The Reproduction of Dominant Discourses in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter

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First published in 1945 and reissued with a new introduction in 1989, Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter is an autobiographical account of a young girl’s twofold struggle to free herself from the patriarchal binds of her ancestral Chinese culture while claiming her place within Anglo American mainstream society.

Fifth Chinese Daughter’s enduring popularity, most notably among European Americans, rests primarily on its picturesque rendering of ghettoized Chinese immigrant life — “a guided Chinatown tour,” according to Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong — and its valorization of the liberating aspects of Western thought, emphasizing individualism and self-reliance. Wong’s “success story,” then, caters to the tastes of a white readership by perpetuating myths about the “inevitable progress” of the immigrant family and “the Asian model minority.

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Unlike Asian American writers such as John Okada and Louis Chu, Wong’s selfprofessed attempt “to contribute in bringing better understanding of the Chinese people, so that in the Western world they would be recognized for their achievements,” consciously refrains from overtly attacking racism or interrogating the exploitive capitalistic foundations of the United States.

Instead, like Monica Sone in Nisei Daughter (1953), Wong emphasizes the possibility of cross-cultural understanding and gradual assimilation in Fifth Chinese Daughter. The frequently polarised critical reception of Wong’s book since the 1950s provides a telling case study in the changing thrusts of socio-political discourse within the United States. Whereas early reviewers praised Wong’s “notable intelligence” and commended Fifth Chinese Daughter for trying to find a “middle ground” that reconciles “two modes of living,” critics of the late 1960s and 1970s charged her with presenting a distorted, stereotyped view of Chinese American life.

In the early 1980s, the critical pendulum swung once again, as feminists began to exonerate Wong, claiming that her autobiography presented a valuable “document of Asian American social history” which paved the way for more “complex” explorations of “a racial and gendered consciousness. ”

Following the postmodern turn in literary criticism, younger scholars such as Karen Su and Leslie Bow have recently begun to explore the book’s “repressed histories that hreaten to rupture the surface narrative and force the text to reveal its ideological contradictions. ”  Until recently, a discussion of the ideologically constrained U. S. literary market that pressured Asian American authors into reproducing the dominant discourse on Americanization while avoiding open criticism of racial discrimination has been conspicuously absent from most readings of Fifth Chinese Daughter – arguably under the impression of the patronizing praise white reviewers had bestowed upon it during the Cold War period.

As Jinqi Ling has shown, the social and political marginalization of Asian Americans during the 1950s not only denied them aesthetic expression, but also frequently limited them to producing biographical narratives of cultural integration. “Reduced to making sociological documentation of immigrants’ struggles and their children’s accommodation and assimilation,” Ling notes, “Asian American writers found that autobiography was almost the only commercially publishable form available to them.

This meant that those Asian American writers of the late 1940s and early 1950s who felt the need to make their voices heard usually had to do so in relative compliance with the reigning discourse. Hence, it is hardly astonishing that Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter was among the first commercially successful books ever published by a Chinese American. By 1975, over a quarter of a million copies had been sold and Fifth Chinese Daughter was regularly used in American junior high and high school literature classes “as the best example of Chinese American literature.

Equally unremarkable is that the book’s popular success primarily hinged upon its ostensibly conformist message. Aside from explicating the “strange customs and manners” of the “Oriental” in a fashion that abstains from openly challenging white mainstream assumptions, Wong’s autobiography appears to corroborate the popular assimilation myth, according to which “the best of the old world and the new world” can be smoothly aligned to forge a Chinese American composite identity.

Long ignored, however, among appreciative and contemptuous critics alike, are the disparities and contradictions within Fifth Chinese Daughter that subtly ndermine the dominant discourse it assays to replicate. Fifth Chinese Daughter’s decidedly white frame of reference often compels Jade Snow to project her experiences of race and gender discrimination squarely onto her own familial and cultural backgrounds.

When her traditionalist father refuses to pay for her college education on the grounds that she has already “been given an above-average Chinese education for an American-born Chinese girl,” Jade Snow reflects bitterly: “Why should Older Brother be alone in enjoying the major benefits of Daddy’s toil? Perhaps, even being a girl, I don’t want to marry, just to raise sons! …I am a person, besides being a female! Don’t the Chinese admit that women also have feelings and minds”? (109-10) In this scene, notes Wendy Motooka, “Jade Snow specifically associates her gendered oppression with her Chinese heritage. ”

And the “blow for justice,” Leslie Bow concludes, “is struck against a sexist family rather than a racially stratified society. ” 10 Still, this does not mean that Fifth Chinese Daughter is mute concerning the racial, economic, and gender inequities that marked American society throughout the 1950s.

For example, when Jade Snow discusses her plans for career advancement with her (white) boss, he gives “it to her straight: ‘Don’t you know by now that as long as you are a woman you can’t compete for an equal salary in a man’s world? ’” (234) Jade Snow accepts this blunt reply as a “practical lesson in economics,” but it becomes clear that the American gospel of meritocracy is severely curtailed by the same patriarchal logic to which her Chinese-born father subscribes. (234) In fact, as Jade Snow is soon to find out, the American promise of equal opportunity is even further delimited by the continued enforcement of strict racial hierarchies.

Thus, despite being lauded for aiding her country’s war effort on the homefront, the young protagonist is unable to secure a position at the shipyard’s administrative office. Following the Japanese warlords’ surrender aboard the battleship Missouri, any distinction between ‘bad’ and ‘good’ Asian Americans is annulled and Jade Snow once again finds herself unemployable outside of Chinatown. In a similar vein, as Wendy Hesford and Theresa Kulbaga have shown, Wong’s casual depictions of the harsh realities of sweatshop labor offer up images that contradict “the text’s narrative of (im)migrant success” by revealing ”the exclusion and xploitation of Asian laboring bodies. ”

Last but not least, the book’s final scene suggests that the dual pattern of existence pursued by Wong is by no means a harmonious resolution to the struggle for Chinese American self-determination. Rather, it emerges as a site of irresolvable conflicts that dissociate the protagonist from both Chinese and Anglo American cultures. In this sense, Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter may perhaps be more akin to John Okada’s nonconformist No-No Boy than has been commonly recognized.

Although Wong does not reach Okada’s insight that the strict dichotomy between Asian and Anglo American cultures constitutes a mere rhetorical proposition advanced by white America in order to legitimize and justify the continued exclusion of minorities, her final estrangement from both Chinese and American cultures evidently thwarts the dominant discourse at this point. Contrary to popular contention, Wong’s endeavor to achieve duality shows that Chinese American identity cannot be constructed by adding one half Chinese to one half American, as though these two linguistic attributes were fixed, stable, and unified cultural entities.

Unwittingly or not, even Wong’s more florid descriptions of her actual living conditions tend to undercut domineering acculturation myths. For at the same time that Wong consciously adopts predominant ideological propositions (for example, that an end to discrimination and marginalization hinges upon an embrace of white norms and values), she is also compelled to at least touch upon the existing historical contradictions of her time (for example, that even converted Chinese Americans continue to be barred from economic and educational opportunities).

Ideologically, all of these early readings stayed within the old paradigms of an American Orientalist discourse that justified Asian exclusion on the grounds of insurmountable cultural differences. Wong undoubtedly invited Orientalist interpretations of her work by aiming to dispel white “classification of the Chinese as characters of evil or amusement” through her uncritical acceptance of the tenets of rugged individualism and the concept of a “split” Chinese American identity.

As Patricia Lin Blinde notes, Wong’s efforts to assert her identity through the “totalizing” eyes of white America entails an affirmation of her own “place in society as designated by others. ”  More than anything else, it was this internalization of the outside gaze in Wong’s autobiography that outraged oung Asian American critics of 1960s and 1970s. Frank Chin, co-editor of the controversial Aiiieeeee! anthology (1974), leveled the harshest criticism against Fifth Chinese Daughter.

In their polemical preface to the latter compendium of works by Asian Americans, Chin and his collaborators charged that Jade Snow Wong’s “Chinese-according-to-white point of view” perpetuates the “goofy concept of the dual personality” and thus contributes to the feeling of “self-contempt, self-rejection, and disintegration” in the Asian American community.

In the eyes of the editorial collective, Fifth Chinese Daughter continued the tradition of “Chinatown books” by “insiders” such as Leong Gor Yun, Pardee Lowe, and Lin Yutang, who distort and disfigure the Asian American character in their acceptance of white Orientalist notions. Noting that Fifth Chinese Daughter was substantially revised by a “benevolent” white editor, Chin and his associates not only dismiss Wong as a serious author, but, partially due to its anti-Japanese undertones, also assert that it “fits the propaganda-as-autobiography mold perfectly.

In his “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” Chin reflects that “[w]ith Jade Snow Wong and Maxine Hong Kingston, the autobiography completely escaped the real China and Chinese America into pure white fantasy where nothing is Chinese, nothing is real, everything is born of pure imagination. ”

The Aiiieeee! group’s political understanding of what constitutes ‘authentic’ and socially responsible writing by Asian Americans has remained influential to this date. Hong Liu, for example, has recently argued that the rediscovery of Wong’s works threatens to revive some of the very Orientalist notions that Chin and other progressive activists had so successfully combated throughout the 1970s.

Given the current diversification of the Asian American literary scene, however, such fears seem difficult to sustain, none the least because the Aiiieeeee! group’s call for a return to models of ancient Chinese heroism and masculinity has come to be seen as restrictive.  Understandable as it may seem through the prism glass of the 1970s, Chin’s categorical rejection of Wong’s work tends to obscure the incipient historical and ideological struggles that lie at the heart of her autobiography and foreshadow the trajectory of subsequent Chinese American works. For placed within their historical contexts, Motooka underscores, works such as Hisaye Yamamoto’s “Wilshire Bus” (1945) and Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter have much to say about both the limitations and the possibilities of the strategic embrace of subject positions in Asian American literature.

With the rise of feminist scholarship during the late 1970s and early 1980s, criticism of Fifth Chinese Daughter focused on Wong’s depiction of gender relations within the broad realm of race relations. Two major positions emerged: one charging Wong with trivializing racial and gender conflicts by offering a delusive dual identity as the solution, the other claiming that Wong “effectively renders the divided consciousness of dual-heritage.

Thus, while hailing Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) as “a tribute to women who have taken the extra step which enables the placement of the individual beyond the oppression of externally determined definitions,” Patricia Lin Blinde judges that Jade Snow Wong possesses a “view of life as self-determined totalities” so that she “proceeds to live in accordance with the terms which denigrate the female sex. ”

On the other end, accusing Blinde of being biased by “her feminist values of the 1970s,” Kathleen Loh Swee Yin and Kristoffer F. Paulson have asserted that Fifth Chinese Daughter illustrates “Jade Snow’s successful search for balance within the fragmented world of Chinese-American women. ”

More recent criticism by Elaine Kim, Sau-Ling Wong, and Evelyn Tseng tends to regard Fifth Chinese Daughter as a problematical yet valuable document of Asian American social history. Though critical of Wong’s portrait of Chinese American life, Sau-Ling Wong concedes that Fifth Chinese Daughter shows that “growing up Chinese American meant vastly different things for the male child than for the female. And noting that Wong’s “self-definition” largely revolves around Chinese food as well as the yearning “to be acceptably Chinese,” Kim concludes that her “desire for personal success through acquiescence is understandable, although, in light of today’s changing attitudes, rather pathetic. ”

Despite their apparent differences, all of the readings discussed above seem to assume that Fifth Chinese Daughter presents an unequivocal answer to the problem it poses itself (or that has been superimposed upon it by the dominant discourse). Amidst efforts to either renounce or vindicate the author’s ideological project of establishing a dual pattern of existence, Wong’s eventual disassociation from both mainstream and Chinatown societies seems to have escaped critical notice. As Bow observes in her 2001 study of “prefeminist Chinese Women,” critics have long tended “to misread the tone and tenor of the work,” which “is an essentially bleak story of one who substitutes ambition for affection and…who accepts recognition garnered from small achievements in lieu of real understanding and connections with others.

Another legacy of the scholarly debates of the 1980s is the emergence of two polarized views concerning the classification of Fifth Chinese Daughter as either a factual or a fictional account. For Blinde, Wong’s work is simply “the meticulous transcription of events and the documentation of facts” directed by “a single imperative” to produce the “singular thrust” of a unified and coherent autobiograph. Yin and Paulson, on the other hand, see Fifth Chinese Daughter largely “as a work of the imagination… more a work of creative fiction than a simple transcription of events and facts. Jade Snow is a fully rendered, fictional character whom Wong develops within a structured thematic purpose,” Yin and Paulson maintain.

These two stances are not quite as irreconcilable as it may at first appear. For Fifth Chinese Daughter, one may argue, imbues a selective documentation of facts with the fictional thrust of creating an identity that concurs with the reining ideology of Americanization. As a result, the discords and tensions Yin and Paulson detect throughout Wong’s autobiography tend to arise at precisely those moments where the author’s recordings of her experiences seem no longer reconcilable with the assimilation ideology of the day. When, upon promotion to the shipyard’s main administrative office, Jade Snow’s benevolent boss “regretfully” informs her that “he could no longer transfer her,” Wong has her protagonist diffidently accept his hollow explanation that she “won’t be happy” there. 233)

Tellingly, though, the narrative’s abrupt transition to the next paragraph — stating matter-of-factly that “[i]nstead she was assigned to another superintendent in charge of installing fixtures” — only serves to highlight the gulf that exists between Wong’s actual experience of racial discrimination at the workplace and her muted fictional rendition thereof. (233)

Thirty-nine years later, Wong’s second introduction to Fifth Chinese Daughter would state plainly what her fictionalized autobiography strives hard to conceal. Yes, being Chinese in America, I have had problems, but they have not stopped me,” Wong concedes with a forwardlooking air of defiance. ”Now Asian faces are commonplace in the corporate world or in professional offices; sometimes Asians are sought out for their special attributes. There has been a quite evolution. Asian Americans, however, know that the battle against race prejudice is not finished. ”

Obviously, the changing historical conditions of the 1960s, which lead to the emergence of a distinctively Asian American discourse, did not radically alter Wong’s consciousness. As the general tenor of her 1989 introduction indicates, she persists in pleading for cross-cultural understanding and seeks to explain Asian American culture to white audiences in more or less essentialist terms (note her reference to the “special attributes” of Asians above).

Likewise, Wong’s concept of a “quiet evolution” bares recognizable traces of the ideological and material conditions of the 1940s that engendered her consciousness in the first place. Blinde comments that the “problems of identity, alienation, ethnic pride, and commitment were not in the common currency of human consciousness in the years before World War II, and from her Chinese environment in San Francisco with its shared community of experiences and old Chinese values, Wong developed a sense of a totalized and thus stable world.

However, to dismiss Fifth Chinese Daughter as a “feeble” text of “racial uplift” that fails to challenge “hegemonic appropriation” seems beside the mark.  For even though Jade Snow Wong may have been cultivating the very ideology of racial uplift that kept her out of Berkele y, Fifth Chinese Daughter, nevertheless, helped prepare the path toward a new, self-assertive Asian American consciousness by hinting at discrepancies and incongruities within the dominant discourses of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Points of potential or as of yet unrealized resistance against dominant discourses, Foucault insists, present themselves everywhere in the power network. And “while great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions” do occur now and then in history (as, for instance, during the 1960s), “more often one is dealing with mobile and transitory points of resistance, producing cleavages in a society that shift about, fracturing unities and gradually effecting regroupings.

Fenced in by the material and ideological boundaries of the Cold War period, Wong’s own resistance against the double bind of white prejudices and patriarchic power remains curiously subdued. Yet, her autobiograph y, although no visionary work, already hints those “cleavages” and “fractures” within society that would give rise to pointed dissent and socio-political protest. The simple fact that Fifth Chinese Daughter was, as novelist Maxine Hong Kingston remembers, “the only available” book by a Chinese American, inspired a younger generation to look closer at the elusive mechanism of oppression.

Accordingly, critics such as Shirley Geok-Lim can claim that Fifth Chinese Daughter expanded the scope of Chinese American women’s life stories by introducing themes of race and gender, while contemporary literati such as Kingston see themselves as writing in the tradition of Jade Snow Wong. As noted earlier, considerable critical attention has been focused on Jade Snow Wong’s choice of literary form.

Echoing indictments by Frank Chin, Patricia Blinde asserts that in opting to write an “autobiography (that uniquely Western European genre that emerged from the Christian confessional),” Wong not only accepts “the limitations and expectations of literary genres of the dominant culture,” but also makes herself a “willing collaborator with the American will to effect a sense that life is constituted of separate and totalized unities and perhaps such should be maintained as such. “Self assertion in relation to a certain social order,” Blinde continues her theoretical discussion, “amounts to an acceptance of both the order and the place and function of the individual. ” In its aim to produce a coherent representation of a life, autobiography “imposes a pattern of life and constructs out of it a coherent story. ”  And indeed, as Walter Benjamin has demonstrated on several occasions, the content of a particular literary work (that is, its political tendency) hinges to a large part upon the specific literary form or technique applied by the author.

The question remains, however, if an autobiographer can ever fully succeed in affirming prevailing ideological claims through a representation of his or her life in a formalized, seemingly coherent and unified fashion. In the case of minority writers such as Wong this question becomes especially pertinent, for the formal demands of autobiographical writing to duplicate the dominant ideology tend to clash with actual, material living conditions. 46 Critical assessments in which Fifth Chinese Daughter is seen to fit the mold of “autobiography-as-propaganda perfectly” tend to overlook the work’s ambiguities towards its own ends.

In essence, such an aborted reading tacitly confirms what it aims to renounce; namely, that ideology is unified, void of antonyms. To understand how the claims of the dominant discourse announce themselves as untenable, specious, and precarious, it appears necessary to punctuate the external and internal motives of a text. According to Machere y, once the ideological thrust of a work has been recognized, a second critical question poses itself: “What begs to be explained in the work is… he presence of a relation, or an opposition, between the elements of the exposition or levels of the composition, those disparities which point to a conflict of meaning. ” By way of this extended inquiry, both formal and substantial incongruities come into focus, because, as Macherey explains, at the same time as it establishes an ideological content the book presents the contradiction of that content: this content only exists enveloped in the form of a contestation.

Thus we perceive that there can be both a contradiction in ‘the ideas’ and the contradiction between the ideas and the book which presents them.  On the level of exposition, one formal aberration has already been alluded to: Wong’s unusual choice of third person autobiograph. Wong herself explains this choice as derived from her distinctly Chinese heritage: “Even written in English an ‘I’ book by a Chinese would seem outrageously immodest to anyone raised in the spirit of Chinese propriety. ” As Yin and Paulson suggest, “her narrative voice breaks the form apart. The division, contradiction, tension, paradox and ‘bursting’ are right there in the form itself. The initial tension that results from her choice of a third person autobiograph y, however, does not so much bespeak “her bi-cultural identity” as her struggle to re-articulate and affirm white assumption about what it means to be Chinese American.

The third person singular account seemingly resolves this problem: it allows Wong to contemplate herself as a mere object. Not, however, because Wong is unable “to see herself as a subject,” but because the third person pronoun allows her to partially disconnect her own experiences from those of the fictionalized Jade Snow.

Only by rhetorically separating the writer’s consciousness from the character’s consciousness can Wong begin to apply the white gaze upon herself. Henceforth, Wong the author is free to instill Jade Snow the character with those selective experiences and views that confirm dominant notions of ‘Chineseness’ and ‘Americaness’ respectively. Interestingly enough, even such strict separation between the author’s and the character’s fields of vision, does not guard the text against narrative slippages that hint at the impossibility of achieving a stable composite identity.

While taking her classmates on a guided tour through her father’s sweatshop, Jade Snow — “positing herself as ‘spectator’ to her family, Chinatown, and the racialized and gendered bodies that constitute (im)migrant labor” — is momentarily struck by the unsettling feeling of utter alienation: Although everyone felt more or less at home, the parents as well as the guests, Jade Snow suddenly felt estranged, for while she was translating conversation between instructors and parents, she was observing the scene with two pairs of eyes—Fifth Chinese Daughter’s, and those of a college junior.

Neither able to fully identify with the “Chinese women workers,” whom she outwardly resembles, nor with the “young, healthy Caucasian girls,” whose outlooks she has internalized, Jade Snow briefly senses what the book’s closing chapters confirm; namely, that her relentless efforts to become the embodiment of cross-racial understanding will ultimately result in self-alienation and selfisolation. But Wong’s choice of a third person narrator serves another, more immediately subversive function as well.

Inasmuch as Wong deliberately fictionalizes her autobiograph y, she weakens and undercuts its claim to verisimilitude or authenticity from the start. It becomes clear that only the imaginative distance of fiction enables Wong to refashion her real living conditions and personal experiences in accordance with mainstream preconceptions. Consequently, the predominant discourse on assimilation, though outwardly upheld in Fifth Chinese Daughter, debunks itself as fictitious. Already, the introduction of a detached, extraneous voice shatters the unity of the represented ideolog.

In the act of reproduction, to recall Althusser, ideology becomes visible for what it is: “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence. ”  The contradictions between Jade Snow’s “imaginary” and Wong’s “real conditions of existence” are purposefully cloaked throughout Fifth Chinese Daughter, but become transparent nonetheless. Early on in the book, for instance, Wong establishes that Jade Snow’s family life in San Francisco’s Chinatown was modest, uneventful, and severely restricted by paternal control. Order, in the most uncompromising Chinese sense, was enforced strictly,” and affection was restricted to a minimum.

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The Reproduction of Dominant Discourses in Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter. (2018, Feb 19). Retrieved from

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