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The Deathly Embrace

Orientalism and Asian American Identity

2000
Author:

Sheng-Mei Ma

The Deathly Embrace

A polemical analysis of the ways Orientalism speaks through the texts of prominent Asian American writers.

Broad in scope, penetrating in insight, Ma’s work exposes the myriad ways in which Orientalism, an integral part of American culture, speaks through the texts of Asian Americans and non–Asian Americans alike. The result is a startling lesson in the construction of cultural identity.

“Ma's book is another subversive step towards liberating our thinking from the ‘deathly embrace’ of American-born and -bred orientalism as it is perpetuated through popular culture and media.” Russell Leong, editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

The Deathly Embrace probes into what makes Asian Americans so uncomfortable about themselves—as they are depicted and fetishized in comicstrips, kung-fu movies, and even by some of their best-known writers. Ma's book is another subversive step towards liberating our thinking from the ‘deathly embrace’ of American-born and -bred orientalism as it is perpetuated through popular culture and media.

Russell Leong, editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

Asian American resistance to Orientalism—the Western tradition dealing with the subject and subjugation of the East—is usually assumed. And yet, as this provocative work demonstrates, in order to refute racist stereotypes they must first be evoked, and in the process the two often become entangled. Sheng-mei Ma shows how the distinguished careers of post-1960s Asian American writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Frank Chin, and David Henry Hwang reveal that while Asian American identity is constructed in reaction to Orientalism, the two cultural forces are not necessarily at odds. The vigor with which these Asian Americans revolt against Orientalism in fact tacitly acknowledges the family lineage of the two.

To identify the multitude of historical forms appropriated by the deathly embrace of Orientalism and Asian American ethnicity, Ma highlights four types of cultural encounters, embodied in four metaphors of physical states: the "clutch of rape" in imperialist adventure narratives of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen in comic strips of Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates and in the Disney film Swiss Family Robinson; the "clash of arms" or martial metaphors in the 1970s and beyond, embodied in Bruce Lee, Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and the video game Mortal Kombat; U.S. multicultural "flaunting" of ethnicity in the work of Amy Tan and in Disney’s Mulan; and global postcolonial "masquerading" of ethnicity in the Anglo-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro.

Broad in scope, penetrating in insight, Ma’s work exposes the myriad ways in which Orientalism, an integral part of American culture, speaks through the texts of Asian Americans and non–Asian Americans alike. The result is a startling lesson in the construction of cultural identity.

The Deathly Embrace

Sheng-mei Ma is associate professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University and the author of Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (1998).

The Deathly Embrace

The Deathly Embrace probes into what makes Asian Americans so uncomfortable about themselves—as they are depicted and fetishized in comicstrips, kung-fu movies, and even by some of their best-known writers. Ma's book is another subversive step towards liberating our thinking from the ‘deathly embrace’ of American-born and -bred orientalism as it is perpetuated through popular culture and media.

Russell Leong, editor, Amerasia Journal, UCLA

A fine starting point for a discussion about Asian stereotypes and the awkward position of contemporary ‘ethnic’ writers, this volume serves both undergraduate and graduate collections in several disciplines.

Choice

An excellent starting point for the critiquing and dismantling of the cultural ‘choke hold’ that Orientalist myths continue to retain in contemporary American representations.

Journal of Asian Studies

A thought-provoking, wide-ranging study of Orientalism in American culture.

Southern Humanities Review

Theoretically informed, politically savvy, and wonderfully readable.

American Literature

A significant contribution to at least three interrelated areas of studies: the Asian American, the literary and the postcolonial/postmodernist. Ma’s book is likely to have a highly significant impact.

Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies

The Deathly Embrace does well to acknowledge the contradictions of a crossover market within mainstream American culture. Ma’s analyses are certainly instructive and will no doubt stimulate lively discussion and controversy.

Pacific Reader

Ma does a thorough job of establishing the tropes of Orientalism, often choosing off-beat examples and providing fresh insights.

College Literature

The Deathly Embrace

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction

PART I Clutch of Rape:Imperialist Adventure Narratives

ONE Imagining the Orient in the Golden Age of Adventure Comics
TWO Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson: Imperialist Ideology in Family Entertainment

PART II Clash of Arms

THREE Martial Metaphors and Asian America
FOUR Vincent Chin and Baseball:Law,Racial Violence,and Masculinity

PART III Multicultural Flaunting of Ethnicity

FIVE The Chinese Siamese Cat: Chinoiserie and Ethnic Stereotypes
SIX “Chinese and Dogs”in The Hundred Secret Senses: The Primitive à la New Age
SEVEN Mulan Disney,It’s Like,Re-Orients: Consuming China and Animating Teen Dreams

PART IV Masquerading of Ethnicity
EIGHT Kazuo Ishiguro’s Persistent Dream for Postethnicity: Performance in Whiteface

Epilogue

Notes
Bibliography and Filmography
Index