Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far

By Song, Min Hyoung | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far

Song, Min Hyoung, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Perhaps it was because some "funny people" saw Sui Sin Far, the earliest known American author of Chinese ancestry to write in English, struggling to survive and publish that they advised her to "trade upon" her "nationality." As she relates in her autobiographical essay, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian,"

   They tell me that if I wish to succeed in literature
   in America I should dress in Chinese costume,
   carry a fan in my hand, wear a pair of
   scarlet beaded slippers, live in New York, and
   come of high birth. Instead of making myself
   familiar with the Chinese Americans around
   me, I should discourse on my spirit acquaintances
   with Chinese ancestors. (Mrs. Spring
   Fragrance 230) (1)

It is because she resisted this advice to conform to a highly conventional notion of Chineseness, one that would have forced her to ignore the ethnic Chinese living in the United States, that a group of young activists in the early 1970s called attention to her work. In the second paragraph of the introduction to Aiiieeeee!, arguably the most influential early anthology of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino American writings, its editors refer to Sui Sin Far as "one of the first to speak for an Asian American sensibility that was neither Asian nor white American" (Chin et al. 3). She accomplished this feat because she had, unlike most of her American contemporaries, succeeded in making herself "familiar with the Chinese Americans around" her (3). She spent time with Chinese Americans, made her home in their racial ghettoes, and identified herself with their struggles. Unfortunately, the editors of Aiiieeeee! are quick to point out, she interpreted these experiences through the filters of American cultural prejudices: "Working within the terms of the stereotype of the Chinese as laundryman, prostitute, smuggler, coolie, she presents 'John Chinaman' as little more than a comic caricature, giving him a sensibility that was her own" (4). Despite her best efforts, in other words, Sui Sin Far could not quite write as a Chinese American even though she was herself of Chinese descent and, as a result, she could only be sympathetic (as opposed to empathetic) with their lives as a concerned outsider.

Clearly, the editors of Aiiieeeee! have an a priori idea in mind of what writing as a Chinese American, and by extension, an Asian American, should entail--being in large part heroic, manly, openly resistant to prejudice--and take issue with writers like Sui Sin Far who do not replicate this idea exactly. A second group of scholars and activists, heavily influenced by the rise of feminism and less by a muscular black power movement, responded to this portrayal of an Asian American authentic by positing instead a critique of Asian and American patriarchy as crucial to an understanding of Asian American literature. "In taking whites to task for demeaning Asians," King-Kok Cheung explains, "these writers [mainly the editors of Aiiieeeee!] seem nevertheless to be buttressing patriarchy by invoking gender stereotypes, by disparaging domestic efficiency as 'feminine,' and by slotting desirable traits such as originality, daring, physical courage, and creativity under the rubric of masculinity" ("The Woman Warrior" 237). The debate between these two groups of Asian Americanists, mainly centered on the disagreement between Frank Chin, easily the most vocal of all the editors of Aiiieeeee!, and Maxine Hong Kingston, whose popularity as a writer seemed especially to inflame Chin's enmity, has had a profound impact upon the way Asian American literature has been taught in English classes, either as a heroic masculine tradition or as one epitomized by female oppression and resistance. Because of its significance to the formation of Asian American literary studies, this debate has left an uneasy legacy of pitting feminism against what Rachel Lee calls "ethnopolitical critique" (8). Critics may often feel, in response to this legacy, the need to make a choice between a concern for gender-related issues and a desire to take a strong stance against racism in their interpretation, and evaluation, of Asian American literature. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.