Thomas Nast applies irony and a direct hit at hypocrisy to this 1882 commentary on the eve of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
“Uncivilized” and “barbaric” were leading accusations (two of many) hurled against the Chinese. Always defined and depicted as outsiders, sojourners and others, the Chinese were not accorded the rights of other immigrants and in many locations, especially in the West, were specifically prohibited to integrate or assimilate into normal white American culture. Nast assumes this voice of normal America and suggests, if only they could be like us, behave like us, if the Chinese could only “embrace civilization” the Euro-American brand of civilization, then maybe they could stay in the U.S. Nast throws this brand of tolerated American civilization right in the face of his critics and illustrates the baseless hypocrisy of 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 prize fighting. 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? Is this how the Chinese must behave in order to join the ranks of civilized men? Through this a collection of visual tales, Nast exposes the irony and the hypocrisy of white accusations and demands placed upon the Chinese. Must Chinese emulate Irish behavior to be accepted?
By 1882, Nast grew disgusted with U.S. Senator James G. Blaine – a Republican from Maine who sided against the Chinese 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.