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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 548-552
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Intersections of Social History and Literature: The Changing Sensibilities of Chinese Immigrants
History and literature can act as a twin set of lamps, revealing together what each singly would not have the power to illuminate. Xiao-huang Yin's study of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in America connects history and literature to create a framework that charts the collective identity of one of the country's earliest and largest immigrant minorities. A few generations ago, this interdisciplinary approach was fruitfully applied by Perry Miller in his studies of Puritan writings and William R. Taylor in his exploration of themes in antebellum, sectional literature. Yin's ethnic history sets a new standard for this style of historical analysis. 1
Yin's subject lends itself effectively to this type of investigative methodology. Chinese Americans represent a robust case study for the dual matrix of literary and sociohistorical analysis. Chinese Americans have continuously produced over a century and a half an extensive literary tradition whose richness and vitality have recently been exhibited by the popular works of authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan. The Chinese also constituted one of the first major waves of immigrants in the new American republic, arriving in large numbers about the same time as the Irish Catholic and German [End Page 548] immigrants, during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Like the immigrants from Europe, they played crucial roles in regional and economic development and aroused fierce nativistic feelings. However, the group life of Chinese Americans would take a sharp turn toward an evolutionary pathway that would set it apart from the largest European immigrant populations.
American immigration policy has powerfully altered the social and demographic configuration of the Chinese American population throughout its history, arguably more so than for any other group of immigrants. The immigration control policies of the United States in the late nineteenth century first facilitated transient labor migration from China, then it excluded all Chinese laborers, and finally it treated Chinese immigrants as permanent aliens, to be barred from U. S. citizenship. These policies prevented the course of Chinese American social history from evolving along lines similar to those of contemporaneous European immigrant groups. Until the early twentieth century, the Chinese American community rested preponderantly on a largely male, foreign-born working class; it lacked families and a large second generation and was not "refreshed" by new immigrant members due to the policy of Chinese exclusion that lasted until World War II. U. S. immigration policies since the 1960s have reopened Chinese mass immigration and, as a result, a wholly new and dynamic immigrant community has been piggy-backed on top of the residual demographic structure left from the "old" Chinese immigration.
Xiao-huang Yin has plotted the social-demographic coordinates of this intricate and complex Chinese American group history and has skillfully mapped upon it the changing modes of Chinese American literary expression. Thus, his new study functions as an interdisciplinary, bivariate analysis of literature and history. Yin's work provides a systematic examination of how the stories, thoughts, and feelings imbedded in Chinese American literature were linked to social-demographic realities and how literary expression reflected a consciousness back upon communal life that shaped its existential self-image and vision of collective destiny. Impressively, Yin sustains his analysis across the entire span of Chinese American history, from the stage of initial community building in the 1850s, through its evolution and decline, to the rise of a new Chinese America emanating from post-World War II social changes and renewed mass migration. [End Page 549]
Yin conducts his investigation with creative methodological techniques. He utilizes a transnational and international perspective for situating the Chinese American community and its cultural life. He employs an expansive definition of literature that includes familiar forms of fiction and non-fiction with journalism and various public and...