“Difficult Problems Solving Themselves” 1879

Modern sensibilities and commentary have at times criticized Nast’s “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” representation as an example of Chinese stereotype.  Certainly, Nast could have varied facial expressions and dress. Many Chinese in America had assimilated, particularly in New York City and other East Coast port cities. In repeating his imagery, one might argue that Nast helped to perpetuate and anchor the stereotype which stressed their exotic dress and long hair.  For Nast, it was likely a combination of artful economy and providing a recognizable figure for general public identification.

Difficult Problems Solving Themselves shows the balance of Nast’s work and his intention to portray the Chinese in a fair, if not superior light. Here, John Chinaman is leaning against a directional signpost pointing eastward. He is literate. He is reading, in English, the San Francisco Hoodlum’s headline cries to “Go East Young MAN.” He is juxtaposed against another victim of racial discrimination, “A. Freedman” an African American forced or bull-dozed to move westward. Alongside the African American is a mother covered in a shawl and holding a young infant. Alongside of her, is a young boy. The woman and two children appear to be white. The older child appears to wear a tunic instead of a western-style shirt and pants. On his head is a white kufi, a traditional Islamic head covering for males.

The signpost divides the scene and the two travel paths dominate the cartoon. Unlike a regular signpost buried in the ground, this post emerges from roots. The division is firmly planted in the American soil. The signpost occupies the middle ground and blocks compromise. The post is is deeply rooted, like a tree.

In splitting the image the signpost depicts a nation with strong social and political ideologies. The Chinese man’s queue runs parallel to the embedded signpost, and is nearly as long, suggesting a cultural devotion to the queue, but Nast acknowledges the hairstyle’s divisive role in separating Chinese from American. Both African American and Chinese travel toward a region of promise, but the stark reality, is that each is merely switching locations with the other. While buildings in the background offer a “welcome” it is unlikely that a region purging one non-white race will likely accept another.

This image could be indicative of a pattern where Nast places his signature in a cartoon and what that placement might suggest. Instead of signing in ample blanks spaces to the left or to the right, Nast signs his work vertically up the signpost. It is the most neutral location and likely purposeful. See ““The Nigger Must Go” and “The Chinese Must Go”

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