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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 486-505

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Pancho Villa Meets Sun Yat-sen:

Third World Revolution and the History of Hollywood Cinema

Although today we tend to isolate them as distinct groups, Mexicans and Chinese in the US have often been linked. These links derive in part from similar histories of immigration and labor but also from related histories of revolution. Some dates are in order here: the Chinese "Boxer Rebellion" took place in 1904; Sun Yat-sen's revolution occurred in 1912; the Mexican Revolution is conventionally dated to 1910–20; and the May 4th Movement began in 1919. The connections between Mexicans and Chinese in the US find expression in a variety of mass cultural forms including vaudeville, where Mexican and Chinese performers often shared the stage; in a film like The Son Daughter (1932), where Mexican actor Ramon Novarro plays a Chinese revolutionary; and in Hollywood westerns in which Chinese and Mexican villains are in cahoots. In what follows, I argue that the Chinese and Mexican revolutions helped to shape both Hollywood's global hegemony and resistance to it. I find support for this claim in the careers of two Hollywood film workers—the Californio actor Leo Carrillo and the Oscar-winning Chinese American cinematographer James Wong Howe. I conclude by arguing for the need to rethink US film studies in relationship to anti-imperial struggle and by suggesting the critical importance of triangulating American studies, Latin American studies, and Asia Pacific studies. To both historicize the cultural and political economies of globalization in the Americas and to project future possibilities for radical transformation, the north/south orientation of American studies and Latin American studies must be supplemented, I conclude, by the east/west axis of Asia Pacific studies. [End Page 486]

1. Enclosing the Cinematic Commons: Hollywood Imperialism and Revolutionary Resistance

Both Mexican and Chinese cinemas have revolutionary origins, and this fact has enduring consequences for Hollywood's world dominance. In what follows, I focus particularly on the legacies of anarchism in the Mexican and Chinese revolutions, for out of all the different ideological and practical elements of those struggles, anarchism constituted one of the most influential challenges to global capitalism and Hollywood hegemony. Although distinct in many ways, Chinese and Mexican anarchists held many similar views. Both fought for the abolition of private property and for the common ownership of land and wealth and opposed forms of authority—including the state, the patriarchal family, and religion—that protected private property. Highly critical of how official institutions functioned as tools of domination, anarchists instead promoted alternative forms of social organization, often modeled on the commune, the union, or the mutual aid society, in which private property and sometimes marriage were abolished and labor was performed collectively.

Anarchists were also critical of imperialism and the forms of nationalism that supported it. Highly suspicious of nationalism as a tool of capitalist and state power, Mexican and Chinese anarchists endeavored to articulate local and global struggles for the earthly commons. Anarchism was thus a transnational movement whose disparate members often shared the same reading lists of texts by Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx and participated in larger discussions about anarchist theory and practice, most notably debates about the October Revolution in Russia and its implications for future revolts in other parts of the world. The global perspective of international anarchism partly resulted from diasporas of students and workers, such that Chinese anarchists were active in Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco, and Vancouver, while Mexican organizations existed in Mexico and the US.

As such local and global plans for transformation suggest, anarchism presupposed a critical utopianism. Unlike liberal reformers and many socialists and communists, whose visions of social change were often focalized through nation-state models, anarchists promoted new, communal social forms that they hoped would make state authority obsolete. But in contrast to fundamentalist utopias that argued for a return to premodern contexts, anarchists embraced many elements of Western modernity, including science, industrialization, technology...


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