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The representation of Chinese people in Australian literature

Dai, Yin (1994) The representation of Chinese people in Australian literature. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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This thesis is concerned with the representation of Chinese people in Australian literature from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present. The range of texts selected for consideration includes many that have long been out of print, and so a major aim of this thesis is to bring these texts into visibility under the single theme of "The Representation of Chinese People in Australian Literature", a topic to which, as far as I know, no full length study has yet been devoted.

Australian literary writings in the period of early colonization share the basic discourses inherited from Europe, creating themes and images of Chinese people according to the European myth of the 'yellow peril ' , which has influenced the perceptions of Chinese people by the 'West' for centuries. Central to this thesis is the argument that in Australian literature, the formation of perceptions and images of Chinese people follows the Western principles of ·the theory of orientalism, as formulated by Edward Said.

The first known significant cultural contact between Australia and China took place when a considerable number of Chinese migrants entered Australia from the time of the 1840's. This contact was immediately interpreted as a cultural invasion by the then dominant literary discourse. It is argued here that the anti-Chinese attitudes which are heavily reflected in early literature and conventionally attributed to Australian racism, are the products of Western cultural hegemony, of which racism is a part. The anti-Chinese notions of early nationalism reflected in literature are also rooted in the discourse that spreads the fear of cultural contamination. Chapter One of the thesis produces a general profile of this situation by presenting relevant readings.

In this situation, themes and images of Chinese invaders are formed to define the nature of Australia's Chinese contact. Images of negative and aggressive Chinese people are created according to the format of the traditional myth of the 'yellow peril', instead of through practical experiences. Chapter Two surveys a range of such images of invaders and draws the conclusion that those images are the products of texualization of orientalist discourse which can create 'truth' by textual accumulation, as in the case of Chinese goldminers.

Chinese people are variously stereotyped by fictional texts. A selection of short stories published in The Bulletin around the turn of the century are brought together in Chapter Three to illustrate the formation of several stereotypes. This part of the thesis argues that various stereotypes of the Chinese can form a system of images which is centred on the vision of ? Chinese disease'. I explain this vision as a symbolic expression of the fear of a threatening and contaminating alien culture. I argue that the themes, images, representations and attitudes generated by this vision are all claiming a single idea which is that Australia is, and should remain. an extension of Europe.

Nevertheless, in the history of Australian literary perceptions of China and its people. alternative perspectives have existed alongside the 'yellow peril myth. By surveying a range of texts collected in Chapter Four, the thesis brings this trend to people's notice. In some early sea romances, bush legends, and adventure stories of pioneering life, certain representations of Chinese people cannot be simply categorized as orientalist products, because these representations in relation to the Chinese reflect the consciousness of an independent Australia, which opposes, to some degree. Western discourses of power and cultural hegemony.

It is noticed in this study that literary writings after the 1920's express stronger interest in. and pay more attention to aspects of Chinese culture, especially when the topic of the Australian nation is addressed. Chapter Five deals with this issue by presenting a collection of novels that narrate relationships between Australia and China in terms of cultural identity. This part of the thesis demonstrates that when Australia is seen as an independent cultural entity, its location in the orientalist world map can be shifted. Such texts exhibit Australia's movement away from the West towards Asia.

Texts presented in the thesis so far indicate a duality in perceptions of China in that it is seen as either the yellow peril' or as a civilized entity associated in a positive way with the idea of an Australian cultural utopia. Chapter Six illustrates this duality by showing how the representation of gender differences can contribute to the construction of opposing images of China. In other words, perceptions of Chinese people can be highly contradictory even within an individual text.

Contemporary texts demonstrate a critical break-through in relation to orientalist discourse. Texts selected for Chapter Seven are presented to show significant elements of change in Australian discourses on China. These texts are considered multiculturalist writings which are recognized by this thesis as providing the basis for reconstructing the Australian legend in such a way that Chinese people are included as an aspect of contemporary Australian social reality.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Longley, Kateryna
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