In the 70’s and 80’s (my formative years), the Soviets were presented as the main enemy to be feared. Angst over the threat of nuclear destruction became a regular part of the news cycle, political decisions, and military spending. That, of course, has changed in many ways. The fall of the Soviet block, perhaps partially fueled by the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan in the 1980’s (when the US armed Osama bin Laden), shifted the focus towards the Middle East. Now the 24-hour news cycle, political decisions, and military spending often discuss the threat of terrorism, which means extremist Islam for many people. (Extremist Christians aren’t terrorists, of course, in the common discourse.)
Of course, before the Soviets became the focus, other groups were used to stoke societal fears. In the early part of the twentieth century, the Chinese (not the Chinese of Mao’s Communism or the Chinese economic juggernaut of the twenty-first century) were a source of fear. In Great Britain, with its complicated history relating to the Chinese, including the Boxer Rebellion, Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu, an evil Chinese mastermind with no concern about torturing people, illustrates this fear.
The fear of the Chinese in Rohmer’s work contrasts with this seemingly more nuanced characterization in F. Van Wyck Mason’s 1933 novel, The Shanghai Bund Murders, featuring American hero Capt. North.
To those who knew anything of China, Captain North’s reception would have been highly informative of the relations existing between the Chinese detective and the American intelligence captain. Chao Ku, before the American could stop him, bowed nine times so low that his forehead all but touched the floor, in the most respectful of salutes known to China – the traditional kao-tow such as is rendered only to the great of the land and before the shrine of an ancestor.
The helpful, formal, even submissive assistant contrasts tellingly to Rohmer’s evil Chinese mastermind. I was, therefore, surprised when, later in the book, an evil military aspirant among the Chinese uses a torture device on Captain North’s companion that closely resembled one Dr. Fu Manchu used in several Rohmer novels.
While the contradiction between the deferential Chinese assistant and the guileless torturer startled me, they serve much the same purpose. They paint the Chinese as extremely different from informal and likeable Americans, as represented by Capt. North. In fact, the extremely obsequious Chinese easily becomes a tool in the hands of evil masterminds. This is not too different from the seemingly positive description of Muslims as “so devout that they pray five times a day” (as students sometimes declare in puritanical self-flagellation for their own lack of such religious devotion) that easily morphs into Muslims are so committed to their religion that they become suicide bombers.
The act of stereotyping, whether seemingly benign or horribly negative, often serves to maintain a distance between the audience and the group stereotyped. So it is not just the overgeneralization that is the problem. Stereotypes typically emphasize something different, out of the ordinary, at least for the intended audience. Painting a group as different, and therefore to be feared, serves the purposes of many in positions of power to maintain that power through fear and to promote, in many cases, military expenditures (if not action) through that fear. The object of that fear shifts over time, but the image of the fearsome “Other” often maintains similar rhetoric, a threat to our physical well-being and the “American way of life.”
Photo credit: “Anti-Chinese Cartoon from 1886”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons