Lessons from the East

Representations of East Asia in Contemporary Anglophone Films and Novels

by Stankomir Nicieja (Author)
©2018 Monographs 292 Pages


This book analyses representations of East Asia, mainly China and Japan, in selected Anglophone novels and films. Starting with the earliest texts and accounts, the first two chapters explore wider historical and cultural contexts of the mutual influences between the cultures of the East and West. The subsequent three chapters discuss symptomatic examples of contemporary Anglophone films and novels and seek to show how various cultural flows have continued to mould Western images of East Asia. The book focuses on narratives that highlight Western subjects transforming or becoming reinvigorated under the East Asian influence and explores such issues as the impact of East Asian martial arts and religious practices on Western masculinities, East Asian motifs in utopian and dystopian fiction, and contemporary depictions of Asian-Western romantic relationships.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • Introduction
  • The Eastern conundrum
  • The aims of the book
  • Understanding representation
  • Said’s Orientalism and its enduring influence
  • Orientalism today
  • Orientalism in the context of East Asia
  • Representations of East Asia
  • Radical alterity
  • “East” and “West”: Defining the terms
  • 1 East Asia in the Western Imagination
  • 1.1 Europe and its ultimate other
  • 1.1.1 Beginnings and myths
  • 1.1.2 Marco Polo and his legend
  • 1.1.3 The Jesuits and the beginnings of Sinology
  • 1.2 Early literary images
  • 1.3 European infatuation with China
  • 1.3.1 China and the European Enlightenment
  • 1.3.2 Goldsmith’s Citizen of the WorldThis section draws on my earlier article “De-Familiarising China: Clash of Cultures in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World,” published in Theories and Practice. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on English and American Studies, edited by Katarína Nemčoková, Roman Trušník, Gregory Jason Bell, Univerzita Tomáše Bati ve Zlíně, 2011, pp. 167–173
  • 1.4 From Sinophilia to Sinophobia
  • 1.4.1 The opening of Japan
  • 1.4.2 From admiration to contempt: The sick man of Asia and the construction of the “yellow race”
  • 2 The East and West in the Era of Western Hegemony
  • 2.1 Reimagining the East
  • 2.1.1 Reshaping the image
  • 2.1.2 East Asian migrations to America
  • 2.1.3 The legend of the British Limehouse
  • 2.2 Yellow panics and perils
  • 2.3 Positive visions
  • 2.4 East Asia at the beginning of the twentieth century
  • 2.4.1 Burke and Limehouse Nights
  • 2.4.2 Embodying the evil Asian
  • 2.4.3 China and Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century
  • 2.5 Cinematic images of the Far East
  • 2.5.1 The emergence of the new Western power
  • 2.5.2 Griffith and his followers
  • 2.5.3 New friends and foes
  • 2.5.4 Cinematic Fu Manchu and his foil
  • 2.6 East Asia after the Second World War
  • 2.6.1 Between Mao’s utopia and dystopia
  • 2.6.2 The Japanese economic miracle
  • 2.6.3 China in the post-Mao era
  • 2.6.4 The changing of the guard?
  • 2.6.5 Asia and the Western cultural shifts in the 1970s and 1980s
  • 2.6.6 Techno-orientalism and its discontents
  • 2.6.7 Crisis, anxiety, and hope
  • 3 Reinvigorating Western Masculinity
  • 3.1 Masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century
  • 3.1.1 Asian role models
  • 3.1.2 The rescue from the East
  • 3.2 Everybody was kung fu fighting: Asian martial arts and their cultural impact
  • 3.2.1 The emergence of the kung fu film
  • 3.2.2 Kung fu films as a new genre
  • 3.2.3 Adolescent orientalisation
  • 3.2.4 The sinified Karate Kid
  • 3.3 Helping mature masculinities
  • 3.3.1 The new, oriental frontier
  • 3.3.2 The difficult art of learning to die
  • 4 New Asian Utopias and Dystopias
  • 4.1 Between East Asian utopia and dystopia
  • 4.1.1 Eastern utopias
  • 4.1.2 Huxley’s doomed dreams
  • 4.1.3 James Hilton’s Tibetan hideout
  • 4.1.4 Eat, Pray, Love and the return to primitivism
  • 4.2 Asian dystopias
  • 4.2.1 Asian dystopias at the turn of the twentieth century
  • 4.2.2 The charms of the oriental megacity and the lasting legacy of Blade Runner
  • 4.3 When China rules the world: The horrors of the post-American world
  • 4.3.1 Sailing into the Chinese future
  • 4.3.2 Shteyngart’s apocalyptic vision of America
  • 4.3.3 Surviving America’s collapse
  • 4.3.4 The new Blade Runner and the lingering problem of whitewashing
  • 5 Neo-Oriental Romances
  • 5.1 Oriental tale as a genre
  • 5.2 Rediscovering the charms of the Orient
  • 5.2.1 History and its ghosts – Margaret Drabble’s The Red Queen
  • 5.2.2 The anti-butterfly: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
  • 5.3 The foreign city as an emotional catalyst: Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation
  • 5.4 Going beyond the East-West dichotomy: Miss Kicki and Ghosted
  • Conclusions
  • Works Cited
  • Index


Edited by
Ewa Kębłowska-Ławniczak and Ryszard W. Wolny


The Eastern conundrum

The immense cultural, material, and intellectual wealth of East Asia has always aroused curiosity and excited the imagination in Western minds. Popular tales about the treasures and curiosities of the remote and often mystifying Orient, from Marco Polo to Peter Hessler,1 have continued to infuse those in Europe and America with apparently unceasing energy. The Western fascination with East Asia, however, has always gone hand-in-hand with profound mistrust, or even fear, of the Asian Other. Enthusiastic views, like Voltaire’s observation that the East is “the cradle of all arts, to which the West owes everything” (qtd. in Hobson 29), often coexist with accounts of Asia as alien and antipathetic to Western minds, and more importantly, as a source of impending danger. Because of such vacillating displays of suspicion and admiration, Western attitudes to East Asia have often been described in terms of pendulum swings (Dawson; Greene), cycles of idealisation and vilification (Mungello, The Great), eras of fluctuating sentiment (Isaacs 71), or a “love-hate” syndrome (Karnow qtd. in Li and Hong 2).

Undoubtedly, one of the chief reasons for the striking polarity characterising Western attitudes has been the apparent helplessness in accommodating cultures of the Far East to Western outlooks. Even the seemingly greatest European and American minds have found the task of grasping the notion of East Asia intimidating, if not impossible. To paraphrase Edward Said, Western artists and intellectuals have apparently had more problems dealing with, making statements, describing, and having authority over the Far East, than with any other region of the world. Isabella Lucy Bird, an eminent Victorian traveller, may serve as a perfect example. After many months of meticulous library research, followed by extensive exploration of East Asia (visiting different, often dangerous and secluded areas), in the introduction to her extensive account of the journey, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899), she described the Chinese with characteristic resignation: “the human product of the Chinese civilisation is the ←11 | 12→greatest of all enigmas”, particularly to those “who know him best” [sic!] (Bird). The apparent helplessness in understanding China and other countries of the Far East has not been solely a Victorian problem. Contemporary writers often appear as puzzled by China and the entire region of East Asia as their nineteenth-century predecessors. James Fallows, one of the most eloquent contemporary China watchers, captured the contradictions often besieging those reporting on East Asian affairs by drawing attention to how, in Western media, China simultaneously appears as

a success and failure, an opportunity and threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skilful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly short-sighted. (7)

China, the biggest and most dynamically developing actor in East Asia, is understandably attracting most of the media limelight today. However, similar ambivalence and uncertainty is easy to find among descriptions of other East Asian nations. For instance, in her classic (although now much criticised) study on Japanese society, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946), the eminent American anthropologist Ruth Benedict resorted to oxymora and paradox in order to capture the spirit of the country. In the much-quoted introduction, she describes the Japanese as

to the highest degree, both aggressive and to the highest degree unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways. They are terribly concerned about what other people will think of their behavior, and they are also overcome by guilt when other people know nothing of their misstep. Their soldiers are disciplined to the hilt but are also insubordinate. (2)

Certainly, such portrayals highlighting contradictions and paradoxes – even making those paradoxes the essence of the East – have simultaneously derived from and contributed to the unique allure of East Asia. They have intensified the aura of inscrutability, so often underscored in various representations of the region in Western texts. Viewed from a historical perspective, the radically alien Asian Other, at once scary and fascinating, has often served as a convenient symbolic screen onto which various anxieties plaguing Western societies have been projected and exorcised. In the late nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, Asians, and especially Asian immigrants, were often associated with all imaginable threats, including contagious diseases, social anarchy, and objectionable sexual practices like homosexuality and incest (R. G. Lee 2; Marchetti 3; Ono and Pham 29).←12 | 13→

Today, overt displays of racial bias or discrimination meet with much greater public resistance. Many countries have introduced regulations which criminalise the most blatant manifestations of racism. In consequence, explicit expressions of Asiaphobia in public discourse have become rare. Most often they are articulated as anxieties about control over the economy or improper use of various technologies. Thus, the familiar worry that mass immigration from East Asia may “swamp” and ultimately destroy Western societies, and that cheaper Asian workers will undercut local wages, are accompanied by fresher fears of rich Asian entrepreneurs and oligarchs buying out valuable Western companies or the most attractive real estate, or Asian-controlled technology firms deployed to spy on or possibly even disrupt the lives of Western populations. The general apprehensiveness concerning the use of technology by Asians should not be surprising in this context. As Martin Jacques reminds us, Western dominance over the rest of the world has been mainly based on mastering methods of efficient industrial production and a high degree of technological as well as scientific innovation (14). East Asia is the first and so far the only region of the world that has emulated and in some areas even surpassed Western technological and industrial capability. The economic success of Japan and later other East Asian countries has destabilised what David Morely and Kevin Robbins call “the neat correlation between West/East and modern/pre-modern” (160).

The aims of the book

This book is about the representations of East Asia, mainly China and Japan, found in selected contemporary Anglophone narratives produced in the last three decades. It starts with a presentation of Western images of the Far East in the broad political and historical context. The following chapters attempt to highlight how global commerce, mass tourism, and rapid development of information technology have all affected the current narratives of East and West. It will also explore how the increasingly apprehensive West sees itself vis-à-vis economically expanding Asia.

Contemporary representations of East Asia produced in the Anglophone world cannot be explored in separation from the ongoing discussion about the future of the West, its political prospects, and Western identity. Apparently, the most common symbolic responses to the various challenges societies in Europe and America face today are resignation and cynicism. Narratives of apocalypse and catastrophe have become the most popular modes of imagining the future in recent years, and they include a rich array of apocalyptic literary fiction, graphic novels, films, television series, and computer games. On the other ←13 | 14→hand, the occasional positive images of the West’s future that contradict visions of self-annihilation and inevitable decay, often look towards East Asia as a source of inspiration and hope. Many works under scrutiny here openly advocate or celebrate the creation of new East-West cultural hybrids and suggest that a combination of what they often describe as Western and Eastern values constitutes the best response to the problems created by modernity. This new hybrid identity is arguably best equipped to face challenges of the postmodern, globalised, and mediatised world.

Following this lead, the present book adopts a very specific vantage point from which different films and novels are analysed. It mainly examines representations of East Asia that construct the region or its inhabitants as sources of inspiration and reinvigoration for ostensibly enfeebled Westerners. In other words, attention is drawn here to complex narratives in which various traditions, rituals, beliefs, and practices from China and the Far East are presented as providing vital and often decisive support for Western subjects. To be more specific, in investigating Western images of the Far East, the book highlights particular cases – increasingly popular in recent years – which convey different versions of roughly the same scenario: in order to overcome various challenges, confused and often desperate Westerners turn to Asia, Asians, Asian customs, rituals or beliefs for solace, guidance, and reconciliation. As a result, Western characters become “orientalised” and undergo dramatic transformations. They turn into peculiar cultural hybrids. What is also characteristic in many stories scrutinised here is the sharp, binary opposition between the East and West initially highlighted, and later questioned, diluted or made less visible. Most of the investigated narratives rely on a clear contrast. On the one hand, countries of the East – China, Japan, and South Korea – are frequently imagined as sources of threat to hitherto unshaken Western hegemony; simultaneously however, East Asia is evoked as an important catalyst in remedying various crises periodically affecting the West and indirectly rendering Western economic, cultural, and military domination more durable and resilient.

Although similar stories of lessons from the East have become relatively common in recent years, the depiction of Asia as a source of regeneration or enlightenment has a very long history and constitutes an important element of traditional Western identity. Thus, before delving into more concrete analyses, the present study goes beyond the twenty-first century to highlight longer themes and more distant historical inspirations. The main assumption here is that the presentation of a larger historical context is vital to the understanding of contemporary ways in which the West has imaginatively constructed the East.←14 | 15→

This book discusses representations of East Asia in Western narratives and focuses primarily on two countries: China and Japan. At the same time, it consciously leaves out a more extensive discussion of Vietnam and its impact on the contemporary Western consciousness and imagination. There are several reasons for this omission. The first is the wealth of sources and studies already available on the subject. Vietnam and the country’s relations with Europe and America have been thoroughly explored in numerous publications.2 The other reasons for not discussing Vietnam despite its huge cultural impact, particularly on Western cinema, is that Vietnam’s influence has been largely overshadowed by the war. First, the military conflict waged by the French in defence of their colonial interests (1946–1954), and later by the protracted US intervention (1961–1975). By comparison, Western relations with China and Japan have a history of intense mutual influence of a varied and complex nature, stretching over the centuries. Although many Western narratives have depicted Vietnam as a place of education or personal transformation, it has rarely had the sort of influence explored in this book. With a few notable exceptions, for instance Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover (L’Amant, 1984) – elevated to international popularity by the cinematic adaptation by Jean-Jacques Annaud (1992) – Western travellers to Vietnam have usually been affected by the demoralising influences of the war rather than exposure to local customs, people, or ideas.

In order to keep the present study within a reasonable scope, it focuses on the Anglophone world. Nevertheless, in the contemporary, globalised culture strict differentiations along national or territorial lines are not always feasible. This is particularly true in relation to film, the most transnational of all media forms. Thus, to illustrate some of the key theses, motion pictures and texts produced outside the English-speaking world are also taken into consideration. Characteristically however, in regards to cinematic production, all of the examples discussed here rely on English as a language of communication between the representatives of the West and characters with East Asian ←15 | 16→backgrounds. For the sake of the project’s manageability, it was also necessary to be highly selective in choosing material for scrutiny. Therefore, instead of offering a comprehensive survey of all Western visions of the Far East, this book explores specific cases and symbolic examples meant to illustrate larger trends and dominant tendencies.

Most of the examples of transcultural flows in this book are films. However, the analyses are complemented with a selection of contemporary novels. Literary fiction, although far less influential in moulding popular imagination today than cinema, can still offer original dimension and add a depth of insight that films alone cannot convey. Films and novels, juxtaposed as the most complex narratives created by humans, may offer us a fuller and more nuanced picture of the problems. By complementing each other, novels and films may offer us a better vantage point to grasp the modern mind. In the case of a film, we are dealing with a multichannel medium that relies mostly on the visual and has a particularly strong potential to affect audiences in a direct, emotional manner. Cinematic visions are particularly effective concrete representations of what may appear foreign and exotic, and East Asia seems cinematically and visually attractive in a very distinct way.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (December)
China and Japan in the West Film studies Orientalism Representation of the Other Contemporary fiction Transcultural influences
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 289 pp.

Biographical notes

Stankomir Nicieja (Author)

Stankomir Nicieja teaches at the Department of Anglophone Cultures at University of Opole in Poland. He published widely on various aspects of the relations between literature, film and politics as well as utopian studies and film theory.


Title: Lessons from the East
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