A panel of UC professors and award-winning authors examined the United States’ perception of China during a discussion hosted by the School of Humanities on Oct. 19.
The event, titled “China: Behind the Stereotypes,” featured UC Irvine history professor and author Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, New York Times best-selling author Lisa See, UC Santa Barbara English professor and author Yunte Huang, and UC Irvine professor of Asian American studies Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, who served as moderator for the evening.
The panelists first discussed how they each started writing and how they came to focus on Chinese history. Huang said he was inspired by his father, who wished to become a writer and published multiple poems under pseudonyms during China’s Cultural Revolution. Huang wanted to know more about life at the time for his father and for other people as well.
See is one-eighth Chinese and grew up hearing stories about her great-grandfather who came to America from China at fourteen years old. She started collecting stories from various relatives before deciding to compile them into her book, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, which became a national bestseller. See also mentioned a line in the book’s prologue in which she writes, “I don’t look Chinese, but I feel Chinese in my heart.” She noted that many people in her early life took issue with this, and even family members would allude to how different she looked.
“I hadn’t really realized that people saw me as different in the family, it just hadn’t really occurred to me,” said See. “And so I think since that time, with all that experience, that really just made me want to look deeper inside myself to see how do I fit in. Where do I fit in?”
Wasserstrom had always known he wanted to be a writer. He took a Chinese language class in school and started to learn more about Chinese history and culture. He was fascinated by it all, especially the revolutions, and felt more people around the world should know Chinese history.
The conversation then moved to how stereotypes of China have changed over the years.
“Stereotypes between China and Japan have kind of taken turns; [it’s a] seesaw effect,” said Wasserstrom. “When China is up, Japan is usually down and vice versa in the American imagination.”
Wasserstrom noted that the Chinese were our enemies during the anti-Christian Boxer Rebellion, then it was the Japanese during World War II, and then the Chinese communists. To Wasserstrom, the real problem is this idea of “the Chinese” as a “singular stereotype.”
“The biggest problems with the stereotypes in each of these cases is the inability to think of either of these countries as populated by millions of people who are not on the same page and do not have the same kinds of characteristics or qualities. So the challenge, I think, always with China, and to some extent Japan, is to figure out a way to get Americans to think of individuals within those countries who have different generations, different political beliefs, different attitudes.”
See also brought up the idea of a singular stereotype. China is usually seen as a major economic superpower but this isn’t the case in many places. See’s current project focuses on the Akha, an indigenous tribe in the Yunnan province of China. The Akha tribe only began using electricity ten years ago.
“That just blows people’s minds because it really doesn’t fit their stereotype of a global economic superpower,” said See.
She also talked about how China became our enemy after the Iron Curtain fell and Russia was no longer a major threat. Many people firmly believed the Chinese would attack the U.S. Shortly after, 9/11 happened and America had a new enemy.
Huang brought up the recent criticism of Fox News commentator Jesse Watters for interviewing several Chinese people around New York City’s Chinatown in a segment on The O’Reilly Factor which contained a number of offensive stereotypes. While Huang recognized Watters’s actions as appalling, he argued that stereotypes are part of American culture.
“Every culture has stereotypes against the other,” said Huang. “We’re human, it’s inevitable… Stereotypes, sometimes they’re the driving forces of our imagination and one thing I really like about American culture is humor, the comedy… [we can’t] forget about the negative stereotype. We have to acknowledge that there wouldn’t be an American culture really without these stereotypes.”
Wu then opened the floor to questions. A few audience members shared their feelings on growing up in China and being able to view their home country now from America.
“China has always believed it’s the center of the world,” said one attendee who believes China is finally improving (China in Chinese is “zhōngguó,” which literally translates to “center of the world”).
“‘Conqueror’ is never in our history. Chinese, basically, don’t have the personality nor the interest to go invade other countries. What they want to do is, we say “tónghuà” (assimilate)… I don’t know about communists, I don’t know about Guomindang, all I know is I’m Chinese and I love the history. I feel what China is doing is really what China should have been doing a long time ago.”
Another attendee shared his view on China’s current government.
“I feel like currently, China is not like when I was a child,” he said. “The environment, communism, and the corruption.”
Huang responded, “As Donald Trump would say, it’s rigged.”