The Mixed Chinese Images as the Oriental Other and the Occidental Savior in John Steinbeck's Novels.
This article is funded by Talent Support Program of Humanities of Beihang University (Funding Number: ZG226S189J) pro-Steinbeck critic, notices the Taoist features of the two Chinese images. According to Lisca, Lee Chong "takes things philosophically" (202), and "Lee is too much of a scholar to be a Chinese servant, and too much the stereotype of a Chinese servant to be the learned man he is" (273). In his John Steinbeck: Nature and Myth, Lisca develops his philosophical evaluation of the two Chinese images by drawing upon the attributes of the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism. Lisca's connection of Steinbeck's Chinese images with Taoism is echoed by both Michael J. Meyer and Robert S. Hughes, Jr. For instance, Meyer argues, "Taoism is shown as valuing pastoral existence and praising primitive but comfortable marginal existence. Lao Tze's personal emphasis on contemplation in search of unity is also evident in Cannery Row through Doc's attempt to understand the beauty and horror of the drowned girl" (60). Hughes contends, "Grocer Lee Chong, having inherited the wisdom of China and the pragmatism of America, puts people before profits and still manages to balance his accounts" (120). Paul Wong, a Chinese-American critic, offers a detailed comparison of Lee Chong and Lee from the perspectives of ethnicity and cross-culture. According to Wong, Lee Chong is "an accommodating small businessman who, nevertheless, knew how to bend but not break in coping with the racial dynamics of early twentieth century Monterey" (87), while Lee is "more . . . folk hero as seen in Chinese culture, and not . . . a stereotype of the Chinese inscrutable sage as one may find in American literature or media" (92).
In contrast to the views of Western critics, the responses of some Chinese critics to Steinbeck's Chinese portrayals are rather rare, and they are either over-praise of the two images, or total repudiation of them, or mere repetition of Lisca's ideas. Dong Hengxun, a leading critic who drastically changed from Marxist-Leninist over-praise of Steinbeck in the era of Mao Zedong to nihilistic total repudiation of the novelist in the post-Mao era of late 1990s, voices a fierce attack on the novelist's representation of Lee in East of Eden:
There is a Chinese servant called Lee. He has received higher education in Berkeley University, yet he is superstitious and smokes opium; he speaks philosophically, yet he is good at sewing and cooking. . . . Here we can see a typical example how Western writers fabricate Oriental stories when they are at the end of their creative tether. (36)
To Dong, the bizarre characteristics of Lee are not true to Chinese people but rather Steinbeck's groundless fabrications. Tao Jie, another leading Chinese critic of American literature, holds a different view. Tao Jie contends that
Steinbeck does not portray the Chinese servant as a negative or bizarre figure. . . . Instead, Steinbeck portrays him as a leading character, who becomes the mentor of the Trask family, not only helping Adam get rid of spiritual troubles but also bearing the responsibility of feeding and educating the two kids. (3)
Unlike Dong Hengxun and Tao Jie, who judge the Chinese images in the two novels of Steinbeck according to their personal likes and dislikes, Fang Jie studies Steinbeck's Chinese images from the perspective of Chinese Taoism, and his comments on Steinbeck's Chinese images echo the arguments of Lisca and Meyer. For instance, Fang Jie argues, "In Cannery Row, Taoism becomes the standard of good and evil choice, and it also becomes the life rules of the Cannery Row dwellers. . . . Although not in the centre of the story, Lee Chong, the owner of a Chinese grocery, is important to the universe of the Cannery Row" (89). Among all the critical comments about the two Chinese images, I think that Richard C. Bedford's idea seems somewhat to the point. Bedford laments that Steinbeck has an apparent "contradiction in motives" in devising Lee, "this Oriental who was to be at once a narrow realistic representative of the stereotype of California Chinese and at the same time a mere literary device by which Steinbeck might expound his broad philosophical views" (13). I partly agree with Bedford's idea and would like to further expound Steinbeck's contradictory motives in representing the two mixed images, which are left unaddressed by Bedford. In portraying the two Chinese characters, Steinbeck was simultaneously influenced by many factors, such as his principles of literary realism, the American Oriental stereotype of Chinese immigrants, Oriental philosophy represented by Taoism and Confucianism, and his own ambition of seeking moral salvation for the morally decaying America. These concurrent factors and philosophies resulted in Steinbeck's complicated and sometimes even bizarre representations of the Chinese images. To put it simply, the two mixed Chinese images resulted from Steinbeck's realistic representation of them as the Oriental Other and his purposeful portrayal of them as Occidental saviors.
American prejudice against the Chinese immigrants began in the 1850s, when a large number of Chinese immigrants arrived in California during the Gold Rush. As Chinese immigrants arrived in America around the mid-nineteenth century, when China was defeated by Western powers during the two Opium Wars, they immediately suffered contempt and humiliation from the white Americans. With the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, violent discrimination against Chinese immigrants reached its peak in America, particularly in California. The work ethic of Chinese immigrants and their willingness to accept low-paying jobs were seen by white American workers as a potential threat. Their physical differences and exotic attires further incited ridicule and attacks by white Americans. In the media dominated by white Americans, the Chinese were portrayed as aliens who had odd appearances, made grotesque noises, followed an evil religion, and had magic powers. In the Oriental gaze of the nineteenth-century white Americans, the "Chinese, of course, were by far the most foreign and outlandish. They ran laundries . . . they had no families or children . . . they worked incessantly night and day, Saturdays and Sundays, all of which stamped them as the most alien heathen" (Lawson 43). They were also portrayed as evil and cunning. Generally speaking, the Chinese images in this period can be categorized into six types: the pollutant, the coolie worker, the deviant, the yellow peril, the model minority, and the gook (Lee 8), and each of these images generated anti-Chinese sentiments. These inferior and humiliated images of the Chinese immigrants were evident throughout American literature. Bret Harte, Jack London, Robert Chambers, and other well-known American writers represented the Chinese immigrants as mysterious, exotic, and feminine. The white Americans' prejudices against the Chinese immigrants were something like Orientalism, that is, a discourse "by which European culture was able to manage--and even produce-the Orient" (Said 3). Therefore, in explaining how the white Americans discriminated against the Chinese immigrants, I will borrow some Saidian terms such as "Other," "stereotype" and "Oriental". In response to these Oriental representations, Maxine Hong Kingston, an Asian American writer, voices her bitter resentment:
To say we are inscrutable, mysterious, exotic denies us our common humanness, because it says that we are so different from a regular human being that we are by our nature intrinsically unknowable. Thus, the stereotype aggressively defends ignorance. Nor do we want to be called not inscrutable, exotic, and mysterious . . . . (96)
By the time Steinbeck was writing Cannery Row, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been abolished. However, prejudices against the Chinese immigrants were still deeply rooted in the minds of the white Americans. Any white American writers living through this long period found it hard to escape the influences of racial prejudices if they wanted to write about China and the Chinese immigrants; as Elaine H. Kim puts it, "racist stereotypes have hindered the Western writer in his ability to understand and interpret the Asian" (21). Steinbeck was no exception. As a white American writer born in Salinas, a small town adjacent to the Chinatown of California where the Chinese immigrants gathered, Steinbeck naturally knew and was fascinated by the lifestyles and philosophies of the Chinese people. As James Chase Sanchez says, "Steinbeck may not have had a strong connection to the Chinese in his everyday life, but throughout his lifetime one sees how such a relationship did exist" (43). For instance, in his Journal of a Novel Steinbeck says, "I have known so many of them. Remarkable people the California Chinese . . ." (73). Reading Jay Parini's biography of Steinbeck, Sanchez finds that the novelist harbored a curiosity about China even from childhood and always dreamed of going there someday. From these resources, Sanchez concludes that China always "had a strong, exotic allure" for Steinbeck, and "the future creation of Lee and other Chinese characters could have easily developed from this first dream" (43). From the nameless Chinese cook in The Pasture of Heaven (1932) to the silent Chinese sharecropper in Johnny Bear (1937), from a nameless Chinese labor in The Long Valley (1938) to Lee Chong in Cannery Row and Lee in East of Eden, many of Steinbeck's novels and stories contain Chinese characters.
Familiar with the Chinese immigrants in his hometown, Steinbeck of course knew of their sufferings from the racial prejudices of the white Americans, and he also knew the white Americans' Oriental stereotyping of the Chinese as the Other. Guided by his principles of literary realism, Steinbeck represents the Chinese immigrants' sufferings as they were or as what the white Americans thought they should be. This realistic representation is somewhat in line with Steinbeck's layman philosophy, "is" thinking. This kind of philosophical thinking "concerns itself not primarily with what should be or could be or might be, but rather with what actually 'is', attempting at most to answer the questions what or how, instead of why, a task in itself rigorously difficult" (Ricketts 122).
Lee Chong in Cannery Row and Lee in East of Eden qualify as stereotypical Oriental Others. Firstly, the jobs of Lee Chong and Lee belong to the Other to white Americans. Because of racial discrimination and legal exclusion, Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth-century America were excluded from many decent professions such as government clerks, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and policemen. They were only allowed to perform manual jobs, working as servants, laundrymen, and grocers. As noted by Richard A. Oehling, "among the Chinese, laundry work emerged quickly, as did restaurant service and personal/household services, as 'Asian' occupations" (187). White Americans showed scorn for these jobs, which they saw as more appropriate for people of inferior races. These social prejudices against and the resulting oppression of the Chinese immigrants were also reflected in American media and literature. Throughout nearly all American media and literature of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Chinese immigrants were portrayed as laundry workers, family servants, and manual laborers. Steinbeck's representations of Lee Chong as a grocer and Lee as a servant are not creative coincidences but a realistic reflection of the Oriental stereotyping of the Chinese immigrants. At the very beginning of Cannery Row, Steinbeck tells of Lee Chong's career as an owner of a grocery and his diligence in running this business:
Lee Chong's grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply. It was small and crowded but within its single room a man could find everything he needed or wanted to live and to be happy. . . . The grocery opened at dawn and did not close until the last wandering vagrant dime had been spent or retired for the night. (3)
In East of Eden, Steinbeck portrays Lee as a male servant with no social status. Lee is like a housewife, adept at cooking and nursing the babies. Although he obtained his education at the University of California-Berkeley, Lee still has no chance of finding a decent job at government institutions, banks, hospitals, or colleges, or of becoming a member of upper-class American society. Rather, Lee has to resign himself to becoming a literate servant with no social position. His low status job fits his Chinese identity from the viewpoint of American racism. In the eyes of white Americans at that time, Asian Americans should obey white Americans both politically and economically, and they did not deserve careers that might allow them to be as successful as white Americans. Lee once mentions to Samuel Hamilton his "American dream," which is to open a bookstore in San Francisco and to become a manager if he earns enough money. Lee does disappear from the Trask family for a short time to pursue his dream, and before Lee leaves, Cal expresses his contemptuous surprise at the servant's plan to run a bookstore: "Father said he was going to start a bookstore. That's funny. A Chinese bookstore" (East of Eden 370). Aron predicts that Lee will come back to the family again, and, sure enough, Lee does come back to the Trask family after being away for a mere six days. Lee casually attributes his failure at running a bookstore to his being unable to bear loneliness. But at Adam's cross-examination, Lee says sadly, "I don't want a bookstore, I think I knew it before I got on the train" (371). This story demonstrates the obvious fact that it was difficult, if not impossible, at that time for a Chinese immigrant to open a bookstore. It would be easy for a Chinese man to open a laundry, a restaurant, or a grocery store in San Francisco, but not a bookstore. Lee's failure to become a bookstore manager exemplifies the reality that in a country dominated by racial prejudices, Chinese immigrants were not allowed to achieve their ambitions. If Chinese immigrants were able to achieve their career goals and become an independent part of the American society, they would depart from their traditional stereotyped Oriental images, and that would be unacceptable from the standpoint of American racism.
A second stereotypical depiction of Chinese immigrants in the two novels involves the lifestyles of Lee Chong and Lee. In the eyes of American whites, the Chinese immigrants "became 'a distinct people,' 'inassimilable,' 'keeping to their own customs and laws.'...They were 'clannish,' 'dangerous,' 'criminal,' 'secretive in their actions,' 'debased and servile,' 'deceitful and vicious,' 'inferior from a mental and moral point of view,' 'filthy and loathsome in their habits'" (Schrieke 11-12). These accusations about the Chinese immigrants in nineteenth-century America can be found in Steinbeck's realistic representations, such as his depiction of the Chinese characters' bizarre physiognomy, their cunningness in doing business, and their stubborn adherence to Oriental religions. In Canner y Row, Lee Chong's physiognomy and bodily features look bizarre to white Americans, making him particularly characteristic of the Chinese in their grotesqueness: "Lee was round-faced. . . . His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages. . . . Lee's mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm" (3-4). This grotesque, Oriental appearance resembles that of Charlie Chan, who is portrayed in American films as "the fat, inscrutable, flowery but flub-tongued effeminate little detective" (Chin xvi).
Like Charlie Chan, Lee Chong also has a personality that mixes outward obedience and inward cleverness or perhaps even cunningness. He is consistently courteous and submissive to white Americans, or at least he appears to be so. As the owner of the flophouse where Mack and his gang live, Lee Chong never receives any type of rent payment from them. He is required to lend his truck to Mack's gang, although he is not willing to; he is forced to accept the unfair exchange of the frogs with Mack's gang, although he clearly knows that it will lead to economic losses for him; and he, just like the unknown Chinaman in the novel, seldom speaks unless pressed to do so. However, behind this veneer of submissiveness and silence, Lee Chong seems mystical and even evil to the people of Cannery Row. Mack and his gang are never quite sure of what Lee is thinking, because the grocer never talks about what he thinks to anyone else. Lee Chong "would go secretly to San Francisco and enter a hospital until the trouble blew over. What he did with his money, no one ever knew" (Cannery Row 3). Lee Chong's burial of his grandfather is also bizarre and frightening to the community of Cannery Row:
Lee Chong dug into the grave on China Point and found the yellow bones, the skull with grey ropey hair still sticking to it. And Lee carefully packed the bones, femurs, and tibias really straight, skull in the middle. . . . Then Lee Chong sent his boxes and brittle grandfather over the Western sea to lie at last in ground made holy by his ancestors. (8)
The mystical behaviors and the Oriental style of this burial are in keeping with the stereotyped images of Chinese immigrants in the imaginations of the white Americans.
Lee Chong also seems evil. His evilness particularly lies in his cleverness in doing business. Lee Chong not only runs his grocery incessantly, night and day, to encourage more customers in the Cannery Row community to spend money there, but he also accepts credit. Though this appears to be a kind behavior, it is actually a smart or even treacherous business tactic. By accepting credit, Lee Chong attracts more customers to his grocery, and by simply cutting off the credit, he can endanger the lives of his customers. Because Abbeville incurred an enormous debt to Lee Chong over the years, he is forced to leave his Palace Flophouse to the Chinese grocer and subsequently commits suicide. By providing credit business, Lee Chong essentially becomes the uncrowned "banker" of Cannery Row, tightly controlling the economy of the community. This representation, in itself, clearly depicts a certain kind of "yellow peril."
Compared with Lee Chong in Cannery Row, Lee in East of Eden appears to be more congruous with the main stereotyped Chinese images. Even a random conversation between Samuel Hamilton and his wife Liza betrays the white Americans' Oriental, stereotyped impressions of Chinese images. In this short conversation, Liza mentions Lee's physiological features and outlandish speech manner and thinks them "heathen":
"Samuel, you know that Chinese with his slanty eyes and his outlandish talk and that braid?"
"Lee? Sure I know him."
"Well, wouldn't you say offhand he was a heathen?" (176-77)
True to Liza's first impression, Lee is exactly such an incarnation of the Oriental Other. As a Cantonese who immigrated to America after the 1850s, Lee is called "Chinaman" by Cathy, a "chink" by the nurse, and then "Ching Chong" first by Samuel Hamilton and later by Horace Quinn, the local bailiff. These are all derogatory names given by white Americans and other
Westerners to Chinese immigrants. Although Lee receives his higher education at Berkeley, speaks English very well, believes in Presbyterianism, drinks American beer, finally gives up his Chinese traditional dress for American conservative clothes, and even cuts off his pig-tail queue in response to the queue cutting movement shortly after the Chinese Xinhai Revolution, he remains, after all, a stereotyped "Other" both in appearance and spirit to the white Americans. Lee, in most cases, chooses to speak pidgin English as a means of self-protection, for white Americans did not expect a Chinese man to talk as they did. As Lee himself explains,
I know it's hard to believe, but it has happened so often to me and to my friends that we take it for granted. If I should go up to a lady or a gentleman, for instance, and speak as I am doing now, I wouldn't be understood. . . . Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they'll listen to. But English from me they don't listen to, and so they don't understand it. (142)
Throughout his life, Lee remains a servant in the Trask family. He cooks meals for the family, looks after the sick Adam, and teaches the children. Lee's career as a servant of a white American family reflects the collective racial consciousness of the white Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "As numerous authors proclaimed, Chinese men belonged to a docile and emasculated race, and . . . were ideal for domestic service work" (Urban 6). Lee is also superstitious. With a belief in Chinese demonology, Lee boasts that he has developed the ability "to taste the wind and judge the climate of the house" (East of Eden 166). When Lee sees that Cathy is delivering a baby, he associates her with a demon in fairy tales.
Because of his Oriental features, Lee also suffers overt prejudice in America. For instance, a nurse in the community clearly states that she will not take orders from a Chinese man. Much worse than the overt prejudice, however, is that Lee is stereotyped as feminine. Lee's unmarried status and perceived feminine qualities are the results of America's manifest and latent racial prejudice. From the viewpoint of manifest racial prejudice, the Exclusion Act openly forbade the inter-marriage between white Americans and Chinese immigrants to prevent the growth of the Chinese population in America. From the viewpoint of latent racial prejudice, the white Americans, who believed that they were God's chosen people, would not allow intermarriage, particularly between Chinese men and white American women, as a means of preserving racial dignity and purity. In the atmosphere of manifest and latent racial prejudices, therefore, most male Chinese immigrants stayed bachelors. As a realistic novelist, Steinbeck objectively represents the situation in the novel: "Only males were brought--no females. The country did not want them breeding" (319). The Chinese male immigrants in America, particularly those railway workers and miners, did have strong sexual passions, which are vividly represented in the miners' violent group rape of Lee's mother. This violent sexual power was a potential threat to white American women. In order to deconstruct this potential sexual threat, Chinese male immigrants were deliberately feminized by the American media, particularly those who did the work of family service for white Americans .
R. W. Connell holds that masculinities are closely related to economic and political status. He says, "Workmen's physical strength is their wealth, and that is what they could sell and live on in the labor market" (210). Most of the Chinese male immigrants, however, could only find jobs in the ser vice industry as launderers, cooks, servants, and gardeners. These low-grade jobs were contemptuously called women's work, and this gradually contributed to the perceived womanliness of Chinese male immigrants. The white Americans' feminization of Chinese male immigrants reflected their influence from European Orientalism. In this discourse, Europeans were the dominant, male, and self, while the Orientals were the submissive, female, and Other. As Reina Lewis puts it, "in Orientalism gender occurs only as a metaphor for the negative characterization of the Orientalized Other as 'feminine'" (17). Lee is an apt example of a highly-feminized Chinese male in East of Eden. His femininity is represented not only in his job as a servant but also in his empty personal desires. Compared with white American characters, Lee appears to be indifferent to love, having no aspiration for marriage and family. It would be absurd, from the viewpoint of white Americans, if the womanish Lee were to pursue love and a happy marriage. As Heidi Kim puts it, "Lee's servitude thus, in addition to other stereotypes, immediately entraps him in a feminized or at least very different framed gender role, as well as a foreign one" (65).
If they had just been portrayed as stereotypical Chinese characters, Lee Chong and Lee would have been no different from the other Chinese images prevalent in the American literature of the late nineteenth century, which would have made Steinbeck merely a realistic mirror rather than an original creator. In his portrayal of the Chinese immigrants, however, Steinbeck breaks up the stereotypical images of the submissive Others for the purpose of making them both the incarnations of Oriental philosophy and saviors of the decaying Occidental morality. In the era in which Steinbeck lived, particularly after two world wars and the Great Depression, America went into a paradoxical state of prosperity in modern industrialization and decline in moral culture. As Connie Post observes, the cultural decay Steinbeck experienced was "evident in American life. Conventional religion was breaking down, the Progressive Movement failed to prevent American cities from being transformed into twentieth-century industrial wastelands, and the Eighteenth Amendment, otherwise known as Prohibition, proved to be no solution to America's social ills" (19). In addition to social chaos and upheavals, Steinbeck also suffered from personal sorrows brought on by his divorces from Carol Henning and Gwyndolyn Conger. All of these events exerted critical influences on Steinbeck's philosophical thinking and his literary creation, particularly in the latter half of his life. Richard Astro traced the change of Steinbeck's philosophy, saying that "by 1945,
Steinbeck's world had changed perceptibly. And what he saw in post-war America strongly mitigated against his lofty philosophical idealism" (27). While questioning and attacking the material self-interest that led to great social chaos, Steinbeck, like Prometheus, was looking for moral or ethical salvation for the American society. As Robert Bennett aptly remarks, "every generation has its own Prometheus." This Prometheus was not "merely a classic myth" but a "great man who saw the need" of human beings and brought salvation to men "in spite of all the gods of Olympus, especially Zeus." Steinbeck was such "a hero as Prometheus" (1-2).
What is the "fire" that Steinbeck brought to the suffering Occidental world? Scholars have different interpretations of it. Bennett himself attributes it to "'Partial Immortality of the Mind' which throws out the idea of a soul and yet answers the question of spiritualism and religion" (4). Luchen Li, in exploring Steinbeck's moral philosophy that is of redemptive importance to the morally decaying America, defines it as
blending traditional religious precepts with Eastern philosophy, pagan myth and his own holistic worldview. To some degree, Steinbeck's fictive religion--Jim Casey's Emersonian Christianity, Mack and the boys' spiritual pragmatism--are the means by which human beings may redeem corrupted institutions. (Introduction xii)
I think these moral teachings of Steinbeck, particularly his blending of Western traditional religion with Eastern philosophy, are the "Promethean fire" that Steinbeck brought to America, and they also corresponded to the trend of a "culture turn" that occurred in the Western world after the First World War. Following the end of the war and particularly after the economic crisis of 1929, quite a few Western scholars and writers, such as Oswald Spengler, Hermann Hesse, Ezra Pound and Eugene O'Neill, bewailed the decline of Western culture and advocated for Western people to turn to Oriental culture, particularly ancient Chinese philosophy, for salvation. Spengler thought that history was composed of civilizations and high cultures, each of which went through "cycles of rise, maturity, and decline"; for him, the twentienth century was the time for the Western, or European-American, world to "slip into decline," or to be in its "twilight or sunset period" (Emmott 9). Eugene O'Neill was so fascinated with Tao Te Ching, which expresses the desire for free life and explores deep thought for human values, that he ultimately turned completely to Taoism, even building a house that imitated ancient Chinese architecture in a quiet valley and naming it "Tao" House (Frenz 362). Pound, on the other hand, was fascinated by Confucianism, thinking that it "offers a solution to the West that, from its political institutions to its economic system, has fallen into chaos and disorder" (qtd. in Zhu 57). Pound loved Confucianism so much that he even wrote a poem dedicated to the Oriental sage Confucius. Steinbeck was influenced by Spengler's ideas of the Western decline, although he did not follow the lifestyle of Taoism as did O'Neill or express his open reverence for Confucius as did Pound. The lasting influence of Spengler over Steinbeck can be discerned from the novelist's letter to his third wife Elaine Steinbeck on 30 September 1960: "the whole world is changing day by day. It is changing just as Spengler said it would in the Decline of the West" (qtd. in DeMott 115). As a result of disappointment in the twilight Western culture, Steinbeck turned to ancient Chinese philosophy represented by Lao Tze and Confucius for his moral salvation. To Steinbeck, Lao Tze had equal standing with Plato, Jesus Christ, and Buddha (Journal of a Novel 115). John J. Han mentions that together with Taoism and Buddhism, Confucianism is also an important philosophic influence over Steinbeck (98).
Taoism and Confucianism provide Steinbeck with an imaginative response to the declining American society that was triggered by economic crisis and world wars. Steinbeck purposefully draws on tenets of Lao Tze and Confucius in portraying his characters so that they function as the incarnates of Oriental salvation.
Twilight, in fact, is Steinbeck's chief symbol in Cannery Row. In To a God Unknown, he identifies it with Western culture. . . . However, in Cannery Row, he also refers to morning twilight, which more strongly suggests that Steinbeck's works are about the establishment of a new social order as well as the end of an old one. (Post 111)
Cannery Row, which is set on the edge of Monterey, the previously thriving capital of California and the mecca of the California coastline, "has faded into the darkness of the historical past" and is now "representative of Spengler's view of Western culture in The Decline of the West" (Post 122). In such an economic and moral wasteland, Mack's white gang, Dora's girls in the Bear Flag, together with the other inhabitants of the community, endeavor to construct a pastoral society of happiness and harmony under the spiritual guidance of Lee Chong and Doc, a Chinese grocer and an American marine biologist. Lee Chong's function as the embodiment of Taoism and American commercialism in the community can be immediately seen in Steinbeck's comment of him through the mouth of an intrusive narrator: "Perhaps he is evil balanced and held suspended by good--an Asiatic planet held to its orbit by the pull of Lao Tze and held away from Lao Tze by the centrifugality of abacus and cash register--Lee Chong suspended, spinning, whirling among groceries and ghosts" (Cannery Row 8). Lee Chong is proficient in Taoism, which is further embodied in his paradoxical nature of good and evil and in his way of dealing with American people, particularly those superior to him. In a community dominated by white Americans, Lee Chong cannot openly refuse any demands from Mack and the rest of his white gang, whether that means renting the Palace Flophouse for nothing or lending his truck. What he can do is outwit them or adopt a way of overcoming their strength with weak force. According to Lao Tze, "In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it. . . . [The] weak overcomes the strong, and the submissive overcomes the hard" (85). Therefore, even Lee Chong's Oriental submissiveness indicates Taoist strength. By following Taoism, Lee Chong successfully changes his commercial failure into business success. Although receiving no rent from the white gang, Lee Chong knows that his new tenants will guard his property from being robbed by other white Americans and that they will become regular customers exclusively in his grocery store. On the surface, Lee Chong is a submissive weakling, but in reality, he is a Taoist superior.
Although a mere grocer in Cannery Row, Lee Chong functions as a material supporter and a spiritual leader in this community, a microcosm of post-war America. Lee Chong not only comprehends the essence of Taoism, but he also knows American commercial practices very well. More importantly, Lee Chong balances between Oriental Taoism and Occidental capitalism. Lee Chong earns his dollars in a seemingly altruistic way--for instance, by accepting credit and never greedily or forcefully pressing his debtors before they are willing to pay off their debts. His fortune is more in unpaid bills than in concrete dollars. This kind of business is perhaps more good than evil; therefore, it is generally welcomed by the Cannery Row community, and it makes everyone happy--with the exception of Abbeville's family, who become too much involved in their debts to Lee Chong and ultimately experience tragedy. Further, as his grocery store is connected with nearly everyone's life in the community, Lee Chong makes Taoism a widely-accepted principle. Doc, the marine biologist and the other spiritual leader of the community, lives harmoniously with other ordinary inhabitants, including whores and bums:
Without stirring abroad One can know the whole world Without looking out of the window One can see the way of heaven The further one goes The less one knows.(Lao Tzu 108)
Lao Tze's emphasis on contemplation in search of unity is also evident in Cannery Row through Doc's attempt to understand the beauty and horror of a drowned girl. Mack's gang and Dora's girls also follow the principles of Taoism. Though they have no money and no family, Mack and his gang are still content with their lives, not ensnared by the self-centered and profit-making principle of capitalism. Their greatest ambition beyond food, drink, and sex is to hold a party for Doc. In the minds of most people, prostitutes are not admirable. In the eyes of the local people, however, Dora and the girls of the Bear Flag are better-educated, abide by laws, and donate money to charities. Guided by Lee Chong's Taoism, the evils of Western capitalism in Cannery Row are mitigated. Therefore, Cannery Row becomes a pastoral setting in which there is no greed, egotism, or violent class conflict, and nearly everyone is content with this simple and non-materialistic lifestyle.
East of Eden can creditably be ranked as one of Steinbeck's big epics. Steinbeck told his publisher-editor Pat Covici, "It must contain all in the world I know and it must have everything in it of which I am capable" (Journal of a Novel 9). There are two significant themes running throughout the novel. First, by telling the story of three generations of two American families, the novel explores the perpetual contest of good versus evil in Western culture and reveals that timshel, or "free choice," is the only key to solve the curse of the Cain-Abel damnation that has haunted Western society for thousands of years. Second, by focusing on the dynamics of the Trask family under the guidance of Hamilton and Lee, the novel expresses that the decline of Western culture can only be halted through the combination of Occidental Christianity and Oriental philosophy, particularly Confucianism. In expressing these big themes, Steinbeck purposefully makes Lee, the once-stereotyped Oriental servant, the incarnation of Oriental Confucianism. Steinbeck again wrote to his publisher, "Now you are going to like Lee. He is a philosopher. And also he is a kind and thoughtful man. And beyond all this he is going to go in the book because I need him. The book needs his eye and his criticism" (73).
As in Cannery Row, the story setting in East of Eden is also twilight and dark, topographically represented by the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west and spiritually symbolized by the evil and weakness of the Trask family. In such an evil and morbid family, Lee serves firstly as a servant and gradually as a spiritual savior in the true sense. Though discriminated against by white Americans, Lee himself regards servitude as a unique position:
It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love. . . . But a good servant, I am an excellent one, can completely control his master, tell him what to think, how to act . . .or distribute happiness to him, and finally be mentioned in his will.(144-45)
True to his word, Lee becomes, in essence, the center of the Trask family. When Adam languishes in his depression after Cathy's departure, it is Lee who runs the household and raises the young twin sons. To the physically and spiritually withering Adam, Lee acts as a philosophical tutor and a spiritual confidant, caring for his white master physically and engaging in long philosophical discussions with him. With Lee's care, Adam gradually recovers both physically and spiritually. To the young twin sons, Lee functions as a surrogate mother and is caring, considerate, and loving. He not only cooks and bathes them but also tells them Chinese stories and dresses them in Chinese-style garments, exerting his Oriental influence on the Occidental boys. The fact that an Oriental servant helps a morbid Occidental family survive, of course, has symbolic significance, showing that the declining Occidental culture needs the salvation offered by Oriental wisdom. Lee's role as a philosophical guider and material provider can even be understood by Hamilton, who says to Adam, "Adam, I wonder whether you know what you have in Lee. A philosopher who can cook, or a cook who can think? He has taught me a great deal. You must have learned from him, Adam" (266).
Lee's function, however, is more profoundly represented in his revealing the road to salvation to the Trask family and to the wider Occidental world. In the process of naming Adam's young twins, Lee and Hamilton discuss the biblical story of Cain and Abel, pondering the significance of the story. Lee says that the Cain-Abel story is "everybody's story" and the "symbol story of the human soul" (240). Lee's comment on the meaning of the Cain-Abel story, in my view, is based on Confucianism: "Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives" (270). In order to make men behave well, Confucius and his followers lists five important family relationships, one of which is fraternal piety, namely, the relationship between elder brother and younger brother. For instance, in his Lun Yu (Analects), Confucius says "fraternal submission," like filial piety, is the root of all benevolence (2). Mencius, Confucius's immediate follower, also says that "the richest fruit of righteousness is this--the obeying of one's elder brothers" (xxvii). By making younger brothers submissive, Confucius and Mencius establish a family order free from fraternal rivalry, which is eventually good to the social stability of a country. Being familiar with the fratricidal phenomenon of both the Chinese and the Western cultures, therefore, Lee has a better understanding of the nature of the Cain-Abel story than does Hamilton. What puzzles the Occidental mind, however, is the different translations of timshel, namely, God's word to Cain. The King James Bible translates the Hebrew word as "Thou shalt rule over it," while the American Standard Bible translates it as "Do thou rule over it." The two translations of the timshel, according to Lee, have different meanings, with the former indicating God's prophecy for man while the latter God's order to man. According Luchen Li, a Chinese-American Steinbeck scholar, however, "neither 'Thou shalt' nor 'Do thou' has given human beings the encouragement to explore their souls and their guilt in order to make their own choices for better or for worse" ("John Steinbeck's Philosophy" 7). That is why the Occidental world, generation after generation, suffers from violent conflicts caused by the Cain-Abel damnation and has no hope of salvation.
In real life, Steinbeck and his friend Covici, after exhaustive research, finally discovered that timshel means "Thou mayest," which offers man a free will to change his destiny. Even when expelling Cain, God bestows him with the right of free choice. Therefore, the fall and salvation of human beings depend on their own free choice and is not predestined or ordered by God. If human beings choose good instead of evil, they are sure to escape from the Cain-Abel damnation. I think that this is what Steinbeck, the modern Prometheus, found--the solution to the curse that haunted the Occidental mind for thousands of years. Steinbeck arranged for Lee, together with some Chinese Confucian elders, to decipher the meaning of the biblical timshel. When Lee cannot exactly decipher the meaning of the biblical timshel, however, he goes to San Francisco, because in his large family "there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars" (268). This arrangement is symbolic and stereotyped, as is illustrated by Sanchez: "Even in popular fiction and pop culture today, the image of an elder Chinese man, sitting with his legs crossed rubbing his long white beard, is a universal symbol of ancient knowledge" (46). That Lee and the Chinese elders, who know both Chinese Confucianism and the Occidental Bible, find the true meaning of timshel symbolizes that only the combination of Occidental Christianity and Oriental philosophy can save Occidental society from decay and free it from the torment of the Cain-Abel curse.
The dual images of Chinese as Oriental Other and Occidental Savior reflect Steinbeck's complicated and even contradictory motives of literary creation, though he did not realize this contradiction. As Richard C. Bedford says,
Apparently Steinbeck did not himself realize the extent of the contradiction in motives promoting his creation of the Oriental who was to be at once a narrow realistic representative of the stereotype of Californian Chinese and at the same time a mere literary device by which Steinbeck might expound his broad philosophical views. (13)
As a result of Steinbeck's realistic representation of the stereotyped Chinese and his purposeful endowing them with Oriental philosophy as a salvation for the Occidental world, the two Chinese images, especially Lee in East of Eden, appear bizarre to both Chinese and foreign critics. It was no wonder that, when East of Eden was adapted into a film in 1955 by Elia Kazan, the image of Lee and his story lines were all removed. In spite of this, I still argue that these two Chinese images, though problematic to some extent, serve to reveal the American racial prejudice, the status of Chinese Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Steinbeck's own attitude towards the Oriental and Occidental cultures.
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|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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