotism is succeeded by premonitions of a Pacific Rim utopia” (11).

This dialectic culminates in the millennial Asian American synthesis of Orientalism and ethnic identity, beholden to neither the Demonic nor the Divine Other exclusively, yet sometimes given to both impulses of tarring and deifying the unfathomable.

To recast this evolution in Harte’s name-calling: in the expansionist American empire around the turn of the last century, Harte’s heathen “Ah Sin” embodies Western vitriol against the alleged invader of its territorial and psychic integrity, displacing the West’s aggressiveness onto others. Offense against peoples of color is whitewashed as self-preservation. In the iconoclastic counterculture around the sixties, Steinbeck, Philip K. Dick, and Gary Snyder construct Ah Sin’s doppelganger Ah Sing, to borrow Earl Derr Biggers’s and Kingston’s character, lavishing praise on a spiritual, mystical Orient. Ah Sin and Ah Sing, and Sinophobia and Sinophilia, are both of the West’s own making! Subsequently, Asian American fusion resembles a confusing hologram between Ah Sin and Ah Sing, between betrayal of and betrothal to the ethnic self.

Nevertheless, halfway through this evolution, mid-century liberal Sinophilia presents its own challenge. Just as Steinbeck’s Irish poet-prophet Samuel Hamilton in East of Eden (1952) quizzically describes the character Cal as having “rip[ped] the backbone out of your name” (299) of the biblical Caleb, the novelist fillets Chinee as well. Steinbeck first deploys the racial slur through his mouthpiece Lee, the Chinese servant-nanny-surrogate mother and wife: “Dlinkee Chinee fashion” (301), followed by Lee’s employer-master-husband’s in-joke: “You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl” (302). The strong bond between the white master and the domesticated, feminized Lee enables them to banter facetiously as a rebuff of racism. Or this is simply an acknowledgement of the reality, as in a bum’s query to Younghill Kang’s Korean protagonist in his 1937 novel East Goes West: “Ain’t you Chinee?” (23). Yet Orientalism, unbeknownst to Kang, a self-styled “Oriental Yankee,” lashes out against not only mental images and social reality, but it also corrodes the narrative itself. Steinbeck’s biblical allegory of East of Eden sprouts in part from Lee, the East in Eden, a shapeshifting East barely registered because of its fleeting, marginal, and highly unstable cameos in the West, particularly Steinbeck et al.’s West Coast machismo. With the backbone pulled out, just like stripping one of a full name and identity, the Chinee turns into invertebrate, pliable clay for the White Maker.

This book opens with California Dreamin’, both Sinophobic and Sinophiliac, by Harte, London, Norris, Steinbeck, Beat poets, and Dick. Prospecting for literary and cinematic gold, the Papas (sans the Mamas) leave behind tailings, or mine (mind?) dumps, with scraps of Asianness. The Chinee—as well as the chopped-off, offed “Jap” and the mis-stressed, mistressed KOHlean, since they all look alike—who used to be pitched down Old Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for San Francisco or America broadly, begins to stand up straight, shaken awake from the never-ending American Nightmare. Specifically in ethnic writing and performance, Asian Americans rediscover and repurpose trashed tropes and stock characters.

Yet this off-white, Yellowish, even WASPy corrective to white discursive supremacy comes with its own side effects on skin and speech: either self-Orientalizing Yellowface speaking in Anglophone monolingualism, exemplified by Crazy Rich Asians (2013, 2018), Little Fires Everywhere (2017), and Severance (2018), or ethnic comedies of global fusion in the likes of Saving Face (2004) and Re Jane (2015). Straightening and straightening up the Chinee lands certain Asian American artists in dire straits, straitjacketed between West and East like the wasp waist of the ampersand or the thin line of “S” dividing yin and yang. In the nativist fever pitch “The Chinese Must Go!” and the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943), the West’s “cherchez” for disenfranchised, feminized Chinee borders on “search and destroy.” By contrast, Westerners of Asian descent deputize themselves for a “search and rescue” mission, as much a search for Asian stereotypes of yesteryear as a rescue of their own American and global standing here and now. Millennial Asian American artists negotiate between the white language and culture, of which they are a part, and Asianness, from which they are apart, except in the world’s undiscerning eye.

A curved “S” holds in abeyance the two halves of a Taoist circle, the yang of white hegemony and the yin of the ascending Chinese Century. From the latter perspective, the Chinese Century is the yang and the receding American Century the yin. The first part of this book focuses on the white side of California Dreamin’; the third and last part of the millennial Chinese Century marked by global soft power in the form of Chinese film and television streaming online for free. As the Sinophone viewers binge on China’s “free lunch,” a parallel universe takes shape against Anglophone US-centrism. Despite the particularism of TV series on entrance exams, Sino-Fi, and the wolf’s substitute family (dimensions unique to Chinese culture), the Chinese Century perpetuates a Confucian tianxia (“under the heaven”) universalism, one that clashes with the dominance of “Beautiful Country,” setting in motion yet another cycle.

Each chapter in Part III, “The Chinese Century,” strains to cohere diametrically opposed TV series to the point of bursting. TV dramas on contemporary college and high school entrance exams pair with Sino-Fi, or futuristic Chinese sci-fi. The emblematic alpha wolf hailed in the current Chinese parlance reigns in both social realist settings and in wuxia fantasies of swords(wo)manship. Unlike its anemic American counterpart, Chinese web fiction is the preeminent genre that translates
itself into film and television throughout Part III. These Chinese odd couples manifest the collective unconscious no different from the strategic Sinophobia from Harte to Trump, the Orientalist Sinophilia of Steinbeck and Dick, and the tort(u)ours self-hate and self-love of Asian America. The Tao of S weds such yin–yang and us–them binaries as America’s Chinee & the Chinese Century. What used to be disparate disciplines and top versus bottom orbits of “&”—Anglo-American versus Asian American versus Asian Studies—click into one Tai Chi circle, half of which is shaded along a curving “S,” so shaded by the other “pristine” half. Accordingly, a Beautiful Country’s ugly word from our haunting past meets a Beautiful Century bondmaided to their holographic “China Dream.”

Part I, “California Dreamin’,” consists of three chapters. “Sinophobia/Sinophilia” turns to those literary figures of the last century—Harte, Frank Norris, and Jack London—whose name-calling of “Chinee” has been updated by President Trump’s “Kung Flu.” “Oriental High Gone to P(l)ot” charts the other extreme of the national bipolar syndrome, as Sinophobic fearmongering is “shadowed” by its opposite Sinophilia, as evidenced in Philip K. Dick and counterculture pilgrims’ emplotting of Oriental tranZENdence. “Afro-Asian Filmic Duet” zooms in on African American and Asian American representations in popular culture, which is oftentimes a cross between a duet and a duel. The two symbols of power, the quick fist of Yellow kung fu and the quick tongue of Black entertainers, join forces from the 1970s onward, all the way to the 2018 film Black Panther.

Part II, “Asian America Awakenin’,” comprises four chapters. “Pacific Envy” critiques the phenomenon of Crazy Rich Asians that taps into millennial American anxiety and jealousy over the rise of China, as embodied by its “filthy lucre.” “From A(sian) to Z(ombie)” contextualizes Ling Ma’s Severance within the Western genre of plague and zombie narratives, yet with an ethnic twist: the source of contamination being the China Bug of Shen Fever from Shenzhen. “Asian America Double Tonguing” explores the style of fetishizing Asianness, both materialized and disavowed in the same breath, in the works of Asian American novelists Patricia Park and Celeste Ng. “LONG LIVE the waste!” internationalizes the minority complex, now further afield in the Belgian Korean adoptee Jung’s graphic novel.

Part III, “The Chinese Century,” concludes this book with four chapters. “Online Bingeing of Free Chinese TV Bound to Soft Power” interrogates free streaming of Chinese movies and TV shows that “bind” diasporic subjects to Chineseness, as manifested in shows on entrance exams and Sino-Fi. “The Wolf’s Substitute Family in Chinese TV Series” continues the pairing of odd couples of contemporary social realism and historical wuxia (“martial arts” or “knight-errantry”) fantasy, in which protagonists double as both the pitiless alpha wolf and the pitiable runt. “Soul Mates Can’t Mate” parses the repressed homoerotic tease in Annibaobei’s web fiction and Derek Tsang’s film adaptation, SoulMate. By traditional Chinese count, after ten months or chapters of gestation, this initial “Tao of S,” coupled with the book subtitle’s “&,” begets the last chapter in the eleventh hour, connecting old–new and Sino–Anglo, as “Private Slant Eye” from the West Coast morphs into a touring, surveilling Beijinger.

Thus, the East-West twain cohabit like hemispheric twins from 1870 to 2020 and beyond in twelve units in these pages, commencing with the introduction “The Tao of S.” “Twain” happens to mean two fathoms of twelve feet, navigable for English speakers on this wild steamboat ride across the Pacific, as though spanning the dozen animals on the Chinese zodiac: its head the “Heathen Chinee” Rat from San Francisco, its tail the “slant-eyed” Beijing Boar. Rife with such mixed metaphors from two cultures, and laden with such traumatizing words back and forth, the East-West twins, mutually unfathomable, turn to face each other with an equal share of wonderment and woe.


Series Editor’s Preface
Introduction: The Tao of S
Part One California Dreamin

Chapter 1: Sinophobia/Sinophilia, circa 1870–2020, Harte–Trump
Chapter 2: Oriental High Gone to P(l)ot: Philip K. Dick and Counterculture Pilgrims
Chapter 3: Afro-Asian Filmic Duet

Part Two Asian America Awakenin

Chapter 4: Pacific Envy of Crazy Rich Asians
Chapter 5: From A(sian) to Z(ombie): Ling Ma’s Severance Package for the China Bug
Chapter 6: Asian America Double Tonguing
Chapter 7: “LONG LIVE the waste!”: Junk Food Bites Back in Jung’s Approved for Adoption

Part Three The Chinese Century

Chapter 8: Online Bingeing of Free Chinese TV Bound to Soft Power: Entrance Exam Series and Sino-Fi
Chapter 9: The Wolf’s Substitute Family in Chinese TV Series: Social Realism and Wuxia Fantasy
Chapter 10: Soul Mates Can’t Mate: Homoerotic Tease in Annibaobei and Derek Tsang
Chapter 11: Private Slant Eye Getting Bigger, Faster, even Beijinger

Works Cited





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