Return of the "heathen Chinee": stereotypes in Chinese American archaeology.

Author:Fong, Kelly
Position:2C Paper

The following paper is an excerpt from my University of California, Berkeley, Anthropology senior honors thesis on Chinese American historical archaeology and stereotype, that is, pervasive, preconceived, and usually racialized notions regarding a particular group of people. While the full paper goes into more detail regarding stereotype's influential role in archaeology and its alarming consequences, this segment examines and evaluates the field in light of powerful, hegemonic, nineteenth-century stereotypes.

In 1850, a New York public school surveyed its upper-grade students on their knowledge of China. The results proved to be mixed, contradictory, and conflicted; in addition to a girl's statement that "China is known for tea and also for the peculiar caracter [sic] of its inhabitants," numerous responses commented on "the Chinese taste for puppy dogs, cats, rats, or other vermin." (1) Culturally immersed in this line of thought from childhood, anti-Asian sentiment in the realm of children echoed the cries of the adult world. According to Presbyterian missionary Reverend Ira B. Condit:

As an illustration of the feeling toward the Chinaman, the children in one of the primary schools in San Francisco had brought an American flag for their use. When the teacher asked them for some sentiment to inscribe upon it, one little fellow said, "The Chinese must go." (2) With generations raised to believe that this phenomenon was irrefutable truth, the prowess of the "heathen Chinee" stereotype grew stronger, and the image became more vividly defined and pervasive. The representation effectively functioned like folklore--that is, it was passed from generation to generation like a prized family heirloom, something everyone knew and impossible to entirely smother.

Since mainstream American society accepted and, to a certain degree, continues to accept this "heathen Chinee" as factual common sense, this image became the representation of Chinese Americans. This history therefore falls victim to the fate of marginalized (and, in the eyes of hegemonic society, "lesser") populations. Deemed as unimportant compared to the largely white male elite, the documentary record has tended to overlook these people, providing only minimal evidence of their existence in dry governmental documents. Mainstream popular ideas and representations fill the gaps, yielding an overpowering, stereotype-driven fable in history's master narrative. Consequently, history rendered these groups voiceless by a lack of self-representation.

"As one of the few objective sources of data available for reconstructing" the past, archaeologists Marley R. Brown, III and Kathleen Bragdon write, "archaeological remains become very significant." (3) By drawing upon multiple lines of evidence to interpret the past, historical archaeology possesses great potential to overcome historical biases, omissions, and errors. Because all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, impact the archaeological record, archaeology ideally equalizes people in the past. It can become "the unearthing, literally and figuratively, of a history once silent--of individuals, of families, and of businesses that were rarely acknowledged" by written history. (4)

Consequently, archaeology can be, as Asian Americanists Yuko Matsukawa and Josephine Lee, and Asian Americanist/ archaeologist Imogene L. Lim call for, "a revisionist project." (5) Focusing specifically on researching Asian American communities, Matsukawa, Lee, and Lim advocate this kind of project to confront "the conspicuous absence of Asian Americans in 'official' histories and correcting stereotypes, myths, and false assumptions." (6) Archaeology can be used to "supplement and corroborate the documentary record" with material culture, which is "superior to the historian's documents for studying changes in ethnic...

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