A political cartoon featuring a Chinese man sitting dejectedly outside gates with the inscription “Golden Gate of Liberty;” a sign states “No admittance to Chinamen.” [Image: Frank Leslie / Library of Congress]

Author Chronicles Historical American Depictions of China

China Asia

How does the average American know what China—its landscape, people, and daily life—look like? While today we can develop a mental picture of a country on the opposite side of the globe with the help of photos and videos distributed online and through books, newspapers, and movies, knowing what China looked like before the internet—let alone before the advent of photography—was a very different proposition.

This is the focus of Dr. Wenxian Zhang’s recent monograph, China Through American Eyes: Early Depictions of the Chinese People and Culture in the U.S. Print Media. Through extensive archival research, Zhang examines historical depictions of China and Chinese people in American print media from approximately the First Opium War (1839-1842) to the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Through engravings, lithographic prints, cartoons, and drawings, Zhang argues that American print media—particularly magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, The Wasp, and Ballou’s Pictorial—was essential in shaping American perceptions of China and Chinese people in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though the first official contact between the United States and China occurred as early as 1784, the first depictions of China in American print media did not occur until the mid-19th century. Early illustrations often relied as much on imagination as observation—for example, in the Harper' s Weekly 1859 drawing of US ambassador John Elliot Ward meeting with representatives of China’s ruling Qing dynasty, the imperial palace is portrayed as a courtyard with Islamic architecture and the Qing bureaucrats in robes seemingly appropriated from medieval Byzantium. Similarly, before the establishment of racialized illustration tropes, the first Chinese laborers in America were drawn with facial features almost indistinguishable from contemporary depictions of white Americans.

As the anti-Chinese movement accelerated on the West Coast, racist caricatures of Chinese immigrants became codified and more frequent. Political cartoons depicting Chinese people as a horde of heathen, opium-addicted, unscrupulous job stealers proliferated through publications like The Wasp—although some, such as the influential political cartoonist Thomas Nast, portrayed Chinese immigrants more sympathetically.

In a recent book event organized by the United States Heartland China Association (USHCA), Zhang emphasized the power of these images to influence not only public opinion, but also state and federal policy. Most prominently, nativist political cartoons on “the Chinese question” were instrumental to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and subsequent anti-Chinese legislation. On the other hand, print media illustrations accompanied or catalyzed more positive policy changes as well—depictions of the Chinese coolie trade’s horrific conditions helped spur Congress to ban American participation in this industry in the 1860s.

Addressing event viewers, Zhang closed by highlighting the power of images in shaping public discourse, domestic politics, and foreign policy, both in the past and today: “[These images] definitely impact United States politics, as well as Chinese policies… The Chinese interchange with America is shaped by politics, economics, and multiple [other] factors, and images are one of these factors.”

Paul Sullivan is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a second-year graduate student in the Master of Human Rights program at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, with a concentration in Migration & Transpacific Studies.