“Let the Chinese Embrace Civilization, and They May Stay” 1882

“Let the Chinese Embrace Civilization, and They May Stay” 18 March 1882. Source: UDel-Walfred

Thomas Nast applies irony and a direct hit at hypocrisy to this 1882 commentary drawn on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“Uncivilized” and “barbaric” were leading accusations (two of many)  hurled against the Chinese by American citizens and other immigrant groups in America. Always defined and depicted as outsiders, sojourners and as “others,” the Chinese were not accorded the rights of other immigrants.  In many locations, especially in the West, the Chinese were specifically prohibited to integrate or assimilate into what was viewed as normal white American culture.

Nast assumes this voice of normal America and suggests if only the Chinese could be like us, behave like us–if only they could “embrace civilization”–the Euro-American brand of civilization–then maybe they could remain in the United States. Nast throws this tolerated behavior of American civilization right in the face of his critics and illustrates the baseless hypocrisy of their xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment.

Nast’s use of humor is effective. The center image is a direct hit at the Irish, whose penchant for whiskey was an oft-repeated stereotype. Perhaps, if the Chinese could drink like the Irish, then maybe they could stay.

Or, how about good old fashioned pugilism? For decades, the Irish had earned a reputation for bare-knuckle prizefighting.  White men considered Chinese men docile. As boxers, the Irish had organized violence into a popular entertainment and sport.  Did the public really want to see the Chinese taking up fights?

Cheap, competitive labor kept the Chinese busy and productive. If they raised their rates and joined the labor unions they could join the ranks of civilized men and strike, starve, and loaf about the city streets. Many white working Americans viewed the Chinese as a threat because they worked hard, kept to themselves and aided capitalist interests.

Nast offers an alternative. He invites the reader to consider the reality and dangers of getting what one asks for. Would pro-labor prefer drunk, idle, unproductive Chinese beggars? Will this behavior help the Chinese advance the way the Irish did?  Is this how the Chinese must behave in order to join the ranks of civilized men? Through this collection of visual tales, Nast exposes the irony and the hypocrisy of accusations leveled by white men and the demands they placed upon the Chinese. Are the Irish the standard, the role model for acceptance?

By 1882, Nast grew disgusted with U.S. Senator James G. Blaine Republican from Maine who sided against the Chinese in the debate for Exclusion legislation. The image of a Chinese man as a U.S. Senator, doing nothing but “talk,” “talk,” “talk” is a stab at the hypocrisy and ineffectiveness of public service and the current state of political integrity as Nast saw it.

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