The Mystique of Literary Asian Women Part 2
In shining the spotlight on the evils of the harem, however, Anna Leonowens injected it with exoticism, and insulted and infantilised the women whose rights she was trying to stand up for. What she observed was the inspiration behind the hit movie The King and I, which was banned in Thailand as a result of its portrayal of King Mongkut. Even as colonialism was fading in Asia in the middle of the 20th century, stereotypes of Asian women didn’t go away, and Western readers were still lapping them up. In 1955 the Quiet American by Graham Greene, American Aiden Pyle and British Thomas Fowler compete for the affections of Saigon’s most beautiful girl.
The lead female character, Phuong, represents Saigon itself, caught in the middle of two colonial powers: the radical America and the older and entrenched Europe, trying to figure out which will suit her best. Around that time, Asian women also started to have their own voice in Western literature, largely though history and autobiography, indicating that fact was the greatest weapon against fictional stereotypes. Among the earliest of these texts was 1950s Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong. Its popularity was such that the author was sent to 45 different Asian locales between Karachi and Tokyo by the U.S. State Department. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, a 1975 memoir by Maxine Hong Kingston, offered a nuanced account fs 20th-century Chinese-Americans residing in America, with the Chinese revolution lurking in the shadows.
Jung Chang, a British citizen, wrote an autobiographical novel that accounted for three generations of 20th-century Chinese women, offering a vivid portrait of the military and political turmoil of the period. Kaz Ross, a Tasmanian academic, said that it signified the beginning of the “faction” genre: a fictional narrative used to tell history.
Novels by Chinese-American author Anchee Min continue to use fact to address stereotyping by emphasising strong female characters. Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing is given a rounded portrayal in 1991 Becoming Madame Mao, while Empress Dowager Cixi is written as a sympathetic figure in 2004 Empress Orchid. The empress ruled the Mancu Qing Dynasty for almost half a century, but Western cinema has often portrayed her as a Dragon Lady.
Beyond China, with regards to Asian woman as a whole in Western literature, Asian female voices are being heard (or rather read) in the Western press. One example is Speaking for Myself: An Anthology of Asian Women’s Writings, which provides nuanced stories of the epic but in everyday life, a transition from just autobiography and history.
The perception of Asian women in the West remains outdated and mistaken in a world where Asian countries are growing in influence, with Asian women at the forefront of that growth. And that’s sad. The real women of Asia are mothers, daughters, writers, teachers, human rights defenders, doctors, lawyers, and presidents, and it’s time that the mystique of Asian women was put to rest.