The Logic of the Wound: On (De)Constructing Chinese Identity

by Richard Semus

If, as the theorist Rey Chow speculates, Chineseness is largely a kind of “ethnic supplement” conceived in opposition to a hegemonic Western discourse, then we might begin to investigate the role it has played in relation to the overseas Chinese—and in particular to the formation of an overseas Chinese diasporic identity (Chow 4). After all, Chineseness in itself has historically been mobilized against the Chinese, used to establish a cultural binary that ultimately displaces the Chinese subject into the realm of the other. Nowhere has this effect been more pronounced than in North America, the proving ground for the newest wave of Chinese mass migration.

New Roots in Foreign Soil

The first influx of Chinese migration to the U.S. began around 1848, the first year of the California Gold Rush, and by 1854 official discriminatory laws had already been passed barring the Chinese from testifying in court. Racism and physical violence against the Chinese had, of course, existed since the outset of immigration, and movements among the white workforce to further disenfranchise Chinese laborers were incited in tandem with the growing immigrant population; but it was here where anti-Chinese sentiment first crystallized into legislation, the legacy of which would remain until as late as 1965 (Kuhn 205-6). Thus exclusion came to define the Chinese-American experience for a stretch of over one hundred years (continuing, in varying forms and degrees, to this day).

At the time of such outright discrimination—eventually culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the Chinese were generally perceived as occupying the opposite end of the Western/non-Western cultural binary, antithetical to American (white) virtuousness and worldviews, unassimilable, even ‘heathen’. Add to this the fact that Chinese were banned from interracially marrying due to anti-miscegenation laws, and it should come as no surprise that the local population came together in solidarity, creating Chinatowns as insulated communities where they could live, work, and freely converse without subjection to racialized hatred (Takaki 240). The overarching majority still either returned or planned to return to China, rendering them (whether by force or volition) model sojourners who were, in effect, temporarily rootless.

How exactly the concept of roots, or gen (根) as L. Ling-chi Wang puts it, factors into a notional diasporic Chinese identity has always been a point of contention (Wang). But at least in regards to the earliest forms of U.S. migration, the manifestation of one’s roots was a result of a climate that “subjugated the Chinese economically, segregated them socially, and disenfranchised them politically” (Wang 192). The local population of the late 19th century inevitably remained tethered to, if not their ancestral homeland, then their ancestral homes, families and/or villages. Problems of assimilation never went beyond a reductionist form of othering. Yet inevitably some exceptions appear.    


    The few exemptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 included: “[e]lite Chinese diplomats and merchants, students and travelers, native-born U.S. citizens, some laborers, and some wives” (Marcus 369). Those who were not native-born citizens were still aliens, however, and could not legally obtain U.S. citizenship. Most of them were members of a privileged upper class.

    While we often talk about class as affording one the ability to move comfortably through the world (and in turn ignore the plight of those who cannot), in the case of the U.S. overseas Chinese, class also came with the benefit of ‘cultural transgression’—the feat of crossing the boundaries between West and non-West, ‘occident’ and ‘orient’. Herbal doctors, for example, represent an elite class whose businesses not only flourished in the local Chinatowns, but even managed to appeal to a non-white demographic. What may strike us as ironic today is the fact that this appeal stemmed from an explicitly ‘American-style’ marketing campaign in which, rather than attempt any sort of bald acculturation, herbal practices actually emphasized the ‘Chineseness’ of the trade, touting over 2,000 years of Chinese tradition as well as doctors’ credentials from China proper. Their form of crossing therefore sat squarely within the pre-existing paradigm, approaching white America from a safe distance as other.

    Missionaries—another prominent upper class—followed a more typical acculturation, though the extent of their crossing perhaps exceeded that of the herbal doctors. Whereas herbal doctors rooted themselves firmly in the mythology of China, missionaries arose from a tradition dating back to around the 1830’s, when the first American missionaries traveled to Guangdong province. Many of the local Chinese, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, consequently came to view missionaries as arms of cross-cultural assimilation, with Christianity itself becoming conflated with Americanization and a sacrifice of one’s Chinese identity. (The few Chinese in the U.S. who initially converted to Christianity practiced a sort of syncretism, incorporating elements of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism into their practice.) In spite of this stigmatization, leading Chinese missionaries such as Ng Poon Chew looked towards assuaging “anti-Asian agitation”, with a stated mission to  “halt prostitution, to close opium dens, and to resolve the enduring conflicts between rival tongs that had long plagued Chinese communities in the West”—thereby directly implicating themselves in the so-called “Chinese Question” raging across the country (Marcus 386).

One particular case succinctly illustrates the capabilities of Chinese missionaries (and, by extension, those of privileged classes in general) for interethnic and intercultural crossing: Huie Kin Hwong. Born in Guangdong in 1854, Hwong immigrated to California in 1868, where he was educated in English and promptly baptized by a Presbyterian minister. While spending time as a leader of the San Francisco Chinese Sunday School, he along with two other missionary workers attempted to confront the gambling problems plaguing Chinatown, achieving—chiefly, it seems, as a result of police indifference—limited success. Hwong then moved to Ohio and later New York, where he became a minister, founded the First Chinese Presbyterian Church, and, perhaps most surprisingly, fell in love with and later married a white American woman, Louise Van Arnam. The couple went on to have nine children (during a period when anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect, no less).

Yet even when such a seemingly perfect assimilation was achieved by a Chinese, there were limits to how seamless it could be. Take this excerpt from the June 1907 issue of The Literary Digest, a profile of Hwong’s wife and the family home. Even as the pair are praised for blending their respective cultures into a “harmonious whole,” the writer has to preface or qualify this with the familiar binary sentiments:

"The atmosphere of the Huie Kin house, as one would naturally expect in a Chinese home set down in the midst of an American neighborhood, and in the union of a Chinese with an American, is a blending of the occidental and oriental. Oriental hangings vie with occidental inventions… Things western and things oriental do not mix well as a rule. They are essentially different ideas…” (Reminiscences of Huie Kin)

The use of “essentially” here is poignant: no matter what the degree of privilege and/or assimilation, no matter how emphatically one denies the call (or demand) to return to China, certain cultural paradigms cannot be breached. To paraphrase Ien Ang, the ‘mythic homeland’ at once constitutes and binds diasporic consciousness, fixing the prospect of transgressing one’s roots (Ang). This is as true now as it was then.

The Logic of the Wound

In her discussion of Chineseness as a theoretical problem, Rey Chow quotes philosopher Étienne Balibar’s observation that “culture can also function like a nature, and it can in particular function as a way of locking individuals and groups a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable and intangible in origin" (Chow 7). Indeed, it is precisely this notion of ‘culture-as-nature’ that finds its origins in the beginnings of Chinese exclusion, assuming the role of a cheap and easy signifier in U.S. political and social discourse and almost invariably discussed in opposition to the West. The ramifications of this discourse can be felt today, reverberating from first-generation immigrant parents down to their children, speaking, always, to an irreconcilable schism between that which is Chinese and that which is American.

    Returning to the concept of gen: at the end of his essay, L. Ling-chi Wang clarifies the role of roots as that which “gives rise to the varied, often conflicting understandings of Chinese identities” (Wang 212); therefore a historical understanding of Chinese discourse is necessary in supplying the logic of the wound (a re-appropriation of Chow’s own phrase) and illuminating, at least in the U.S. context, how certain paradigms are brought to bear on the negotiation of an overseas Chinese diasporic identity. The question of whether one can escape from under the shadow of that history—and, by extension, reclaim the mantle of Chineseness for deconstruction and re-contextualization—will be left up to the generations now and yet to come.   


Ang, Ien. "On Not Speaking Chinese." On Not Speaking Chinese: Living between Asia and the West. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Chow, Rey. "Introduction: On Chineseness as a Theoretical Problem."Boundary 2 25.3, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field (1998): 1-24. Web.

Kuhn, Philip A. "Communities in the Age of Mass Migration: II." Chinese among Others: Emigration in Modern times. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. Print.

Marcus, Kenneth H. "Inside and Outside Chinatown: Chinese Elites in Exclusion Era California." Pacific Historical Review 80.3 (2011): 369-400. Web.

Takaki, Ronald T. "Gilded Ghettos." Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989. Print.

Ulaby, Neda. "The Huie Kin Family's Dynasty of Diversity." NPR. NPR, 29 Aug. 2006. Web.

Wang, L. Ling-chi. "Roots and the Changing Identity of the Chinese in the United States." The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today. By Weiming Tu. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1994. N. pag. Print.


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