Photography and the Status of Truth in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'China Men.'

By Zackodnik, Teresa C. | MELUS, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Photography and the Status of Truth in Maxine Hong Kingston's 'China Men.'


Zackodnik, Teresa C., MELUS


In her (auto)biographical narrative China Men,(1) Maxine Hong Kingston searches for and reconstructs the history of her (fore)fathers through a complex narrative that accesses memory, "talk-story," imagination, historical "facts" and documents, photographs, Chinese legends and folklore, and newspaper articles. Hong Kingston's narrative arrives at a knowledge of her (fore)fathers' identities and histories, as well as her own, via these sources, and in so doing equalizes the truth value of memory, "factual" accounts, imagination, and documented "proof." Her treatment of photographs in China Men is not confined to a reconstruction of her male ancestors' past and history, but also plays a prominent role in the narrative of her immediate family's more recent past. Moreover, Hong Kingston's own apparent view of the photograph is a diverse and often seemingly contradictory one: as a child she tells of innocently believing that a photograph may lie; yet, as an adult she seems to hold the equally naive belief that the photograph is capable of telling the truth.(2) Hong Kingston also interrogates the multiple functions of the photograph in both American culture, and within her own family. In her narrative, photographs are documents of self-evident proof and silent communications from the past which speak only when she names them. In addition, Hong Kingston examines the status of the photograph as document, a document that can attest to a personal and communal history of Chinese American presence, as well as contribute to an erasure of that presence in America. Finally, photographs in China Men are both failed attempts to capture an event or person(s) as unchanged and present ("as they are"), and tools for fabricating a successful "American" to send home to loved ones in China. Far from undermining the history she discovers and creates, Hong Kingston's plural and contradictory treatment of the photograph parallels the multiple and self-contradicting versions of the histories she presents, exposing and challenging dominant American history as a monologue that has silenced and erased the histories of Chinese Americans.

Traditionally, the photograph has been seen in Western culture as a re-presentation of nature, an unmediated transcription of reality onto film.(3) This notion of photography as veracity endows the photograph with the capacity to prove, to either present factual evidence or stand as a fact itself. And this belief in the photograph as proof extends beyond Roland Barthes' assertion in Camera Lucida that "in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there" (76), to an unquestioned acceptance that the photograph presents us with a faithful reproduction of what "has been there." The very act of photography as interpretive (the photographer chooses what to photograph, the camera is controlled), and necessarily selective (the photograph is limited by the camera's field of vision--the frame), is denied in favor of the photograph's construction as presence, truth, fact, and proof. The photograph has gained the status of document in our culture, both as a verifiable document of "reality," and also as the product of a medium ostensibly able to document the monologic narrative of conventional Western history.

However, the "innocence" of the photograph as a simple metonymy has not gone unquestioned, and all philosophies or reflections on photography argue that the photograph is a means of communication, rather than a piece of factual evidence. Moreover, what the photograph communicates arises only from the meaning we ascribe to it; meaning does not inhere in the photograph itself. The photograph, then, can only verify the meaning we simultaneously invest in, and extract from, it. Rather than presenting an evidential and singular Truth, the photograph's silence invites the speculation of multiple meanings, characterizing it, Susan Sontag states, as "a polylogue" (173).(4)

Because its silence can be invested with more than one possible meaning, the photograph may also be enlisted by the dominant culture in the service of obtaining and maintaining power. …

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