Cultural Transformation and Chinese Figures in Nineteenth Century American Trade Cards

Chromolithographic trade cards used the Chinese figure as a means to explore aspects of 19th-century culture. Unlike representations with a single and specific meaning, such as that of Uncle Sam, the Chinese figure held a range of possible meanings. It functioned as a floating signifier, an unchanging visual marker housing shifting undercurrents and ideas within American culture, helping to negotiate changes occurring in every area of society. A tremendous amount of cultural exploration and adaptation occurs outside the realm of words. In the iconographic Chinese figure, Americans discovered unexpected possibilities for expressing social and personal anxieties, or probing boundaries of gender, class, and even nationhood.

The heyday of trade card advertising coincided with anti-Chinese agitation and the enactment of the first Federal laws excluding Chinese people. During the last third of the 19th century, Americans were consolidating their ideas of nation and race. That involved defining who could and could not be included as American. Chinese immigrants in California accounted for 10% of the state’s population in 1880. But in the United States as a whole, Chinese inhabitants reached only 105,000, around .002% of the entire population. This comprised such a minute fraction of the population that most Americans outside of California had never actually seen a Chinese person.

Yet not just California, but the majority of Eastern states voted for the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted by the Federal Government in 1882. It banned most Chinese people from entering the United States and prevented those living here from becoming naturalized. Ten years later the prohibitions were made more stringent by the Geary Act, which required all Chinese residents in the United States to carry identification and denied their right to be witnesses in a court of law. Restrictions continued until the 1960s.

Chinese Man in Purple

Yet, thousands of trade cards contained images of Chinese people. What significance did the Chinese figure have within American culture? The assumption that a Chinese image corresponded to a Chinese-related product is quickly thwarted. With the significant exceptions of laundry products and tea, the majority of the products coupled with Chinese images had no connection with Chinese goods. For example, the delicate line drawing of a Chinese fisherman seated serenely on a riverbank as a dragon boat floats by advertises Edwin C. Burt’s fine shoes. And a trade card depicting a Chinese magician hovering in the air sells newspapers.

This imagery attests to a wider range of ideas about Chinese existing within America then found in written documents which mainly supported exclusion. Certainly, many images are blatantly racist, characterizing Chinese people as debased. These cards show Chinese as the antithesis of American. Yet in numerous cards Chinese people appear ethereal, gentle or scholarly. Indeed, a comprehensive look at trade card pictures of Chinese people reveals a complex iconography with a broad range of images from demonic to (relatively) benign.

The cards used Chinese imagery to articulate and establish Victorian cultural boundaries. The most reactionary cards applauded Chinese exclusion, either overtly or as subtext. Not surprisingly, laundry cards frequently played with this topic —one of the few jobs open to Chinese men was in laundries, previously relegated to women. Through images meant to be humorous to a white audience, laundry cards show that modern advances in cleaning products made the Chinese presence in the United States obsolete.

In an explicitly political card, the zealous instigator behind the Chinese Exclusion Act, Dennis Kearny, is shown at a beach. Stretching out behind him, across the ocean and towards the setting sun, are countless Chinese men with the tool of their trade, the washtub, now serving as boats to take them back to China.

Off for China

Dehumanizing imagery that apparently served as a source of humor came from alledging Chinese culinary preferences for dogs or rats. On a large ad for rat poison a Chinese man holds rats in each hand and grins insanely, greedily dangling one rat in front of his mouth. Almost equal in size to the Chinese man is a giant dead rat. Immediately over the man’s head is the phrase: “They Must Go.” The double entendre applying equally to the Chinese man and to the rat reiterates the dehumanizing equation of the image.

These cards depict the Chinese as a permanent alien. Yet other cards show a contrasting view. In a cigar trade card the Chinese man is learning American ways. Emulating the white man he proclaims: “Me no more smokee opium. Me smokee Melican man’s ‘Silent Traveller” cigar.”

To some extent, trade card imagery expressed American ideas of Chinese people. But much more, the Chinese figures facilitated white Americans’ exploration of their own identity. Making an image “Chinese” allowed white Americans to guardedly explore changes in their culture: increasing materialism, emerging capitalism and the resulting transformation within all relationships and values.

Fleury's Wa-Hoo Tonic.

A striking example is found on a card depicting two Chinese men in silhouette bowing deeply on either side of an enormous can of baking soda. Replacing a Chinese religious icon with an American household commodity trivializes Chinese religion and custom. But more than a comment on Chinese culture, the image allowed white Americans to project unspoken thoughts about their own culture. Through the depiction of Chinese figures this card explores a new relationship to manufactured products and its effects on a system of values. As the image makes clear, baking soda – consumer products -- become deified in the new capitalist economy.

The Chinese image also became a vehicle to express cultural dissonances. In our postmodern culture the collisions between disparate objects and peoples has become increasingly normalized. We call it globalization. In contrast, as early as 1848 the process of capitalism in the western world had been felt as a powerful new force, described by Marx and Engels as:

A constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation…All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newly formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…

As the United States changed from a rural to a market economy American’s experience of modernity became in part an experience of dislocation between present and past, the foreign and the prosaic. Chinese figures became one vehicle by which Victorians registered disjunctions and expressed their startling effect.

Depictions of shadows were among devises suggesting these incongruous simultaneous realities. Again the Chinese male heightened the disjunction. For example, captioned “A Queer Shadow,” a black and white trade card drawing depicts a dainty white woman. She casts a shadow that takes the form of a Chinese man. In the mirror-reality of the shadow, her ribbon becomes his queue; her hand gesture becomes his shadow hand reaching out as if to touch her, grab her bonnet. The image embodies unease—specifically white male unease. An equivalence is suggested between both Chinese and women. Are the two complicit? Is the threat they evoke due to one shared shadowy nature? Is the Chinese shadow the woman’s alter ego or is it a mirror opposite? The shadow registers entanglements of the prosaic and the unusual, helping to apprehend and confront them.

Images frequently feminized Chinese men. This coincided with 19th century American’s gendering most non-white people and nations as feminine; only white society, viewed as a patriarchy, could create empire.

Yet, while gender transgression and miscegenation created anxiety for Americans, they also tantalizing suggested the idea of all sorts of mixes. With equal parts alarm and relish, Americans imagined confounding categories of race and gender.

Both the Chinese male figure and Oscar Wilde signaled sexual ambiguity and uncertain social standing. Dressed in velvets, wearing his hair long, at every stop of his 1882 American lecture tour on Aestheticism Oscar Wilde was both lionized and reviled for being the ambiguous icon “a man’s man.” One trade card in a series caricaturing Wilde depicts Wilde as Chinese. The caption across the top of the image reinforces this amalgamation: “No me likee to callee me Johnnee. Callee me Oscar.” The change of Wilde’s race from white to Chinese demonstrated the fluidity of categories and the ease of hybridization. While the card can be seen as a condemnation, even more it reveals the allure of exploring alternative gender possibilities.

A final card turns this negativity on its head, graceful portraying the integration of the male Chinese figure within a mutable culture. Drawn with a simple fine line, the card acknowledges the exchange in both people and art between the United States and China. The sweet image shows the back view of a Chinese man with a long pigtail dressed traditionally, albeit the American view of Chinese traditional attire, walking through a park. On his left stands an exotic Asian-esque statue, a hybrid portrayal resulting from a western conception of an eastern aesthetic. Placed under a palm tree, the statue holds a long fan in one hand and extends the other hand as if in greeting. The Chinese man smiles as he walks by, at home in this pastoral, hybrid culture.


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Cultural Transformation and Chinese Figures in Nineteenth Century American Trade Cards