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This digital humanities project examines Chinese Americans as depicted by Thomas Nast, the lead illustrator and cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly in the second half of the nineteenth century. Regarding American immigrants, few historians have discussed Nast’s cartoon treatment of Chinese, preferring to cast their attention on Nast’s depictions of American Irish Catholics. The paths of the Irish and Chinese immigrants in America often intersected and Nast paid attention to the conflicts created within their communities. This website examines Nast’s different treatments of immigrants and minority groups, but with a particular focus on the Chinese.
Illustrating Chinese Exclusion will present research and analysis on the lesser known cartoons of Chinese immigrants in America drawn by Thomas Nast (1840-1902) and published by Harper’s Weekly. In addition, this examination will address Nast’s treatment of Irish Americans in cartoons, a population whom Nast identified as the lead oppressors against the Chinese in America.
Limited options exist on the Internet that provide the public with historical-based analysis of Thomas Nast’s cartoons. A full scan of every issue of Harper’s Weekly issue is available through academic libraries. However this database does not provide analysis or commentary of Harper’s Weekly content. That is left for the reader to determine. A commercial version of HarpWeek is available, which contain a selection of Nast cartoons. These images are accompanied by well-written historical overviews by Dr. Robert C. Kennedy. Other collections of Nast’s cartoons exist, most notably Ohio State University, but most lack focus on Nast’s Chinese American cartoons or the Chinese relationship with Irish Americans.
That is not to say these cartoons have been ignored on the Internet. Quite the contrary, there is an abundance of public commentary about Nast’s cartoons, plucked from their historical context and presented as evidence of Nast’s strong bias against Irish Americans in particular, and inconsistent attitudes toward other minority groups in general. This website offers insight into the historical context of these images and tools for visitors to see beyond what is alleged to be Nast’s obvious racism.
Ansel Adams observed, “A photograph is often looked at, seldom looked into.” This project will look into the images that Nast constructed of Chinese and Irish immigrants and compare these with his visual treatment of other minorities in America. Historians largely agree that Nast was sympathetic to the Chinese. I will examine this assumption and compare his work to that of George Frederick Keller who drew anti-Chinese cartoons for The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp, an illustrated weekly magazine of “commentary and satire” often aimed toward the Chinese (West). This project explores the many inconsistencies in Nast’s treatment of immigrants and minorities. In some cases I will defend him, in other instances, critically challenge his position. In all cases I will strive for a balanced analysis.
While photographs were accessible to many in the mid-nineteenth century, technological limitations greatly limited illustrations in daily newspapers. In a weekly news magazine however, current news could be delivered with images – the week between publishing dates allowed photographs to be converted to steel plates for engraving (West). At Harper’s Weekly, cartoons, including Nast’s, were drawn directly on woodblock (usually boxwood), or transferred from paper to woodblock to be carved by engravers and set within type on a printing press. Watch a MOMA expert describe woodcut engraving. * See end note.
Harper’s Weekly and another periodical, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, (or Harper’s Monthly) were part of a much larger publishing empire known as Harper and Brothers. The firm was owned and managed by four Harper brothers, James, John, Joseph Wesley and Fletcher, the latter being the general managing editor of Harper’s Weekly. As a publishing entity, the family empire “published books from American and European authors on a regular basis”(Halloran21) as well as school textbooks. Harper and Brothers enjoyed a national reach and the highest influence among New York City’s publishers.
Among that city’s leading weekly periodicals, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News and The New York Illustrated News, Harper’s Weekly soon took the lead in feeding an “increasing appetite of Americans for news, entertainment, and literature” (Halloran 21). Harper’s Weekly tagline was “The Journal of Civilization” and its breadth of topics included local and national news, editorials, book excerpts, and depictions of Civil War battles, arrivals of immigrants, politics, religion, biographies, political opinion, travel arts and culture both foreign and domestic.
Thomas Nast drew for Harper’s Weekly from 1857 to 1887. When he died in 1902, New York Times eulogized him as the “Father of American Political Cartoon,” an honorific bestowed in no small part for Nast’s scathing political caricatures of William M. Tweed who ran New York City’s Democratic political machine at Tammany Hall. Nast is widely credited for exposing Tweed’s corruption and it is this series of cartoons that comprise the vast majority of Nast scholarship. It is from this scandal-ridden time period that journalism historian Thomas Leonard described as launching an era of “visual thinking.” Beyond the printed word, readers could see facts or suggested truths, and form opinions.
As a freshman illustrator, Nast covered harbor arrivals and fires in New York City. Assigned to cover the Civil War, Nast’s art matured and his popularity grew. He passionately advocated for abolition, emancipation of African Americans, and was a stalwart defender of Abraham Lincoln’s Radical Republican policies. During the mid-1860s Nast’s illustrations were allegorical and lushly sentimental. After the Civil War, Nast ventured into political caricature focused on the failed Reconstruction policies of Andrew Johnson, and in this genre of caricature Nast found his true calling. Henceforth, he rarely took his eye off of local and national politics – lampooning and exposing hypocrisy, corruption or fraud from anyone whom he viewed as antithetical of progressive Republicanism. His caricatures of Tweed, Irish Americans, and the Catholic Church were brutal, but brilliantly executed, and are the most studied and well known of Thomas Nast’s art.
During the Tweed era, Nast began his first of 46 cartoons depicting early Chinese immigrants, Chinese Americans and or China-U.S. subjects or themes. It is unknown if Nast ever met or associated with a Chinese person in New York – reportedly only 200 Chinese were in New York in 1870 - or how he personally felt about them. Historian John Kuo Wei Tchen speculates that “Nast’s exposure to living and breathing Chinese and other racial groups was probably quite limited” (211). His drawings of the Chinese, however, philosophically align with Harper’s Weekly editorial position of inclusion and tolerance. Viewers of these Chinese cartoons perceive them differently. At times, Nast drew the Chinese with dignity and respect, and at other times, exaggerated their physical differences and perpetuated the racial stereotype. What were Nast’s reasons for doing so? A distinction might be suggested between being pro-Chinese or taking a position against those who adopted anti-Chinese politics. The question must be asked if Nast was more passionate against those who attacked the Chinese, e.g., the Irish, than he was for arguing on behalf of the Chinese in America. Given his philosophy, many of Nast’s artistic choices are confusing, particularly if they are viewed out of historical context or in comparison to his other work. One can argue that Nast could have been a stronger advocate, but that he spoke out at all on behalf of the Chinese is deserving of credit and admiration.
Nast’s Chinese cartoons are only briefly referenced by scholars (Keller, Adler, Halloran) and as a whole are acknowledged as pro-Chinese. Even historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, in hia critical look at some of Nast’s cartoons, cedes Nast’s sympathetic renderings. However, Tchen points out some grave inconsistencies and instances where Nast relied on negative stereotypes. I will provide an in-depth look into the components – the visual choices – that Nast included in his drawings and expand further on the questions Tchen raises.
Nast loaded his cartoons with visual clues; contemporary news makers, literary figures, symbolism, and quite often, compelling narrative in the form of posters or placards framing his main subject. To properly analyze a completed Nast cartoon, one must peel back the many layers Nast purposefully included. They are clues that are often overlooked. As mentioned before, a very small number of Chinese Americans lived in New York City, yet Nast was paying attention to them. Why?
Chinese Americans had come to the Pacific coast of the U.S. in response to the Gold Rush of 1848. “Nearly all the immigrants who came to America were from the province of Canton.” The promise of riches propelled the Chinese to leave grim conditions in China that were both natural and man-made (Sorti 3). Like other immigrants, they came to America for a better life or the promise of economic opportunities.
Resistance to the Chinese presence in America was immediate, initiating a string of local laws aimed to de-legitimize them and undermine any success they might develop in America. Despite these hurdles and acts of violence to drive the Chinese out of western communities, the Chinese continued to arrive in America, encouraged by employment opportunities in agriculture and railroad construction, and fleeing from poor economic conditions in their homeland. Lenore Metrick-Chen has described the conditions in China at the time as “dire” resulting from famine and poverty and decades of war with the West – and in particular the Opium War with Great Britain (6).
Demonizing the Chinese through visual art became an effective means of setting them apart from other immigrant groups, effectively defining the Chinese as alien, transient sojourners or as “others.” The campaign to officially exclude the Chinese as a race accelerated in the 1870s when an economic recession in the United States further heightened labor competition, culminating in acts of violence by white laborers in western states demanding that “The Chinese Must Go.” Cartoons helped make the argument to deny naturalization of the Chinese. A battery of specialized laws targeting Chinese immigrants quickly evolved into a national debate and in 1882, passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only U.S. immigration law in existence that banned a race of people from coming to America.
To illustrate an example of this anti-Chinese sentiment, this project will look at the work of George Frederick Keller, who drew for the San Francisco Illustrated Wasp during the height of the West Coast driven anti-Chinese movement.
Thomas Nast turned his attention toward the “The Chinese Question,” both as a cartoon title and for the common title of a much larger national discussion, particularly when he could link local anti-Chinese sentiment to Tweed and the Irish and their identity as Democrats. In 1884, two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, Nast took a very unusual step in condemning the Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine for betraying Republican values and endorsing the anti-Chinese legislation. Nast reprised earlier attacks on Blaine, reminding the public of Blaine’s hypocrisy. Blaine appealed to Nast and his editor, George Curtis to cease producing the cartoons. Nast’s pen would not be silenced and his cartoons played a role in Blaine’s unsuccessful presidential bid. However, Nast’s excoriation of Blaine significantly contributed to the beginning of the end of Nast’s favor with his Republican base and his career at Harper’s Weekly.
By 1892, 110,000 Chinese were in United States (Pfaelzer). This project examines attitudes on immigration, racial politics, and a larger discussion of “belonging” among America’s newest residents and their inclusion in the national narrative. In addition, this project examines other immigrant/minorities depicted in popular media and attitudes on race and ethnicity – African American, Native American, Irish and Chinese –were in conflict and whether the use of symbols and stereotypes can be justified within the genre of cartoon satire and how these cartoons may have propelled audiences to accept these stereotypes. This site will examine how the limitation of technology influenced the repetition of stereotypes. Nast’s images are often examined out of their historical context, and through a modern prism of political correctness and growing intolerance of stereotype. The interpretations of these images have changed as our collective tolerance and political correctness has evolved. What, if any, difference should that make as we weigh these images.
* I recommend clicking on the top right option to view the whole video. Don’t let the 8 hours scare you. Advance to the 17:00 minute mark to hear an excellent explanation of how Nast’s cartoons were carved. (A Nast engraving of the Tammany tiger is shown on the wall).