Locating reproduction: Representations of the Chinese in nineteenth-century American literature

Date of Completion

January 2008


Literature, Modern|American Studies|History, United States|Literature, American|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




From the mid-nineteenth century into the early twentieth century, the United States pursued expansion interests in China while adopting exclusionist politics towards Chinese immigrants. Simultaneously, concerns regarding American women's social and physical reproduction roles developed as middle-class family sizes decreased. Women's emerging identities were informed by their perceptions of the Chinese. This dissertation explores how Americans reconceptualized their national and individual identities in terms of communication exchanges and physical interactions with Chinese populations. ^ Nineteenth-century discussions of Asian immigration and racial tensions centered mostly on issues of labor, economics, and politics, which usually precluded women and children who were warned to avoid Chinese immigrants. Through their writings and activities, however, many American women and children developed their own conceptions of, experiences with, and relations to the Chinese. This dissertation argues that they took possession of reproductive responsibility and transformed it from a liability into a powerful means of increasing their social participation. Chinese immigrants also articulated claims to rights and civic identities in the language of reproduction as Chinese American families and communities expanded. ^ The chapters employ interdisciplinary critical approaches and archival research because Chinese and American women and children often communicated through various media in addition to canonical literature. Chapter One discusses the popularity of collecting chinoiserie and examines the writings of Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Bret Harte who employed the motif of collecting to experiment with potential trajectories for racial and labor anxieties. Chapter Two considers the dialogue between white maternalism and Chinese immigration by studying the significance of the parlor and spatial politics in portraits and women's writings. Chapter Three investigates how American women missionaries in China posited cultural and gender reconceptualizations for Chinese and American audiences through their work as translators, which they presented in Woman's Work for Woman and Heathen Woman's Friend. Chapter Four examines constructions of American and Chinese children in terms of work and play in Children's Work for Children and Children's Missionary Friend. Chapter Five analyzes female abolitionist home missionary fiction and New Woman writings, both of which emphasized women's reproductive authority and advocated the incorporation of the Chinese in America. ^