Western Views on Asian Women in the 1860s

Western Views on Asian Women in the 1860s

The depiction of Asian women through a Western lens has been from the earliest Western presence in the East. Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to describe a worldview that has been warped to fulfill the needs of scholars, typically European males. These projections on the East have been utilized as objective knowledge through the guise of reasoning and science. While Asian women provide Westerners with the quintessential trope of the East, the Orient in itself has always been sexualized and feminized in contrast to the masculine nature of the West. In “Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest” Anne McClintock divides Western Imperialism in three categories including “The transmission of white, male power through the control of colonized women” (McClintock 3).

Views of Asian women in the 1860s were saturated with the popularity of Social Darwinism. This encouraged colonialism and missionary zeal in liberating inferior races and souls through Western education and religion. Sterling Seagrave, author of “The Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last empress of China”, highlights the bad PR of Empress Dowager Cixi. Despite her pleasant demeanor, her contrived morally degenerate reputation lived on in the West.

W. Somerset Maugham, a British colonial novelist living in Malay and Burma often expressed disdain towards the tragedy of white men falling for “native women” (Prasso 45). Cornelius Gold possibly reflects this tragedy when he references South-East Asian Women on page 31 of his journal on May 5th, 1862:

“Had a dream or  two about one of the Sellim’s three wives. We passed her in the evening going home. I could not see her features but her form was comely and the black wavy hair fell in  a bewitching mass over her shoulders. “We may be plain in the face are unexceptionable behind.”

Although Gold's description of Selim's wife is not as explicit as the Empress Dowager's, it is evident that Gold's disposition towards native women ran parallel with most white men of his day. He quotes a saying from a short mystery story that is not relevant to Asian women, but attributes a woman's worth through her body without even acknowledging her face. Interestingly enough, the women from this short story was French. Because imperial voyeurism was centered around Asian women, European women often appeared as the reverse. “...they do not fulfill the power fantasies of European men. Whether portrayed as paragons of morality or as parasitic and passive actors on the imperial stage, these women are rarely the object of European male desire” (Stoler 54) This racial juxtaposition between women not only typified the stereotype of Asian women further but glossed over the prejudices European women experience through the system of imperial power implemented by white males.

- Angelica -Rose "Gigi" Gonzales

Works Cited 

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient. New York: Public Affairs, 2005. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Seagrave, Sterling, and Peggy Seagrave. Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: U of California, 2002. Print.

Chambers, William, Chamber's Journal, Volume 27. The Story of an Engaged Young Person. High Street Edinburgh:, 1857. Print