Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism

Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism

Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism

Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism

Synopsis

As exemplified by Madame Butterfly, East-West relations have often been expressed as the relations between the masculine, dominant West and the feminine, submissive East. Yet, this binary model does not account for the important role of white women in the construction of Orientalism. Mari Yoshihara's study examines a wide range of white women who were attracted to Japan and China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and shows how, through their engagement with Asia, these women found new forms of expression, power, and freedom that were often denied to them in other realms of their lives in America. She demonstrates how white women's attraction to Asia shaped and was shaped by a complex mix of exoticism for the foreign, admiration for the refined, desire for power and control, and love and compassion for the people of Asia. Through concrete historical narratives and careful textual analysis, she examines the ideological context for America's changing discourse about Asia and interrogates the power and appeal--as well as the problems and limitations--of American Orientalism for white women's explorations of their identities. Combining the analysis of race and gender in the United States and the study of U.S.-Asian relations, Yoshihara's work represents the transnational direction of scholarship in American Studies and U.S. history. In addition, this interdisciplinary work brings together diverse materials and approaches, including cultural history, material culture, visual arts, performance studies, and literary analysis.

Excerpt

Madame Butterfly has for over a century been one of the classic narratives of East-West relations. It tells the story of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer stationed in Nagasaki who adds comfort and excitement to his foreign assignment by having a broker arrange his marriage with a “native” woman, Cho-Cho-San—or, Madame Butterfly. Innocently believing that the relationship is permanent, Cho-Cho-San severs ties with her Japanese family, converts to Christianity, and strives to acculturate to an American lifestyle in order to prepare for a life in America with her husband. After Pinkerton's departure to the United States, Cho-Cho-San gives birth to his child, and anxiously awaits his return to Japan. Pinkerton does return, but with his elegant American wife—Mrs. Pinkerton—and only to claim his child. Believing that death with honor is better than living a dishonorable life, Cho-Cho-San kills herself.

Since the publication of John Luther Long's original story in 1898, David Belasco's stage production in 1900, and Giacomo Puccini's opera production in 1904, which coincided with the United States' full-fledged entry into the affairs of Asia and the Pacific, Madame Butterfly has provided a classic trope symbolizing the politics of race, nation, and gender in U.S.-Asian relations. It has traditionally been interpreted as a melodramatic construction of Orientalism—Western ways of perceiving, understanding, and representing the “Orient” that are founded upon the material reality of unequal power relations between the West and the East and upon the belief in the essential difference between the two. As many Euro-American . . .

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