Sui Sin Far and the Chinese American Canon: Toward a Post-Gender-Wars Discourse

By Li, Wenxin | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Sui Sin Far and the Chinese American Canon: Toward a Post-Gender-Wars Discourse


Li, Wenxin, MELUS


The most important development in recent Asian American literary studies was perhaps the recovery of Sui Sin Far's work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, this momentous breakthrough did not occur in one earth-shattering move, but through gradual, piecemeal efforts by various scholars. According to Amy Ling, it all started in 1976 when S. E. Solberg delivered a paper on the Eaton sisters at an Asian American conference, which he subsequently published in 1981 under the title, "Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton: First Chinese-American Fictionist" (11). William Wu's 1982 book, Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940, takes note of Sui Sin Far's uncollected short story "A Chinese Ishmael" (53-54) and her only published volume, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (130-32). From the mid 1980s on, there has been an impressive growth in Sui Sin Far scholarship, with the appearance in 1995 of the two most important works to date: Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks's critical edition of Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings and Annette White-Parks's Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton: A Literary Biography. Despite the steady increase in scholarship on Sui Sin Far, the significance of her work has yet to be fully explored. The long neglect of Sui Sin Far from the 1910s to the late 1970s has been a tremendous loss to the study of Asian American literature because the emerging Asian American canon evolved largely without any knowledge of an important predecessor.

The idea of attributing the origin of a literary movement to a single author may seem presumptuous, or precarious at best, yet in so far as such an effort is helpful in clarifying the initial impulses of an Asian American literary consciousness and constituting the ethnic identity of a whole group of writers, Sui Sin Far is unequivocally deserving of such honor. Widely considered the first Asian American fictionist, Sui Sin Far is also the first Asian American writer to portray Chinese American life in a fair and sympathetic manner, which was an act of supreme courage in the face of rampant anti-Chinese hysteria in North America around the turn of the twentieth century. (1) Unfortunately, Sui Sin Far's presentation of Chinese American characters as ordinary human beings, in contrast to Orientalist stereotypes of either "good" or "bad" Asians as defined by Elaine Kim (Asian 4), had little appeal for the dominant literary establishments of the time, and her work was soon forgotten after publication. Nearly a century later, we have become more aware of how illuminating and valuable Sui Sin Far is in our current resistance to Orientalist stereotyping of the Chinese--a reductionist practice so deeply rooted in the consciousness of Asian America that its ghost still lurks in Asian American literary production today. (2) Consequently, Sui's work yields new implications for us on another front: her affirmation of Chinese American integrity and character as a whole, not just as men or women, proves especially meaningful in our effort to move beyond the gender wars that have dominated Chinese American literary discourse for over two decades.

In the roughly six decades after the publication of Mrs. Spring Fragrance in 1912, Chinese America was unable to articulate as affirmative an expression of an Asian American subjectivity as Sui Sin Far's. Popular hits such as Pardee Lowe's Father and Glorious Descendant (1943) and Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945) reveal an alien consciousness that perceives oneself as a permanent Other insecure in the host culture. These works are a continuation of what Elaine Kim calls "ambassadors of goodwill" (Asian 24) that first began with Yan Phou Lee's When I Was a Boy in China (1887) and continued in Lin Yutang's My Country and My People (1935). Intended to "explain" Asia to the West and plead implicitly for racial tolerance, these writers do not condemn or challenge racist stereotypes of the Chinese. Like Father and Glorious Descendant, Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter "express[es] accommodation to rather than challenge of distortions about Chinese Americans" (Kim, Asian 61) and focuses on "whatever was most exotic, interesting, and non-threatening to the white society" (66), constituting what Sau-ling Cynthia Wong calls a "guided Chinatown tour" for Western readers (249). …

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