A general selection of negative signifiers helped project a demonized image of modern China

If we trace the history of the modern China, we can find that a great number of signifiers shared a surprising similarity in the pictures that they projected. In April 1858, the famous cartoon caricature magazine Punch in Britain carried a poem entitled “A Chanson for Canton,” which depicted the image of the Chinese people abroad in modern times:

John Chinaman a rogue is born,

The laws of truth he holds in scorn;

About as great a brute as can Encumber the Earth is John Chinaman,

Sing Yeh, my cruel John Chinaman,

Sing Yeo, my stubborn Chinaman;

Not Cobden himself can take off the ban By humanity laid on John Chinaman.

With their little gig-eyes and their large pig-tails,

And their diet of rats, dogs, slugs, and snails,

All seems to be game in the frying-pan Of that nasty feeder, John Chinaman.

Sing lie-tea, my sly John Chinaman,

No fightee, my coward John Chinaman;

John Bull has a chance - let him, if he can,

Somewhat open the eyes of John Chinaman.1

In this poem, all those terms like “rogue,” “brute,” “liar” and “coward” serve as signifiers, the symbolic metaphors which symbolized the image of China in modern times. In 1893, which marked the centennial anniversary of George Macartney’s visit to China as an envoy of Britain, the British historian Charles H. Pearson made lengthy commentaries on the colored people in his National Life and Character, a Forecast. In particular, he commented on how horrifying the Chinese people were. The Chinese were considered as belonging to an “inferior race” and this

“inferior people” existed in the ancient and mysterious Orient. Phrases like “the most dangerous” and “the most horrible,” as symbols that depicted the image of modern China, became widely popular in the Western world, engendering trepidations over the “Yellow Peril.” Sax Rohmer, by creating the character Dr. Fu Man- chu, a typical example of the “villain Chinaman,” monopolized and dominated the discourse in terms of the communication of the image of China in British’s broadcasting, TV and film sectors. From 1840 to 1905, the Americans viewed the image of China primarily from a negative and derogatory perspective. For more than half a century, China’s debacles in a succession of international conflicts brought China face to face with the worst possible decline and humiliation. The idea of “a decayed, dying and fallen empire stripped of its former glory” became the key symbolic signifier that conveyed what most Americans saw as the image of modern China. The transition between the 19th century and the 20th century coincided with the outrageous surge of the “Yellow Peril” theory across the Western world, and the entire American society generally regarded the Chinese people as an inferior race. Under such circumstances, some flaws inherent in the Chinese life were exaggerated and generalized to signify the flaws inherent in the entire Chinese nation, the entire Chinese tradition and the entire Chinese culture.2

The picture developed by the Western world about modern China seemed to be strewn with a whole range of symbols consisting of negative signifiers reflecting an exceedingly ugly image of China. However, when we start searching, in our own mind, for memories about the image of China in modern times, we find that such negative symbols and signifiers like “decayed,” “backward,” “arrogant and overbearing,” “self-confinement resulting from self-complacency” also exist in our mind, dominating our understanding about China during that historical period. Therefore, such a series of negative signifiers is no longer the deliberate coinages by the Western world itself; rather, they constitute the signs shared by both the Western and Eastern societies, signs that cannot be overlooked when we seek to understand the modern China.

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