Orientalism in Popular Culture and
New Orientalism in Asian American Literature


Suocai Su

Ball State University, Muncie IN

Copyright © 2002 by Suocai Su, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Ma, Sheng-mei. The Deathly Embrace: Orientalism and Asian American Identity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000. 185 pp.

  1. As is pointed out by Elaine Kim, Rachel Lee, and many other Asian American literary critics, Orientalism has been a pervasive ideological and technical strategy used by Anglo-American men of letters to portray the Asians or Asian Americans. Kim finds that in the pages of books by Bret Harte, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Frank Norris, and Mark Twain, there is negative portrayal of the Chinese and other Asians through Orientalist lenses. In addition to distorted literary representations, Asians or Asian Americans are also portrayed, according to Kim, as caricatures of no identities in popular cultures: "The power-hungry despot, the helpless heathen, the sensuous dragon lady, the comical loyal servant, and the pudgy desexed detective" (3). Kim argues that the purpose of this Orientalism is to make the Asians or Asian Americans serve as foils in order to establish and emphasize the "permanent and irreconcilable differences that define the Anglos superior physically, spiritually, and morally" (4-5). In her study of journalistic representations of Asians or Asian Americans, Lee finds that quite a number of Anglo-American magazines during the 1910s and 1920s portray Asians or Asian Americans as "less evolved, as a mass of undifferentiated differences, as unclean, and finally as unknowable" (249).

  2. However, Orientalist representations of Asians or Asian Americans do not just exist in the works by Anglo-American authors. They also exist in works by Asian American writers. As Sheng-mei Ma points out in his first book, Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (1998), and this book, The Deathly Embrace, Asian American authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Frank Chin, David Henry Hwang, and others perpetuate the same stereotyped images of Asians and Asian Americans, stereotypes like possessing weird physical features and speaking Pidgin English. Ma argues that the reason behind this Orientalism is the fact that Asian American authors, interpellated by white ideology, have internalized the white gaze upon the Asian minorities, a gaze that isolates Asians or Asian Americans as different and inferior.

  3. The Deathly Embrace is divided into four parts of eight chapters. Part I addresses the relation between Orientalism and the representation of the orient and Orientals in adventure comics in the 1930s and 1940s and in the Disney classic movie, Swiss Family Robinson. Part II discusses the relation between martial arts and representations of Asian America. Part III focuses on Tan's flaunting of ethnicity in her two recent novels, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994) and The Hundred Secret Senses (1995), and how the Disney movie Mulan works to re-orient China and animate teens' dreams. Part IV, the last part, discusses Kazuo Ishiguro's post-ethnicity in writing and the dilemma of ethnic writers.

  4. As can be seen, Ma concentrates this book on how American popular culture portrays the Oriental world. He finds that films, TV programs, video games, and comic strips use the same Orientalist strategy to portray the Oriental world as one marked by strangeness, weirdness, and exotic practices, a world that is "Other" than the Anglo-American world familiar to the American audience. A good reader of texts, Ma in this book uses his literacy to read media texts, and he often produces keen observations and insights. For instance, he situates American youth's interest and obsession with Asian martial arts such as Kungfu within the contemporary youth culture and argues that this obsession with violence reflects the youth's "violent and potentially antisocial fantasies" (70). He writes that the different kinds of violent films and games "serve to work out teen's aggressiveness, offering the illusion of control, neutralizing dissent, inculcating the ideological consensus of the one only consumerist life-style" (70). In this respect, the portrayal of the Oriental world where power and strength have the capacity to resolve all conflicts is a simplified view of not only the Oriental world, but also the whole world. To Ma, this simplified view of life misrepresents the world and misinforms the youth that once they possess individualism and heroism, they can absolve all conflicts and achieve their goals. I want to add to Ma's good analysis by arguing that this obsession with violence is not just a fantasy with youth; it is a fantasy and practice that permeates American politics and culture, the belief that through power and strength conflicts can be resolved, as in the cases of the Gulf War and military involvement in Yugoslavia. Thus it can be argued that American culture's fetishistic relationship with Asian martial arts and in such film actors as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan correlate with their fetishistic relationship with violence and power in general. It is no surprise that the strong sense of right and wrong, the recourse to violence to avenge injustice and redress the wrong, fits in with what the American people believe the just world should be like.

  5. It is through these remarkable and thought-provoking analyses that Ma gradually brings home his argument that Orientalism is not just a mode of representation. It is rooted in something much larger than itself. For instance, Ma situates the popular reception of ethnic films such as Mulan in the context of present-day international multiculturalism and teen's desires for autonomy and control of their fate. He argues that the changing demographics and the concomitant conflicts of cultures are not just a problem within the U.S., but a problem the world over. That is why Mulan is enjoyed not only by Americans but also by people of the whole world. Ma argues that the Disney ethnic films bring into conformity an adolescent sensibility in an "alienating and occasionally hostile world" (127). He further argues that presenting these alienating and hostile worlds to teens is a way of reducing their fears. He also argues that such Disney movies, by presenting the teen protagonists as innocent but brave and decisive characters, animate teen viewers' dreams of going out in the world and taking control of their own lives. Such presentation of fantasies is problematic, according to Ma, for it distorts the real picture of the real world. Pursuing another manifestation of popular culture, Ma discusses Orientalism in 1930s and 40s comic strips. He argues that comic representations of devil figures like Fu Manchu and of amiable figures like Charlie Chan are invaluable in understanding how American politics and national myths conceived of China during that time.

  6. Though the focus of the book is media representations of Asians or Asian Americans, Ma also devotes three chapters to literary representations of Orientalism, focusing on Amy Tan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Ma points out that Tan perpetuates a new kind of Orientalism in Asian American literature, a flaunting or celebrating of ethnic cultures and cultural differences. He argues that Tan's Orientalist clichés of interracial marriages, Western missionaries, and San Francisco yuppies celebrate a primordial, essentialist Oriental culture to counteract a divided multiracial American society. He says that this ethnic representation seems to be politically correct and fits in with what the readers want to read. Ma argues that Ishiguro's transcendence of his ethnic background and his avoidance of writing ethnic themes shows that he is "more British than British " and very eager to embrace the hegemony and merge into the mainstream culture. He writes that Ishiguro is "evacuating ethnicity for a union with the white hegemony"(xxii). Here Ma connects Ishiguro's dilemma in writing with the dilemma faced by all Asian American writers. That is, to write on ethnic themes seems to show the writer's community commitment; not to write on ethnic themes but on universal themes seems a betrayal of his/her ethnicity and complicity with the hegemonic culture. Ma successfully captures the dilemma of Ishiguro and his contemporaries, and his analysis of the reasons is often quite convincing.

  7. The book is a bit weak in theoretical argument. As I mentioned above, Ma's textual analysisis admirable, but this book does not take into account recent theories in cultural studies to explain what is going on in media representations. He does use Baudrillard effectively to talk about American teens' confusion about represented culture and reality, but the book as a whole lacks such theorists to frame his arguments.

  8. And while I am convinced by Ma's argument that early comic strips, martial arts video games, and some Disney teen movies portray the Oriental world through Orientalist perspectives, Ma has little to say about how these Orientalist representations are different from other modes of Orientalist representations, such those delivered through literature. Because cartoons, video games, and movies often use highly exaggerated and stereotypical images for comic purposes, to claim that these representations are as political as other representations would be a weak argument unless it is supported by much stronger evidence. Thus a discussion of the nature of representations through different genres and registers would help to consolidate the arguments in the book.

  9. Overall, The Deathly Embrace is an original and thought-provoking work whose arguments are well-situated and well-supported. It contributes significantly to the scholarship on representations of Asian and Asian Americans. Due to its width of coverage and interdisciplinary nature, the book can be used as a good reference for Asian American studies and for cultural and postcolonial studies.

Works Cited

Kim, Elaine. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.

Lee, Rachel. "Journalistic Representations of Asian Americans and Literary Responses." In An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-kok Cheung. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 1997. 249-273.

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