Representing Chinese-Caucasian Romance in Twentieth-Century Anglophone Literature

by Shu Zeng (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 214 Pages


Against the modern cult for transnational love and mixed-blood babies, this book brings readers to revisit the prolonged anxieties over the mixing of races and the complexities underpinning the literary representation of thwarted Chinese-Caucasian romance in the twentieth century. Moreover, in the current world order where the rise of China has played a significant role and triggered different speculations on various fronts, this book takes readers on a long, exciting journey back to the very beginning of how Westerners perceive China and Chinese people in the thirteenth century and across the centuries to the current era—a journey that enables the traveler to feel the pulse of historical moments that have come to influence Sino-Western relations and China’s image in the Western mind. Bringing an interesting, original corpus of Anglophone texts (some largely forgotten) into conversation around the vocabularies they deploy to deal with relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese characters, this book helps readers to rethink current issues of migration, identity, sexuality, hybridity, and diaspora that have taken the present shape under the residual effects of the racial and sexual discourses of the past and that are instrumental to our historical position and trajectory. Therefore, this book is about the past and the present, the East and the West, the Self and the Other, the center and the periphery; but it is more about the temporary, the fluid, the liminal, the in-between.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Chinese Chameleon Revisited
  • 2 Staging Chinese-Caucasian Romance in the Early Twentieth Century
  • 3 Orientalism and Counterhegemonic Energies
  • 4 Unveiling the Harem
  • 5 Politics of Intercultural Representation and Potentiality of Cultural Hybridity
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography


I am deeply indebted to a number of people who have helped me to bring this book to fruition.

This monograph was developed from my doctoral project undertaken at the University of Hull, so I would like to thank, above all, my supervisor, Bethan M. Jones, for the patient guidance, instructive advice and unfailing support that she has generously provided during the completion of my thesis. Her encouragement and understanding has always been a motivation for me to explore and savour the subtle beauty unique to languages, literatures and cultures of the world. I also greatly relished the leisure time spent with her lovely boy, Russell, which constitutes one of the most unforgettable memories of my time in Britain. Moreover, I owe an intellectual debt to my second supervisor, Lin Feng, whose specialism in Chinese studies has not only offered me fresh perspectives on the China scene but has also kept me alert to the potential ideological pitfalls in cultural studies.

This book would not have taken its present shape without the invaluable input of suggestions from scholars in various fields. They are Philip Horne, Ross G. Forman, Martin Arnold, Greg W. Zacharias, Istvan Kecskes, Phillip Williams, William Murray and colleagues at the College of Foreign Languages, University of Shanghai for Science and Technology. The editors ←vii | viii→at Peter Lang, Na Li, Gaelyn Foster, Farideh Koohi-Kamali, Jackie Pavlovic, Vinoth Selvamani have also meticulously guided me through the publication process and helped me with their professional knowledge and dedication. My gratitude also goes to the anonymous reviewers, whose insightful comments prompted me to rethink some of the key issues raised and strive for a better version of this book. Some parts of the chapter, Unveiling the Harem, first appeared as “Writing in the Third Space: Pearl S. Buck’s intercultural translation in Pavilion of Women” in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, reprinted by permission of Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. I would like to thank the journal editors, anonymous reviewers and Taylor & Francis Group for their valuable suggestions and kind support.

Some good friends have accompanied me along the journey. Thanks to Eirini Arvanitaki, Ahmed Al-Abdin, Farah Ali, Yongjiao Yang, Enge Hou, Leiping Ye, Guang Hu, Jianguo Wang, Chun Keat Yew, Yale Wang, Yuan Shi and Guixiang Jin for their constant encouragement and the exchange of ideas throughout the process. I am particularly thankful to Rengfang Tang, who has assisted me in every possible way with her kindness and generosity. I deeply cherish such companionship—a lifetime treasure that could not have been attained without care, sincerity and mutual respect.

I am grateful to my family for their selfless love and full trust, which keeps me marching forward in the darkest moments of my pursuit. My father has, since my early age, imparted in me a sense of reverence and disinterested love for scholarship—this is the principle I have been abiding by in my study and work. My deepest gratitude goes to him, my most inspirational reader. And special thanks to my niece, Yiyi, for bringing the sunshine! This book is dedicated to them with love and gratitude.

List of Abbreviations


“The Chink and the Child”


East Is West: A Comedy in Three Acts and a Prologue by Samuel Shipman and John B. Hymer


The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55


“Johnny Bear”


M. Butterfly


Marco Millions


The Travels of Marco Polo: The Venetian


A Many-Splendoured Thing


Mandeville’s Travels


Pavilion of Women


Son of Gods


The World of Suzie Wong


Recalling my experience of watching Ellen Kent’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s (1858–1924) Madame Butterfly (1904) at Hull New Theatre on a chilly rainy night in 2015, I still remember how deeply it struck me to witness the audience, old and young, weep sporadically throughout the performance for the tragic love story between Cio-Cio San and B. F. Pinkerton.1 It was also quite remarkable to see the whole audience, at the curtain call, boo the actor who played Pinkerton not because of his unsatisfactory performance but precisely because of his portrayal as the unconscientious lover who abandons the loyal Madame Butterfly. As one of the few Asian faces in the audience, I underwent a completely different psychological trajectory viewing the performance due to multiple roles I allowed myself to assume in relation to the opera: a researcher, a woman and an Asian. Having gone beyond the pure enjoyment of the performance, I was occupied with the following thoughts: What has sustained the popularity of Madame Butterfly as one of the classics in the Western opera repertoire?2 Why does Madame Butterfly have to die? As an Asian woman, I was somehow vehemently resisting Cio-Cio San’s subservience and secretly hoping that she could keep on with her life after the desertion rather than kill herself for the unworthy Pinkerton. The mixed feelings that overwhelmed me during the performance to some extent answered the question asked by Helga, Rene Gallimard’s wife in David Henry Hwang’s ←1 | 2→M. Butterfly (1988), “why can’t they just hear it as a piece of beautiful music?”3 Helga’s words smack of obvious sarcasm, indicating that “they,” the Chinese in her case, could and should enjoy Madame Butterfly as a piece of beautiful music. However, being Chinese myself, I have to admit that Madame Butterfly holds more cultural meanings than its sheer aesthetic significance.

Four years later, on an autumn night in 2019, I went to see the documentary, Daughter of Shanghai, at The Grand Theatre on West Nanjing Road, Shanghai. I had lots of expectations—expectations of what kind, I could not name. During the film, I felt like both an onlooker and a partaker of the unfolded life stories of Tsai Chin, one of the most popular Asian faces on the screen in the West. Whilst doing that, I was greatly gratified to see that she is the living embodiment of the exact opposite of Madame Butterfly, despite the fact that she has played Cio-Cio San-like figures in early films and plays. The qualities of strength, power and intelligence are not only manifest in her lively personality and lifetime devotion to the stage, but also evident in the harmonious cohabitation of two cultures in her dual identity. As she said in the film, “if I were tender, I will die”—a line from Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (which she has also played) and a testament to her life philosophy of freedom and independence.

These two anecdotes direct our attention to the fact that while the Western audience at large has been consuming Puccini’s Madame Butterfly for more than a century since its premiere at La Scala in 1904, they are unaware that the story and its reworking and retellings have constructed a narrative or a discourse dictating how interracial romances between the Asian woman and the white man should be represented across various genres in the West, regardless of the original story being about a relationship between a Japanese woman and an American man.4 In explaining the compelling zeal for the “Madame Butterfly” narrative in the West and particularly the United States, W. Anthony Sheppard asserts that “butterfly has been made to perform a good deal of cultural work over the past hundred years, and has always been entangled in the web of race and gender perception in American popular culture.”5 This narrative, with its variants across a broad range of genres, designates unequal relations between the submissive Oriental female and the authoritative white male, and also points to Orientalist ideologies in intercultural representations through its gendered readings of the East.

Taking the “Madame Butterfly” narrative and the multi-layered cultural meanings that it evokes as the point of departure, I would like to shift the focus to the body of interracial literature that is produced by and circulated in the ←2 | 3→West. In Neither Black nor White yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature, Werner Sollors defines interracial literature as “works in all genres that represent love and family relations involving interracial couples, biracial individuals, their descendants, and their larger kin.”6 As Sollors has examined an ensemble of literary texts on the theme of black-white romance, Western literary representations of Chinese-Caucasian romance remain an understudied territory.7 There are a few works that have examined the general representations of interracial romances between Asians and Caucasians. For example, in Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (1993), Gina Marchetti has investigated a wide range of Hollywood cinematic depictions of Asian-Caucasian sexual liaisons and summarized the fixed patterns that govern the representations of interracial relationships. She argues that the utilization of these narratives to address issues related to race, gender, class and the construction of national identity in the United States, form the primary reasons for Hollywood’s romance with Asia, which “tends to be a flirtation with the exotic rather than an attempt at any genuine intercultural understanding.”8 Sheridan Prasso’s The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient (2005), draws on her living and working experience in Asia to challenge the “Asian Mystique”—the cultural and political stereotypes of Asia that have dominated Western thinking for centuries.9 Both studies focus on the broader theme of Asian-Caucasian liaisons and have undeniably, and to various extents, touched upon the representations of Chinese-Caucasian romance in particular films or texts, but neither has looked at the emergence and evolution of the portrayal of Chinese-Caucasian relationships in literary texts. Therefore, this book attempts to chart the body of interracial literature that deals with Chinese-Caucasian romance by addressing the following questions: How does Chinese-Caucasian romance emerge and evolve in literary texts? What are the socio-historical contexts that have brought about the changes? What are the recurrent themes in the texts? What representational strategies are deployed by Western writers to engage with these themes? How does this ensemble of texts with a shared thematic orientation work with and against other readings of the East?10

Historicizing Chinese-Caucasian Romance

While the preceding epochs saw few representations of Chinese-Caucasian romance in either literary or non-literary forms, the twentieth century witnessed the proliferation of such portrayals across various genres, such as ←3 | 4→short stories, fictions, plays and films. Prior to the twentieth century, Horace Walpole’s (1717–1797) short story, “Mi Li: A Chinese Fairy Tale” (1785), tells the story of a Chinese prince bound by the prediction—and curse—that he will become the unhappiest man unless he marries a bride who has the same name as his father’s dominion. He travels around the world, overcomes numerous difficulties and finds in England a princess named Caroline Campbell, who ultimately becomes the princess of China. Another contemporaneous account that draws sources on ancient Chinese kingdoms is the Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi’s (1720–1806) play, Turandot (1762), ending with the marriage between Turandot, Princess of China, and Calàf, Prince of Tartary. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Frank Norris’s (1870–1902) short story “After Strange Gods” (1894) narrates the French sailor Rouveroy’s romantic relationship with the Chinese flower vendor girl Lalo Da. The two manage to live together after trials and tribulations, but one is rendered blind and the other’s complexion distorted by smallpox. Interestingly enough, the first-person narrator in the text calls for lenience with Lalo’s wrongdoing given that she is after all only half-civilized and also a woman.11 Moreover, Rouveroy is overwhelmed by the excitement of being involved with an exotic girl and yet also expresses concerns about the appropriateness of this relationship. These textual details, along with the meticulously designed ending, in which the hero and heroine have to sacrifice physical integrity for interracial union, to some extent, anticipate the overall thematic orientation of Chinese-Caucasian romance in literary representations in the twentieth century. Differing from Walpole’s and Gozzi’s fairy-tale style, which is less entangled with race, gender and the general sensitivity towards interracial alliance, Norris’s turn-of-the-century text ushers in a new era that has produced an ensemble of interracial literature on the legally and morally censored topic of Chinese-Caucasian romance. The theme emerged in a variety of literary genres, including short stories, fictions, autobiographical novels and plays. The demonic Fu Manchu in novelistic, comic and filmic representations was one of the most popular images in the early decades of the twentieth century. Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child” (1916) is believed to draw its information from the author’s conversations with his Chinese friend in London’s Limehouse district.12 Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong (1957) is inspired by the author’s visit to Hong Kong in the 1950s. The Eurasian writer Han Suyin’s A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952) is based on her own romantic relationship with an English journalist.

←4 | 5→

The proliferation of literary portrayals of Chinese-Caucasian romance was driven by the turbulent social conditions in China which narrowed the geographical and cultural distance between the two races, and the influx of Chinese immigrants into Anglo-American societies from the latter half of the nineteenth century onwards and the concomitant social problems and tensions. On one side of the Pacific, the two Opium Wars that lasted from the 1840s to the 1860s led to the occupation of Chinese territories by Western imperial powers and forced many Chinese to emigrate to other parts of the world to pursue new livelihoods. Chinese mass migration, as a matter of fact, was the direct result of Western imperialism.13 On the other side, Chinese immigrants to the United States were attracted by the promises of the Gold Rush in the 1850s and offers of employment from labour contractors seeking workers to construct the transcontinental railroad (1865–1869). With more frequent physical and cultural encounters, a wide range of issues and tensions arose in relation to the immigrants. For instance, America’s wage depression was thought to be a consequence of the presence of Chinese labourers, as they were more industrious and willing to work for lower wages and thus easily gained an upper hand over their American competitors in the job market. In spite of scarce occupational opportunities, the Chinese were able to land jobs building railroads, diking and draining river deltas, and in agricultural labour and manufacturing.14 Interestingly, these very qualities of industriousness and endurance were used for advocating Chinese labour schemes in Britain. However, in the Asian invasion novels of the turn of the twentieth century, the Chinese are represented as less evolved in Darwinian terms on account of their relative lack of individual demands and needs and thus a stronger collective force, which is further employed to back up the “Yellow Peril” complex.15 The prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that banned the free immigration of the Chinese into America. From its peak of around 136,000 in 1883, the Chinese population had diminished to about 90,000 by 1900 and was continuously lowered by repatriation and by death as time went by.16

Interracial intimacy and sex loomed large as a legally and socially intractable issue in America. Representations of dangerous and lascivious “Chinamen” were circulated in a multitude of newspaper articles, cartoons and other forms of popular culture following the scandalous Elsie Sigel murder in 1909, where the strangled corpse of the nineteen-year-old female missionary was discovered in a trunk sitting in the apartment of her Sunday school student and lover, a Chinese immigrant named Leon Ling. Police investigations into this unsolved ←5 | 6→murder and its aftermath, as meticulously examined by Mary Ting Yi Lui in The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and Other Dangerous Encounters in Turn-of-the-Century New York City (2007), reflected nationwide antagonism and anxiety towards the threat posed by male Chinese immigrants to white female sexuality and also, by extension, to the social and moral order of the city. This potential danger was rendered possible and easier due to their physical and social intermixing, particularly in Chinatowns. Despite the fact that New York City was free from anti-miscegenation laws and thus Chinese-white intermarriage and sexual relations were not taboo subjects for newspapers or public discussions in New York, print articles surrounding the Chinatown trunk mystery construed Chinese-white relationships as “symptomatic of larger urban social problems that plagued a city undergoing rapid industrialization and unprecedented labor immigration: poverty, intemperance, opium addiction, and white slavery.”17 In contrast to New York City, the West Coast and the South saw the strict enforcement of anti-miscegenation laws. However, interracial marriages did take place, mostly between Chinese men who were small entrepreneurs or labourers and women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, as Chinese women existed in a disproportionately small number in relation to Chinese men, due in part to exclusion policies. The gender balance was approximately twenty-six men to every woman in 1890 and changed to about eighteen to one by 1900; it slowly began to normalize after exclusion was repealed and reached parity after 1965.18 In addition to their limited number, Chinese women were expected not to marry outside the Chinese community by traditional cultural values in order to preserve the Chinese population.19

In Britain, the employment of Chinese merchant seamen and their subsequent settlements in port cities gave rise to local Chinese communities. According to a 1901 census, London had a permanent Chinese population of 237, sixty percent of whom were seamen.20 Britain had never received as large a number of immigrants as the United States, but the turn of the twentieth century also witnessed the enforcement of anti-immigration laws (The Aliens Act 1905), barring “undesirable aliens” (such as those in economic distress, ill-health, or criminality) and making legitimate entry “contingent upon inspection by an immigration officer.”21 British society was also faced with multitudinous social problems resulting from interracial relationships, such as the Race Riots of 1919, in which minorities were attacked by white male protesters infuriated by marriages between white women and immigrant men.22

←6 | 7→

Different social and historical themes on intercultural companionship found their way into different genres of writing regardless of the sensitivity of this as a topic. As Sollors argues, a great amount of interracial literature has been produced and circulated under unfavourable legal, religious, moral and social conditions.23 These texts form part of a larger body of interracial literature, which includes a multitude of narratives produced in English-speaking countries other than Britain and America, but this book mainly focuses on works by British and American writers in an attempt to inform the grander transnational framework of the Anglophone discourse about intercultural companionship between Chinese and Caucasians.

Representing Chinese-Caucasian Romance

The discussion of this book mainly revolves around what thematic recurrences emerge from these narratives and what representational strategies are utilized by Western writers to portray interracial relationships and, more generally, the Chinese people. How Western writers and Western writers of Chinese origin deal with the subject matter differently is also studied from a comparative approach. “Articulated categories” of race, gender, sexuality and others, as McClintock has argued, come into existence through and in relation to each other rather than in isolation as distinct realms of experience, and are thus explicated as interconnected and interacting issues under the rubric of Western representations of China.24 It should be stressed that this book is not about well-known transnational love stories of historical fact. For example, the high-profile romance between the Chinese poet Zau Sinmay (Shao Xunmei) and The New Yorker journalist Emily (Mickey) Hahn, received detailed discussion in Taras Grescoe’s recent book, Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue in a Doomed World (2016). They fell in love in Shanghai of the 1930s, a place where China’s brightest minds mingled with the global elite.25 The high society in old Shanghai apparently acquiesced in—and may even have condoned—the extramarital affair between the two, but interracial mingling of the less privileged classes in different locales could be a completely different story, as will be shown in the forthcoming chapters.


X, 214
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Shu Zeng (Author)

Shu Zeng is a lecturer at the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology. She got her PhD degree in English at the University of Hull. Her research interests lie in Western representations of China, the cultural history of Sino-Western relations, and the Chinese diaspora.


Title: Representing Chinese-Caucasian Romance in Twentieth-Century Anglophone Literature
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226 pages