[Photo story] A history of Western illustrations insulting the Chinese

For over 100 years, the Chinese have been the target of stereotypes and racism from Western countries. The way they look, work and talk have all been captured in images and illustrations by Western artists, and not at all in a friendly way. Historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao shows us some of these images.
A colour music sheet, 19th century, titled "A Chinese Monkey Doodle".
A colour music sheet, 19th century, titled "A Chinese Monkey Doodle".

(All images courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao)

For over half a century, Western countries have used images to vilify and humiliate the Chinese. These images tend to peak especially when there is conflict between both sides. Even after the conflict, the stereotypes created will stick in the minds of many Westerners to form an unconscious idea of the Chinese, a preconceived notion that guides many Westerners in explaining the behaviour of the Chinese as individuals and as a nation.

Making fun of queues and small eyes

In the mid-19th century, as the West started to include China in its growing colonial empire and conflicts over sovereignty and interests cropped up, images started appearing in the West that caricatured the Chinese. This was not difficult; the Chinese rulers at the time were Tatars from Manchuria, where the men shaved the front half of their heads and had long hair braided into queues behind — not only that, all the other men in the country were also required to do the same. Even though Western adult males now also sport ponytails as a fashionable artistic image,  the queues on the Chinese men of a century ago seemed strange and laughable. Also, given that the eyes of the Chinese are generally narrower and longer than those of Westerners, the queues and slit eyes were often the subject of unrestrained mockery by Western illustrators. And with the dragon being the symbol of the Chinese, China was also often drawn as an ugly dragon. Perhaps the unconscious rationale behind vilifying China and the Chinese was to justify Western military colonisation: after all, “backward, barbaric” China needed to be figuratively baptised by advanced Western civilisation.

07
A black and white wood engraving from French Le Monde Illustré, 25 April 1885, titled “La France devant la Chine” (France before China). In the illustration, Marianne, an epitome of liberty, the founding spirit of France, leads the French army against the monstrous demons of China. Evoking one of the most famous paintings depicting the French Revolution, with Marianna at the helm, leading the whole nation to victory and liberty, such an illustration hoped to stir up the patriotism of the French public and subsequently gain full support of the French-Sino War.
08
A black and white wood engraving from British Punch Magazine, 15 September 1888, titled "The 'Irrepressible Chinee'!" (The text reads: “Ping-Wing, the pieman’s son, was a troublesome cuss from far Canton. He laboured hard, and he lived on rice, but his tricks were dark and his tastes not nice. He burnt the convention, and then said he, ‘Me wonder whar dat treaty be!’” - American Nursery Rhyme revised.)
05
An illustration in US satirical magazine Judge showing the China-US conflict, 1890s. The caption reads “Someone must back up”, and the image depicts China as a fierce dragon.
09
A colour music sheet, 19th century, titled "A Chinese Monkey Doodle". Art is a medium that reflects society’s ideas of the Chinese.
10
Postcard, 1907. Title: Heathen Barometer. The Qing Dynasty had dictated that every male citizen had to have their hair worn in a queue as a sign of allegiance to the new sovereignty. When the Chinese moved to the US, all of them still wore their hair in a queue because such a hairstyle had become an integral part of their culture. Little would they realise that their hair would become a constant target of ridicule from the local Americans. In the postcard, the queue is spoofed to be a “heathen barometer” and that you could predict the weather by observing the conditions of the queue.

In 1882, there was a wave of sinophobia in the US, and in a clear act of racism, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to restrict Chinese from entering the US and bar them from getting US citizenship. This had nothing to do with the situation in China, or even China-US relations, but was borne out of US domestic politics.

In 1869, after the Pacific Railway was completed, the many Chinese workers who were recruited to build it lost their jobs, and so they flocked to the large cities on the US east and west coasts, seeking new opportunities.

These industrious Chinese labourers worked day and night, scrimping and saving to give the next generation a better education so they could get out of the poverty experienced by the first-generation immigrants. Because the Chinese were willing to do more work for less pay, they were popular among capitalist employers, but they also took jobs away from many low-level white workers, and there were incidents of violence against Chinese in some major cities.

04
A poster by US artist George M. Reevs, 1895. The text reads “The Chinese must go”, which was representative of US sinophobic propaganda.
13
A black and white wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly, 6 August 1870, titled “Shoo, Fly!” As the dispute between labourers and capitalists became uglier in the east coast in 1870, the labourers rallied together to form the Secret Order of the Knights of St. Crispin in protest of their employers’ mistreatment. Facing a potential complete shutdown of factories, the employers decided to call in the help of the Chinese workers from the west. Eager to earn money at whatever costs, the Chinese worker gradually took over the jobs of the domestic workers, rendering them without any leverage in this power play. To the local workers, the immigrant workers were like flies: irritating, and also impossible to exterminate.
14
A black and white wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly, 8 February 1879, titled “Every Dog (no distinction of colour) Has His Day”. The native American says to the Chinese: “Pale face ’fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”
15
An illustration from US satirical magazine The Wasp, 1880s, depicting the Chinese tradition of gambling during the Chinese New Year, calling it “A Tan game — the heathens’ Christmas”.

The Chinese did nothing wrong, except for working too hard, and in the end the angry white workers got Congress to openly censure the Chinese and pass the Chinese Exclusion Act. During this time, US newspapers published many images insulting the Chinese, with their queues, small eyes, looks, and even their accent when speaking English all becoming targets of mockery. The Chinese were “freaks”, “cheap labour”, “pagans”, “job stealers”, “dirty”. Indeed, the Chinese did have some obvious shortcomings, most of which were due to poverty, but which were often described as inherent flaws of the community.

Seeds of China’s victim complex sown

In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion broke out in China against the West, and the world powers suppressed it through military means, gaining large reparations from China and stationing their military in the Chinese capital of Beijing. This led to a thriving sex industry in Beijing, and many Western soldiers took photographs of their exploits in Beijing’s brothels as mementos in their private collection, so that they could brag to their friends back home.

01
French troops with two Chinese in Beijing, 1900. The French soldier on the right intentionally lifts the queue of the Chinese as a joke. China was weak and allowed itself to be bullied by Western powers. The Chinese in the middle does not even know the French soldier’s action was a mockery of his appearance, showing a real psychological weakness.
02
Officers of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in a brothel in Beijing, 1903. They kept such photos in their private collection to brag to friends back home.
03
Officers of the Austro-Hungarian Navy on patrol in Beijing, 1903. They intentionally embraced young Chinese girls for the photo to add to their private collection as a symbol of conquering Beijing.
06
An illustrated write-up on the cover of French publication Le Moniteur de Puy-de-Dome, 8 January 1900. The headline reads “The China Question”, while the text says, “Here, comrades! Pull together… but no one pull stronger than the others.” This is reflective of the attitude of the Western powers in dealing with China — to pull the Chinaman’s queue all together.
16
An illustration from a UK publication in the 1890s, titled “The European Officer and his Chinese Awkward Squad”, with the left panel showing an European instructor training a motley group of Chinese soldiers, and the right panel showing the Chinese soldiers after they have been trained, a modern army stronger than their European instructor. The mentality of the Western countries invading China but still being afraid that China would become stronger than them was already there over 100 years ago.

Amid this humiliation and bullying, the Chinese learned one fact: out of all the flaws they were accused of, only one thing was true, which was that their country was so weak that being manipulated was all it was good for. To reverse the bullying, China had to grow strong, because a weak country would not even be capable of gathering and showing evidence to clarify any truths it might hold.

During World War II, the US fought with China against the Axis powers. This changed the US’s attitude towards China, and it repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. After the war, with greater global awareness of democracy and human rights, the blatantly racist vilification of China gradually faded away, albeit still with the occasional negative stereotypes of Chinese in popular culture such as movies, TV shows, and books.

11
An illustration from US satirical magazine The Wasp, 1880s. The caption is “In the clutches of the Chinese tiger.”. The image depicts the Chinese as starting off like house cats, but growing up to be fierce tigers that kill the master’s entire family.
12
An illustration from a US publication, 1890s. The caption is: “A deal-in Washington. One that is not political.” It shows a Chinese person playing cards with Americans, where the image of the Chinese is a stereotype by the US artist.

Even today, in the face of strong competition from China, there is a sense of deja vu in the rhetoric of Western countries, including “cheap labour”, “unfair competition”, “stealing jobs”, and “stealing technology”. There is a deep-seated familiarity and force of habit about this narrative; it comes out readily, so much so that one does not need to think about how China could steal advanced technology from the US, which the US did not even develop.

Related: Anti-Asian hate crimes: What makes an American? | Mulan: The people-pleaser that ended up offending all? | Americans should not oversimplify China into a few sensitive issues | [Photo story] When Chinese are not welcome | Where multiple 'gods' co-exist: Countering the racism complex in Western diplomacy | From ‘yellow peril’ to sinophobia | Who should apologise for the term 'sick man of Asia'?