Chinoiserie is just another way that racism sells fiction.

I saw a comment on a Facebook thread which asked, “why do we have so many Japanese and Chinese science-fiction protagonists and authors featured, and fewer Indian ones?”

My response, built off my many years studying the history of art, and speculative fiction, along with my experience in the industry as a writer and publisher, and conversations I’ve had with many, many, authors and readers:

Because Chinese/Japanese authors and stories fall into the currently acceptable version of the same recurring Chinoiserie* that Western audiences have been buying since the 1600s. It’s Orientalism, really; the idea that certain kinds of Asian culture/fiction or writers of specific Asian descent share an aesthetic which is more “delicate”, more “refined”, more “exotic”, than Western styles but not too much so. We’re allowing an archetype (of that highly educated, polite, non-politcal, poetic, Asian, the one who would have counted up on your gold on his abacus or played soft music for you while another one poured a perfect cup of tea) to be bought, promoted, and win awards because it makes us (the Western, white, “us”) feel more diverse, while still not being threatened. Some Koreans or Singaporeans are okay, depending on the tale. That’s why only a certain kind of story is being bought by most publishers right now. The other type of Asians, the ones writing about the culture and stories of people from the Philippines, Vietnam, India (especially outside the cities), Laos, and so on — well, that feels too “tribal” to most Westerners. Too “other”. Too much like Mexican or African stories, and so it doesn’t get published.

Look at the award lists for the Hugo, Nebula, Andre Norton, Campbell, or even the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards… where Asians are nominated or win, what percentage are Chinese/Japanese? Can you think of an author of Asian descent who’s won a major SFF award who wasn’t Chinese or Japanese? (The few Asian authors we’ve lauded, that I can think of, are either Korean, which most Westerners think of as China-lite, or are women, because we expect them to be more delicate, more respectful, more graceful, more Oriental, and so, more acceptable.)

The long-form winner of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award was translated from Chinese in 2013. And 2012. Including it’s inaugural year, 2011, no Asian work was even on the long list that wasn’t Chinese or Japanese. No Asian author has won, or made the shortlist for, the Best Novel Hugo, but we’ve recognized white authors writing about China: McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, for example.

Look at the sort of stories we read, buy, and will only accept from even authors who aren’t of Chinese or Japanese descent: retold Chinese myths, dragon/carp/phoenix tales, Emperors, concubines and geisha, martial artists… We buy imagery that includes tea ceremonies and lotuses, cherry blossoms and samurai swords, jade, silk, kimono, brush-painted letters, origami, rice paper screens. Set it in the future, set it in space, retell it in the Singularity, sure, but it’s got to hold on to that classic Chinese sensibility. (Firefly, anyone?)

As the objects which were originally prized made their way, as descriptions or depictions of those objects, into art and literature, that commodity fetishism eventually (and now) implied cultural and historical significance into the imagined lives of those objects — and by extension, those people. After all, Chinoiserie was about collecting the “curios” of a place when importing the people (as servants, slaves, exotic mistresses) wasn’t always affordable.

I’m not saying that those authors don’t deserve to be recognized. Of course they do. It’s so rare we give out the big SFF awards to anyone who isn’t white that pretty much every one else is a victory for diversity. Yay! But let’s not kid ourselves that we’re truly celebrating the range of humanity.

I can’t blame the Asian authors, who try to write other things and get told it won’t sell, or who submit other types of stories only to have them rejected in favor of the “popular” tropes. I can blame the readers who don’t look for anything more, or worse, don’t realize their error when they assume this is what all Asian fiction must be like. I can blame the publishers who profit off racism by catering to this illusion.

But instead of looking for who to blame, I’d ask you to seek out those who’re getting it right by writing and publishing more than the expected/accept tropes. Find stories about American-born Asians who’re struggling with the disconnect between their middle-class life here, and their grandfather’s upbringing in a jungle. Find stories about Mongolian settlers raising lizard-horse hybrids on a faraway planet, or Cambodian techs programming a new utopia. Seek out Sri Lankan authors, and Filipinos, and Laotian. (Start here. Or here. Or here. Or here.)

They’re out there, and they’re amazing.

* Not sure what Chinoiserie is? It’s defined as “a style in art (as in decoration) reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs; also :  an object or decoration in this style” and “reflecting fanciful and poetic notions of China”. This is a Google image search on the term; here’s the Getty’s 2004 exhibit “Imaging the Orient“. Read “Chinoiserie is Clearly French for ‘Hella Tacky’“, this post about Anna May Wong/Chinoiserie in 1920′s Film, “Imperial Glaze on China“, for a quick perspective. For a longer read, check out Ma, Sheng-mei, Deathly embrace: Orientalism and the Asian American identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

“A key point: chinoiserie as not just a european appropriation and adulteration of chinese imagery and artistry, but also a form that is produced by chinese people/chinese-americans to appeal to and satisfy the palates of whites. chinoiserie also relies on stereotyping china and on racializing art forms.” – notes in a diasporic tongue

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing! In my Victorian readings, I’ve found a larger focus on Japanese fetishizism and commodities. I think there’s been a resurgence of that recently with the influx of Japanese media (and Korean with Korean media). I think it’s clear these groups are more “acceptable” for the reason you mentioned, of seeming familiarly genteel, etc., as well as class and color.

  2. I’m kind of concerned about the implication that being interested in Chinese or Japanese culture and wanting to read stories about them is inherently racist. Yes, of course, we should seek out material from other cultures and about other cultures. And yes Chinoserie is a thing that exists. But I am genuinely interested in Chinese culture and I don’t feel guilty about seeking out books and stories about it.

    The reference to Firefly is illustrative. Chinese culture is bound up with Firefly as a political statement: Joss Whedon believes that China will have a large influence on human culture in the future and become very powerful. Not really a hard thing to believe. And his Chinese wife helped him incorporate Chinese elements into the show in a way that wasn’t simply stereotypical. I don’t think that’s racist.

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