Category Archives: John Chinaman/Confucius

“Civilization of Blaine” 1879

The Civilization of Blaine by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly, 8 March 1879. Source: UDel-Walfred

On March 8, 1979, Nast placed James G.Blaine front and center Harper’s cover with The Civilization of Blaine.  A distinguished Blaine is seen at ground level receiving the attention of a subordinate, subservient African American. The black man’s posture is weak. Attired in country clothes, he crouches and cowers with a defensive grin on his face. He has the demeanor of a beaten dog approaching his master. He does not look the white politician in the eye. In his right hand, he clutches “A Vote” and offers this almost obediently to Blaine.

And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper's Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress
And not this man? Columbia argues for Civil Rights for a wounded African American veteran. Harper’s Weekly, August 5, 1859. Library of Congress

His right leg is drawn up, nervously rubbing the front of his right foot against the back of his left trouser, as if to polish it in the presence of greatness. Blaine’s left shoe tramples on the “Burlingame Treaty.”

As with most of Nast’s villains, Blaine’s face is not distorted or caricatured. Nast wanted him recognized and consistently depicted Blaine’s facial features realistically in his cartoons.  Like Tweed, Nast rarely deviated from a famous face once it had been established as a character.  His victim’s bodies, on the other hand, felt the weapon of distortion, but the face never!

In the background and elevated by a storefront step, a Chinese merchant emerges from his store.  Nast assigns dignity to this merchant. Nast introduces him as a Chinese diplomat, often referred to as  “John Confucius” or “John Chinaman” (the terms are interchangeable) in Nast’s cartoons.  It is an important distinction to note, that in Nast’s catalog of images, he pulled from his personal supply of default or stock characters who served a specific purpose.

Some might argue that “John” perpetuates a stereotype. In almost every instance where John appears, he does so in the same manner as Columbia or Uncle Sam, figures in Nast cartoons who represent either a government or national virtues. They are figures, whom by their expression or stance, often provide admonition or displeasure to the scene of injustice they are witnessing.  Nast could and did draw Chinese in any number of ways, and some of these are not flattering.  “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” never really changes. His inclusion is purposeful. He is Nast’s relied-upon figure of dignity and outrage toward injustice.

The merchant assumes the elevated position in the drawing.  He is on the right, figuratively and morally. The injustice is on the left. The merchant is not shabbily dressed.  Interestingly, his hair, though long, is not braided into the queue, which factors in most of Nast’s cartoons of the Chinese. It is a subtle change for Nast to utilize. John is wearing a hat, a crown if you will, a piece of clothing that imparts respect, formality, and distinction. This further validates his dual role as a local merchant and as a representative of the Chinese. His people will be affected by adherence to the treaty that Blaine is obligated, as a U.S. Senator, to protect.  John’s arms are slightly outstretched as if encountering a surprise and ready to protest.  At the right of his storefront is a sampling of the wares — the teas, silks, china and carvings that had been for years,  favored art pieces of in Caucasian homes, bought and placed in homes “as signs of American aesthetic acumen and refinement” (Lenore-Chen 2).

Blaine senses the approach of John Confucius and waves him back with an extended left hand.  Blaine’s face is slightly cocked, and his eyes avert to the left as the Chinese merchant approaches from behind. Blaine’s expression is clearly one that intends to discard the Chinese merchant completely, as if to say, “Stay where you are–do not interfere here.” Nast speaks for John Confucius (for his mouth is drawn shut) so the audience can ponder his question placed in the caption, “Am I not a Man and a Brother!”

The cartoon and caption echo an earlier post-Civil War illustration Nast had drawn to advocate on behalf of and provoke emotion for Negro suffrage. Nast’s 1865 illustration “And Not This Man? “shows Columbia resplendent in American symbolism, arguing for the admission of a wounded Negro Union soldier into the American family.

Nast’s experiences and other images he drew on behalf of civil rights had a cumulative and successful effect. “Nast’s sensitivity to the rights of minority Americans would extend to others besides the embattled freedmen” (Keller 107). Nast would never draw African Americans again with the same dignity as this early drawing.  However, by evoking the same sentiment, this time on behalf of the Chinese, Nast might have hoped that his pen would wield influential once more on the national consciousness.

These aspirations were misplaced.  With each election in the 1870’s, the Democratic Party gained inroads and influence, courting the votes and catering to the demands of a growing white, male labor force comprised of first and second- generation immigrants. “The loss of Republican purity was a loss of Republican power” (Keller 281). Politicians and public sentiment were drifting away from Nast. But Nast and Harper’s Weekly would not give up on minorities. “The Chinese and the Indians, in particular, came under his protective wing” (Keller 107).

 

“Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day” 1879

“Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has Its Day” by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly

Nast drew numerous cartoons sympathetic to the Chinese in reaction to unfolding events in California. In Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day, February 8, 1879, Nast drew attention to a disturbing shift in anti-Chinese sentiment, but he does so at the expense of the Negro (Keller 107).

Nast features a male Native American (Red Gentleman) and Chinese (Yellow Gentleman) standing as they consider a wall of seven placards espousing various sources of nativist sentiment. The Native American, driven out of his East Coast home in the early nineteenth century moves westward and encounters a Chinese man somewhere in the middle of the United States. Each is being forced to live in new areas as a result of racial prejudice.  At the stop, he warns the Chinese man that it is now his turn to be uprooted to the East. The caption reads: “Red Gentlemen to Yellow Gentleman. Pale face, ‘fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”

Behind the two men is a classic Nast device of using public declarations – proclamations of prejudice and hate speech plastered on a wall for public viewing. At the top of the wall, a simple illustration shows a feathered man with a tomahawk fleeing westward, barely ahead of a U.S. railroad engine at his heels.

Conversely, in the sketch directly below, a Chinese man flees with such urgency that his queue is propelled airborne at a 45-degree angle. He beats a drum of “cheap labor” as he tries to catch up to an Atlantic-bound steam engine. Six other wall posters pronounce prevailing and growing political sentiment.  The notices call attention to a fear of foreigners and Irish illiteracy. Nast wants his readers to see the variety of vitriol that exists. He sarcastically turns the meaning of the secretive nativist society, ‘Know Nothingism’ as braggarts of ignorance. Those who were once oppressed (Irish) are now the oppressors. Nast tucks his signature right below the bottom right sign. In the history of Know Nothings’ ignorance repeats. Once, the nativist society had proclaimed “Down with the Irish,” and “Down with the Dutch.” The Irish are now just like their Know Nothing oppressors. Only the victims have changed. German demands for a “bier” government round out the cluster of declarations. Most are proudly signed by their purveyors:  “‘Down on the Nigger,”  “K.K.K.”  and “’The Chinese Must Go. Kearney (A real American).” Denis Kearney, Nast’s reminder of the Irish-born instigator who shouted the loudest, and most effectively, that “The Chinese Must Go.”

The largest and most prominent poster in the cartoon addresses the “Chinese Problem” and its solution–highlights of a proposed law prohibiting Chinese immigration to the United States. This would become the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in May 1882.

The two gentlemen read the writing on the wall. The feathered Native American “Red Gentleman” scratches his chin. He’s seen this all before–he has lived it. Driven from his native East Coast lands he has walked the Trail of Tears. A blanket drapes his upper body covering a hump that suggests he carries most of his belongings and is a nomad in his native country. In his hand, he holds a peace pipe which he is ready to extend to the “Yellow Gentleman.” The Chinese man is styled as a diplomat,  the same “John Confucius” character seen in the Civilization of Blaine. His eyes are fixed on the pending legislation that is advertised front and center. His face shows concern and his arms are folded in defiance, enveloping his long queue close to the front of his chest. He is embracing his culture and identity. Hanging low in his left hand is a western-styled pipe (not an opium vessel). Both men are wearing their cultural dress–a dignified, if not a purposeful use of stereotype.

Among the many stereotypes that prevailed about Chinese people, Americans considered Chinese men docile and easily manipulated, thus it was believed, ideal workers for capitalist interests. In this cartoon, Nast creates a different character, a man who does not readily accept his limited options. The Chinese man is thinking and he reflects and weighs his future plans.

Curiously, off to the left and in the background an African American relaxes against a wall on which is scrawled “My day is coming.” The black man is minimized and not part of the larger debate commanding the discussion at hand.  An early champion of abolition and the African American Vote, by 1879 Nast no longer considered the African American an equal partner in the minority rights debate. After winning a hard-fought battle for abolition and civil rights, which included suffrage, Nast is angry by failed Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. Nast believed the African Americans as a group, too easily compromised their gains to southern politicians who did not have their best interest at heart. Nast, therefore, draws the African American kicking back, one leg resting over a knee; head tipped down, with a carefree grin on his face, content to allow the politicians to oppress other minorities. For Nast, this was a breach of integrity and his early progressive Republican values, a disillusion of hope that permeated within the once hopeful Republican Party.  Nast  subsequent drawings of African Americans would never again possess the dignity that embodied his Utopian vision seen in the “Emancipation of Negroes.

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