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Chinese American Literature

Largely overlooked until the 1960s and 70s, Chinese American literature has come to occupy an important place in the American literary landscape. Classic novels like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) and Chin Yang Lee’s The Flower Drum Song (1957) captivated readers in the late 20th century. Today, Chinese Americans are frequently the authors of bestselling, award-winning literary works in various genres that deal with themes including assimilation, tradition versus modernity, and changes between consecutive generations.

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Chinese American Literature

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Largely overlooked until the 1960s and 70s, Chinese American literature has come to occupy an important place in the American literary landscape. Classic novels like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989) and Chin Yang Lee’s The Flower Drum Song (1957) captivated readers in the late 20th century. Today, Chinese Americans are frequently the authors of bestselling, award-winning literary works in various genres that deal with themes including assimilation, tradition versus modernity, and changes between consecutive generations.

An Overview of Chinese American Literature

Chinese American literature is literature written in English by people of Chinese descent who live in the United States.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the early 19th century. Certain Chinese provinces experienced extreme weather, including severe flooding, which led to widespread famine and prompted individuals to migrate. Most Chinese immigrants settled on the West coast, primarily in California, where they played a key role in laboring in the California Gold Rush and later constructing railroads.

Chinese American literature, railroad, StudySmarterChinese laborers played a key role in constructing the Transcontinental railroad.

During these first years of immigration, there was little in the way of Chinese American literature; what was produced was mostly written in Cantonese. As the Chinese American population became more established, so did Chinese American literature.

The start of the 20th century saw some of the first English-language works by Chinese American authors. These included the autobiography My Life in China and America (1909) by Yung Wing (1828-1912), the first Chinese American to graduate from Yale University, and Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who wrote about Chinese philosophy and culture for a western audience in My Country and My People (1935), and The Importance of Living (1937).

However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese Americans faced significant racial discrimination and exclusion from broader society. Therefore, Chinese American literature was not widely read until the 1950s, after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a federal law that went into effect in 1882 and prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers, the majority of immigrants, for ten years. Already, Chinese women had been prohibited from entering the country, but this law was unique in its restriction based solely on ethnicity. After ten years, the law was renewed and expanded with the Geary Act, which remained in place until 1943. That year, the Magnuson Act was signed into law, which relaxed restrictions on Chinese immigration and allowed some immigrants already in the United States to become naturalized citizens.

In the 1960s and 70s, the development of Asian American studies programs around the United States meant more attention was paid to Chinese American literature. In 1974, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers was published, including a selection of works from Asian American writers of the previous fifty years, many of whom had been overlooked and understudied. This anthology helped to legitimize the study of Asian American literature and led to the re-publication of many of the included authors.

In the late 20th and 21st centuries, Chinese American authors became an important part of American literature. Writers such as David Henry Hwang (1957-present), Amy Tan (1952-present), and Gish Jen (1955-present) have won a variety of prestigious literary awards and are read throughout the country and around the world.

The Importance of Chinese American Literature

Chinese American literature forms an important part of American literature as it exposes and communicates the experiences of Chinese American people. It helps to define the United States as a multicultural, multiethnic country and dismantle the stereotype of an Anglo-centered American literature.

Chinese American literature is also a way for the Chinese American community to affirm and build a shared identity.

Today, Chinese American literature is a key part of the American literary landscape, and Chinese American authors have written literary works considered essential to American literature.

The Characteristics of Chinese American Literature

Many works of Chinese American literature explore themes of migration, assimilation, and the formation of Chinese American identity. Authors often juxtapose the very different Eastern and Western cultures of China and the United States and expand on the difficulties that this culture change causes for Chinese Americans. Many texts touch on the racism Chinese Americans face in Western culture and the stereotype of the “model minority,” which assumes that all Asian people excel in subjects such as math and science.

Chinese American literature, Chinese flag, StudySmarterChinese American literature usually centers on the experience of Chinese and Chinese American people.

Chinese culture also comes with many deep-rooted, long-standing traditions that are often disrupted by migration. Chinese American literature frequently explores the breakdown of these traditions and the conflicts that arise, particularly within families, when traditional values are tested against the more liberal culture of the United States.

The Genres in Chinese American Literature

There are many different genres represented in Chinese American literature. Historically, many early works of Chinese American literature were realist or even autobiographical in nature as authors drew on their own experiences in the United States to create their work.

However, more recent years have seen an expansion of genres in Chinese American literature. Chinese American authors have published works as diverse as C Pam Zhang’s (1990-present) historical fiction novel How Much of These Hills Is Gold (2020) and Celeste Ng’s (1980-present) mysterious thriller Everything I Never Told You (2014).

The Themes in Chinese American Literature

Some key themes in Chinese American literature include assimilation, tradition versus modernity, and changes between consecutive generations.

Assimilation

Assimilation is often a key theme in Chinese American literature as immigrants try to fit into American culture. One of Chinese American literature’s best-known works, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), deals with the theme of assimilation as she follows the stories of the mothers and daughters of four Chinese immigrant families.

They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to these closed American-born minds ‘joy luck’ is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation”. -The Joy Luck Club (Feathers From a Thousand Li Away)

The mothers of the Joy Luck Club continue to cling to their traditional beliefs and practices while their daughters become more and more American. They speak in English, which their mothers can barely understand, and date American men. The daughters’ assimilation makes it difficult for the family members to relate to one another and sometimes creates conflicts between the mothers and daughters.

Tradition Versus Modernity

Another theme frequently appearing in Chinese American literature is the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity.

On the outside, my mother-in-law is a modern sportswoman. Inside, though, she is a traditional type. So she gives me American prenatal vitamins and calcium and DHA, but also steamed egg porridge with rice, and millet porridge, too. A glass of milk, red dates, fruit, and nuts every day; tofu and bean sprouts every other day. And a lot of soups: pork rib soup with lotus seeds or Chinese yam; hen soup with mushrooms and more red dates; soybean and pork trotter soup; and even swallow’s-nest soup, which is very expensive. Because I am in my seventh month and my body has heated up, and because she has an app that says it’s okay, I am also allowed to have some cooling foods I could not have before.” -Thank You, Mr. Nixon (No More Maybe)

This quote comes from Gish Jen’s short story “No More Maybe” (2022). In the story, the narrator’s in-laws visit from China. Her mother-in-law uses WeChat to send pictures back home to her friends and delights in the free English classes that are offered at the local library. The narrator is pregnant, and her mother-in-law insists on a variety of modern and traditional foods and treatments to ensure good health for the baby.

Changes Between Generations

Similar to the themes of assimilation and tradition versus modernity, many works of Chinese American literature deal with the generational divide that often grows in Chinese American families.

Perhaps in fifty years most of the familiar sights and smells in Chinatown would be gone. Perhaps there would be no more clatter of mah-jongg behind closed doors, no more operatic music of drums and gongs, no noodle factories, no old-fashioned barbershops with all the traditional services, no more retired old men reading Chinese newspapers, no more grocers with abacuses, no more thousand-year-old eggs, taro roots or dried seaweeds. . . . For this was the world of the younger generation, everything was changing, slowly but steadily. Even he, old-fashioned as he was, was now deserting his herb doctor, his best friend and the only man in Chinatown with whom he could happily associate." -The Flower Drum Song (Part Two: Chapter Twelve)

This quote comes from The Flower Drum Song (1957), a bestselling novel about Chinese immigrants in San Francisco by Chinese American author Chin Yang Lee (1915-2018). The novel’s main character, Wang Chi-yang, arrives in the United States after fleeing communism in China and settles in San Francisco’s Chinatown with his family.

Chinese American literature, Chinatown, StudySmarterThe Flower Drum Song is set in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Unlike his other family members, Wang stubbornly refuses to adapt to American culture; he will not learn English and prefers to associate only with other old-fashioned Chinese men, such as his herb doctor.

The Flower Drum Song was adapted into a Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1958 and later a musical film in 1961. The Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning the award for best conductor and musical director, and ran for 600 performances.

Chinese American Literature - Key Takeaways

  • Chinese American literature is literature written by Chinese people or the descendants of Chinese people in the United States.
  • Although Chinese American literature was being written as early as the beginning of the 19th century, it did not gain a wide readership or garner scholarly attention until the 1960s and 70s.
  • Today, Chinese American literature has become an important part of the American literary landscape.
  • Chinese American authors write on a variety of subjects and in a variety of genres.
  • Some key themes in Chinese American literature include assimilation, tradition versus modernity, and changes between consecutive generations.

Frequently Asked Questions about Chinese American Literature

Chinese American literature generally features themes of assimilation, the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, and the generational divide that often grows in Chinese American families.

Some examples of Chinese American literature include Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Chin Yang Lee’s The Flower Drum Song, and C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold.

Some key themes in Chinese American literature include assimilation, tradition versus modernity, and changes between consecutive generations.

Chinese American literature is usually concerned with the experiences of Chinese American people.

Chinese American literature is literature written by Chinese people or the descendants of Chinese people in the United States.

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