- The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism
In this well-researched, organized, and articulate book, Karen J. Leong explores the transformation of American orientalism and the genesis of the China mystique through the prisms of race, gender, ethnicity, and nationalism played out by the distinct experiences of three prominent women in the 1930s and 1940s. Placing her subjects of study in cultural, political, and historical contexts, Leong makes a case that the transformation is not only about the changed image of China, but also about a U.S. ideology that satisfies its own needs.
The book contains five chapters. The first chapter, "Gendering American Orientalism," lays out the theoretical framework of orientalism as an analytical tool. Appropriating the late Edward Said's notion of orientalism, Leong traces its European origin and reification in the United States. Leong argues that the formation of American orientalism, also anchored in the view that the Chinese were an inferior people, incorrigible, backward, and amoral, took shape during the Chinese experience in America. In the broad context of the new milieu—the exigencies of domestic and international events, particularly the Great Depression and the Sino American alliance during World War II, and the heightened awareness of cultural pluralism as well as a philosophical shift in transnational relationships—Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong, through their respective public personas as a writer, as an actress, or as China's "First Lady," all contributed to the metamorphosis of orientalism and the creation of the China mystique, a "romanticized, progressive, and highly gendered image of China" (p. 1).
Expectedly, each of the ensuing three chapters deals with one of these women and her role in shaping the China mystique. Backed by daunting archival research, Leong demonstrates that, divergent as their life experiences were, Buck, Wong, and Soong all lived and juggled between and in two cultures/nations and achieved a reputation, through their strengths, the convenience of the emerging global mass culture, and the expediency of transnational events, in the production and consumption of the re-imaging of China. In the case of Buck, her growing up in a missionary family stationed in China and writings about the Chinese life afforded her self-proclaimed and widely accepted (and almost unchallenged) authority on China. Buck's exceedingly popular books provided the American public a rare opportunity to view the Chinese as real, sensible humans, contrary to the stigmatic exoticism captured in the imagination of orientalism. With Wong, a Los Angeles–born person of Chinese descent, the influence came as the most famous [End Page 502] contemporary Chinese American actress in Hollywood through, ironically, playing roles that perpetuated American orientalism. Nonetheless, these distorted images of exotic, seductive, and amoral Asian women launched Wong to the very power hitherto unavailable to a marginalized individual to negotiate for new roles of Chinese women and to construct a positive image of China. Soong, also known as Madame Chiang, was the culmination of the China mystique. Her receiving an elite education in the United States, publicly identifying herself as a Christian, and most noticeably, her high standing and perceived ability in China, convinced the American public that China could be transformed and that the United States had an important role in this transformation.
The last chapter, "Transforming American National Identity," compares and contrasts the three women's experiences, offering a critique on American orientalism and the China mystique. Leong persuasively argues that the China mystique was also self-serving: it pumped new energy into U.S. identity and nationalism with the conviction that positive changes in China, and in other nations for that matter, were dependent upon U.S. intervention and at the same time provided a justification for the United States to shift from a traditional isolationist position to a more international role and, therefore, to a more perceived world power.
Throughout the book, Leong relies heavily...