Chinese Ethnicity and the American Heroic Artisan in Henry Grimm’s The Chinese Must Go (1879)
Volume 44.1, Spring 2010
This case study of The Chinese Must Go demonstrates that the play draws on the contradictory gendering of both the Chinese immigrants and white labourers, and that the contradiction resulted, not only from the Euro-American anxiety for shifting notions of masculinity, but also from their misapprehension of the Chinese immigrant experience in the U.S. Grimm’s play appears to convey populist antagonism against the Chinese by dramatizing their feminized cultural traits, pidgin English, and feminine jobs. On the other hand, the play also points toward the deteriorating state of white masculine dominance by depicting the Euro-American characters’ fear of Chinese competition instigated by the U.S. capitalists. In effect, due to their contributions–both to China and to the U.S.–the Chinese workers would probably see themselves neither as feminized ‘parasites,’ nor masculine menacing rivals, and they might have considered themselves more an industrious labour force, which made slavery unnecessary. The white characters in Grimm’s play, however, ignore Chinese contributions, and, by associating the Chinese with black slaves, contrast them with the republican paradigm of the ‘Heroic Artisan,’ because of their alleged lack of independence. As such, The Chinese Must Go exhibits the irony of the contemporary American perception of the Chinese, which attacked Chinese culture for its emasculation while assailing the threatening masculinity of Chinese competition, and discloses white misinterpretations of Chinese immigration.
Furthermore, the play suggests the contradictory gendering of white labourers. The inconsistent gendering of the Chinese was brought about not only by white Americans’ misunderstanding of Chinese culture, but also by their tentative definitions of American masculinity in a time of economic decline. In the play, the conflicting gendering of white workers is perceivable in the cross-dressing of the protagonist Frank Blaine, who commits frauds against a capitalist, a pro-Chinese missionary, and several Chinese workers. The staging of Frank’s enjoyment of his disguises as a woman designates his unmanly idle behaviour, and interrogates contemporary indeterminate views of American masculinity pertaining to work ethics, which was gradually shifting away from the Heroic Artisan’s emphasis on self-reliance and hard work. Frank’s violent behaviour toward the Chinese, as illicit as his frauds in feminine disguise, reflects the callous manners of some Americans who eradicated Chinese immigrants in the second half of the nineteenth century. The play thereby discloses an American society in which some white workers degraded themselves, even though Grimm sees the Chinese as partially responsible for the whites’ degradation.