The Woman Warrior and The Joy Luck Club have made their authors, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, popular among American readers. The two best-sellers also hallmarked the entry of Chinese-American literature into the American mainstream. While Chinese-American literature flourishing in the United States, the “China image” is also changing.
Chinese-American literature refers to fictions written in English by Americans of Chinese origin. As Chinese began to immigrate to the United States during the gold-rush age, and most of them have been struggling at the bottom of the American society, the representative image of Chinese-Americans described in American literature used to be a weak female. In the eyes of Westerners, they were always “outsiders.” Under such circumstances, even America-born Chinese writers went against their mother culture in their creations.
The situation did not change until the latter half of the 20th century when the Civil Rights Movement took place in the United States. Many Americans began to think about people of other races and their cultures in a different way. The following campaigns of Women’s Movement, Anti-Vietnam War and Minority Rights, in addition to the improvement in Sino-US relation, helped the mainstream of American society pay more attention to the Chinese image. In the 1970s, when more and more people accepted the idea of globalization, they also accepted the Chinese-American writers whose works focused on the Chinese culture but also subjected to fighting against authority and centralization. Meanwhile, these writers’ unique viewpoints and writing skills, as well as the profound background of Chinese history and civilization, had a strong compact on the American readers, making them feel refreshed.
Nevertheless, Chinese-American writers are a very unique group. To the American culture, they are Chinese who followed the Chinese tradition, but in front of the Chinese civilization, they are also outsiders. Living as “outsiders” of both cultures, their interpretation of the “China image” may not be as accurate as it is supposed to be. It is natural that they have to follow the American cultural trend and aesthetic taste.
Therefore, in their fictions, Chinese immigrants cannot get rid of the image of “outsider” and “the weak” while their knowledge about the Chinese civilization is far from enough. This is the dilemma for Chinese-American writers.
In fact, many Chinese-Americans are living in this kind of dilemmas. Parents want their children to grow up as an American well adapted to the mainstream cultural environment but at the same time with typical Chinese virtues such as respecting their parents and being modest. As Maxine Hong Kingston stated in the first chapter of The Woman Warrior, her writing was an attempt to bridge the wide gap between her and her ancestors. “I have to continuously classify the different sections of my life: childhood, imagination, family, village, movie and survival.” During this process, the child gradually lost her own identity. As a matter of fact, the “Chinese characteristics” praised by many Chinese parents represent traditional morality and Confucian teachings, which go against the American lifestyle and individualism. How should a child grow up with the education from two totally different cultures? For children who learned about the Chinese civilization from their parents only but never got a chance to live in a Chinese society, the so-called “Chinese culture” has left them nothing but strange ideas and ghost stories. This is the main factor that has formed the generation-gap between the older and younger Chinese-Americans.
(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, January 11, 2003)