As David Henry Hwang tells it in his latest award winning play, Yellow Face, Hollywood has for years, up to today, freely portrayed Asians with Caucasian actors abetted by yellow make-up and perhaps artificially slanted eyes with or without buck teeth.
Some of the most accomplished actors and actresses had been cast in Asian roles as if such credits in their repertoire further burnish their credentials. Luminaries that underwent the Heath Ledger/Joker transformation of their days included Loretta Young, Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Linda Hunt and Leonard Nimoy.
The reverse has yet to happen in Hollywood, i.e., using an Asian actor to play a white character, whether in earnest or in caricature. Hwang’s point seems to be that in a Hollywood where all Asians look alike and any white can play the role, getting an Asian to play an Asian character is already a win against industry practice.
The one time I saw a quid pro quo, i.e., Asians portraying Caucasians, was a production of Mozart’s Figaro in Beijing. The Chinese actors and actresses did not disguise their blond wigs and big false noses. They also did not use pasty white make-up. Most productions in China, however, seem to be able find white actors to play white roles.
It used to be, ironically, that in China only the Han Chinese were considered “real” Chinese. All the other ethnic groups were generically lumped as fan, meaning that these people were less cultured perhaps even barbarians. In their own condescending way, the Chinese used to consider all foreigners as barbarians. When Lord McCartney, King George’s emissary, kneel before Emperor Qianlong instead of the customary kowtow, it was considered a magnanimous gesture by Qianlong.
Indeed there was some basis to justify such chauvinism. Throughout the centuries, China has often been invaded by nomadic tribes along its northern border, sometimes even totally occupied by non-Han nationalities. The Yuan dynasty founded by Mongols (13th century AD) and Qing dynasty by Manchus (17th century AD) were two examples in China’s relatively recent history.
Inevitably, the invaders took on Chinese customs, ceremony, beliefs and values. They inter-married with the local population and in a matter of few generations would lose their original ethnic identity and became Chinese.
In the 4th to 6th centuries AD, northern China was dominated by Xianbei people. One tribe even founded the northern Wei dynasty with its seat at Datong and ruled for nearly 200 years. Today there is plenty of physical evidence of their existence but there is nobody known as Xianbei anymore. The Xianbeis along with many other ethnic groups that came to China were assimilated and absorbed.
In addition to marauders that came to plunder, people from Persia, Central Asia, Middle East and beyond came to China to trade. Still others in neighboring countries such Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other parts of Asia came to study. Along with the historic ebb and flow of imperial China’s boundaries with Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and ethnic Miaos and Tibetans, it would be hard to conceive of a Chinese gene pool undisturbed by periodic infusions.
Today’s China has identified 56 separate ethnic groups living inside China with Han Chinese make up nearly 92%. The Beijing government has shed the historical biases and considers all of them equally as Chinese. Some policies are even tilted in favor of non-Han Chinese such as permission to have more than one child and assistance in access to education.
It doesn’t make any sense to me to make a distinction between Hans and other people of China. Unless the ethnic minorities are dressed in their colorful traditional native costumes, it would be a challenge, for the most part, to tell a Han apart from a non Han Chinese. Intuitively I believe there are as much genetic variation among the Hans as there are between the Hans and other ethnic minorities in China.
The Chinese civilization has been a long and enduring one. Its richness attracts many ethnic groups and nationalities. Its cultural values are so strong that China has repeatedly assimilated its invaders and conquerors. I believe this is a hidden strength not widely recognized. Namely, China has been able to continuously renew its vitality by absorbing the inflow of new people and new blood.
In this respect, China and America are very much alike. America has been a land of opportunity that has attracted many from all over the world and thus allows the American society to retain its vigor and continue its spirit of innovation.
Hwang’s play, it seems to me, is another expression celebrating the diversity in America.
Yellow Face is currently being presented by TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center through September 20. See an edited version of this preview in New America Media.