- Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961, and: Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism, and: The China Mystique: Pearl S.Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism
It is an ironic coincidence that shortly before and after Edward Said's death in September 2003, three major books on American Orientalism were published: Christina Klein's Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961, Mari Yoshihara's Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism, and Karen J. Leong's The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Challenging and reinvigorating Said's notion of Orientalism,1 these books are excellent additions to the literature on this topic and its relation to Asian American Studies. Complementing and overlapping one another in terms of their research subjects, covered time periods, and methodological approaches, they offer a comprehensive picture of the historical development of American Orientalism from the 1870s to 1960s.
These books share a few common ideas and perspectives that are pertinent to Asian American Studies. First, they all propose that American Orientalism [End Page 319] has been a result of the constant interaction between American domestic and foreign politics. Given the growing interests in transnational perspectives within the field, such an approach that relates domestic issues of race, class, gender, and nation to American foreign affairs is important and useful. Second, they call our attention to how women have played important roles in constructing American Orientalism and how Orientalism itself has been gendered. The interdisciplinary approach that relates Orientalism to gender studies is examplanary for Asian American Studies. Third, they focus on the positive or benign aspects of American Orientalism—how not only Orientalists but also Orientalized objects could benefit from Orientalism. It differs from Said's model that sees Orientalism as destructive to both sides and therefore offers a new perspective on how to perceive Orientalism within Asian American Studies. Finally, their interests in popular culture signal the transformation of Orientalism from elite discourse to popular cultural practices. As the importance of popular culture as a research subject in academia is growing. it demands Asian American scholars to engage in the analyses of popular culture. These books are good examples of how scholarly works can keep theoretical sharpness while dealing with popular cultural subjects.
Yoshihara's Embracing the East examines the important roles white women played in the construction of American Orientalism between the 1870s and 1940s. She argues that as white women became consumers, producers, practitioners, critics and experts of Orientalism, they gained opportunities to challenge and reinforce their own roles and identities in American society. By "embracing the East," American women could achieve social and economic autonomy, liberation, independence and empowerment that otherwise would not have been available to them due to established Western gender and sexual norms. In other words, white women's engagement with Orientalism resulted in, and was influenced by, changes within American domestic gender politics. The transition from the Victorian era to the New Woman era required and allowed American women to participate in social realms that further constructed American Orientalism. Covering a broad span of time, Yoshihara remains thoroughly consistent in discussing how American women benefited from their complicity and participation in the culture of American imperialism in Asia. Examples of analyses include: the anonymous upper middle-class consumers of Oriental goods; painters such as Mary Cassatt, Bertha Lum, and Helen Hyde; theater performers Blache Bates and Geraldine Farrar; poet Amy Lowell; activist Agnes Smedley; and public experts Pearl S. Buck and Ruth Benedict.
Yoshihara finds correlations between these women and the fictional character of Mrs. Pinkerton, the wife of the American naval officer who falls in love with [End Page 320] the Japanese...