Falun Gong and the foreign blindness

Lately the Falun Gong have been extraordinarily active. Parading the streets of New York City in full costume, they create live-action dioramas depicting the Chinese government’s illegalization of this spiritual organization. Doing their utmost to evoke sympathy from the American public, their displays are reminiscent of historical London wax museums that depend on grotesque shock-value to educate children about medieval torture. The scene is usually comprised of an Asian woman or an elderly Asian man, bleeding from various wounds and orifices, chained to a rack or caged, while being beaten by conspicuously goon-like Asian male guards.

I recently spoke to one of the organizers about the content of the scene. He was a tan-skinned gentleman of non-Asian descent who spoke fervently of friends in captivity. He regarded me with an air of caution as I approached him asking who structured the event. After determining that my intentions were benign, he gladly listened to my concerns. Since the Falun Gong claims to be neither a religious nor political organization, I thought it appropriate to inform him that such depictions perpetuated a negative Asian stereotype that many Asian Americans wished to dissolve. I asserted that although I am sympathetic to their right to demonstrate, it is the Chinese government that banned the practice of Falun Gong, not the Chinese people, and most certainly not Asian Americans; however the content of their demonstration, as apparently de-politicized as it was, was indeed politically at odds with reducing negative stereotypes of Asians in the popular American paradigm. At first he was quite agreeable, and the option of having them wear masks was discussed. As a token gesture he said the matter would be investigated and I left with a sense of accomplishment.

By next month, similar demonstrations had appeared on Wall street, Fifth Avenue, Times Square, The South Street Seaport, Chinatown and on the main plaza of Columbia University. Unsurprisingly, they were still staffed with unmasked Asian men in full third-world prison guard costume poised with batons and cattle prods over helpless Asian women and the elderly. Within a week, my Chinese girlfriend, a multitude of her Asian friends and I unwillingly became the spontaneous informational authority on the demonstrations. Recent acquaintances, strangers and professors suddenly assumed that we had an authentic perspective of this new Asian group that seemingly spawned straight from the concrete. Once, after speaking to a gentleman about my fondness for visiting China, I was blamed for supporting the torture of Falun Gong members. I would have been flabbergasted by the accusation if prior exposure to cultural stereotyping hadn’t already made me wary. I delved into an investigation about the nebulous group and my findings yielded a provocatively alarming image to the born and raised New Yorker in me: there is a full-scale foreign propaganda war between the Falun Gong and the Chinese Government on the streets of Manhattan, and the watchful pedestrians (and inadvertently the Asian Americans among them) are caught in the crossfire. New York City had joined a collection of several Western hemisphere cities that are now the firebases for anti-persecution Falun Gong activity.

What further complicates the alarming dynamic is this: the group engaging in the incidental perpetuation of Asian stereotypes across New York City happens to be predominantly Asian. It is important to clarify the group’s origin as being from Asia, since they are importing and exhibiting imagery and issues that are specifically foreign. Yet, this isn’t to say that participating members of the Falun Gong don’t include some Asian Americans, and in fact a substantial number of them are. What must be emphasized is the polarity in Asian American society between the foreign/immigrant mindset1 and the domestic 2. Although members of each mindset intermingle frequently, politicizing values and organizations for each can differ to extremes.

Falun Gong or Falun Dafa literally translates into The Law of the Great Wheel. A neutral religion research group defines them as a spiritual group that incorporates spiritual and health exercises predicated on the ancient practice of Qi Gong3. The organization was founded by a man named Li Hongzhi in 1992 who maintains (although with no official document) that he shares the same birthday with Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha4. Current membership is believed to be more than 100 million. In 1999, 10,000 Falun Gong members organized outside of a governmental headquarters in Beijing in an illegal protest against the publication of anti-Falun Gong materials. The group was outlawed on July 22nd, 1999 on the premise that they were lying, cheating, threatening the government and harming the Chinese social fabric. The Falun Gong are now defined as a dangerous cult, accused of murdering families and inducing suicides. (Hadden 1) This is the popular knowledge of the group and this is pretty much where the facts end. Beyond these there are only what has been portrayed in the international melee of propaganda between the Falun Gong and the Chinese government.

In China, since 1999 the Chinese government has established street displays depicting Falun Gong members that have become psychotic and murderous, complete with official denouncements of the Falun Gong after receiving medical attention. Falun Gong members in China have fled and been arrested, but the numbers remain unknown. On Chinese television, watchers are warned to be wary of practitioners. In New York City Falun Gong members have maintained that they have been attacked by Chinese citizens on the street, spied on by Chinese agents and that members in China have been arrested and tortured. They’ve developed an immense Internet presence, and have developed various humanitarian research groups5 that are used as substantiating references for their publication materials. Nevertheless, a fog of speculation remains. Both parties throw around publication materials that are over-generalized and heavily biased. For example, one Falun newsletter states China’s economy [is] doomed[since] national resources [are being] hijacked by Jian [Zemin’s] regime to serve state terrorism. (Uphold Justice 1) Many Falun Gong materials follow the same general attack patterns.

The Falun Gong proclaim to be neither political nor religious, but have many of the hallmarks of a religious organization6. They have petitioned the US House of Representatives enough to pass resolution 3047. (AFAR 1) Although their reckless use of brutal imagery does little to clarify facts, their actions affect other social issues, specifically Asian American stereotyping.

Although the majority of Asian stereotyping in North America comes from non-Asian perspectives, the Falun Gong activities are an example of negative stereotyping originating from within Asian American society. And how are Asians stereotyped in American culture?

North American society tends to assume that all Asians come from an alien culture, birthplace and upbringing. North American pop culture assumes that Asians have an inherent linguistic handicap and that their understanding of Western values and behavior is inherently limited.

Even in the popular lexicon of ethnic discussion in North America, the terms White and Black reduce ethnic identities to pigmentation while the term Asian reduces it to geographic origin. Such a fundamental misrepresentation manifests deep limits as to the acceptance of Asians as “real” Americans8. Mia Tuan describes an Asian American sentiment in stating, For Asians, nativism and the stigma of foreignness further compounds racial marginalization. Blacks may be many things in the minds of whites, but foreign is not one of them. As far as racial positioning goes, Asians’ designation as “model minorities,” the best of those in the “racial other” category, says it all: racialized groups are not equal in the eyes of whites. (Tuan 8 ) Not only does this phenomenon tend to exclude Asian Americans from being part of the American mainstream on race politics, it encourages the alienation of Asian Americans from North American society in general.

In his work Yellow, Frank Wu deems this social phenomenon as perpetual foreignization. The term perpetual foreigner is predicated on the idea that Asian Americans are affected by this form of stereotyping regardless of how much his or her geographic ancestry originated in the Americas. As a perpetual foreigner, for example, a fourth generation Filipino-Chinese American may be commonly mistaken as a visitor from Japan. Various negative implications are presented by virtue of this outlook. whether by intention or through carelessness, an anti-Asian outlook appears to encompass Asian immigrants and even Asian Americans. (Wu 90) Whereas in the popular mindset African Americans are culturally separated from Africans, and European Americans from Europeans, the common default of Asian Americans as from Asia expresses a deep oversight in social inequality that must be improved. The phenomenon of being a perpetual foreigner makes Asian Americans race representatives even on foreign issues.

Additionally, the perpetual foreigner mischaracterization of Asian Americans carries with it a collection of other negative stereotypes. Rather than being identified as Americans, Asians become defined as easterners and are assumed to possess “easterner” traits, contributing to the modern American orientalism. (Said1)

Asian stereotyping is predominantly a “domestic” Asian American concern. Asians of this mindset are more accustomed to being treated as North American minorities. Their experiences consist of greater impact from racism, cultural detachment and social alienation then Asians of the foreign mindset. This affects their outlook and polity accordingly. Essentially, Asians of this domestic viewpoint are more aware of racial inequalities, and are more sensitive to how their ethnicity is represented.

Stereotypes specific to my argument consist of the following: the exotification and victim imagery of Asian women; emasculating stereotypes of Asian men; and the notions of despotism about Asian culture. It is a synergy between the last two that is particular to the content displayed by the Falun Gong’s demonstrations. Although these negative stereotypes of Asian men in the popular North American paradigm is communicated through many modern medias, negative associations have been predominant in western perspectives long before the advent of film. Edward Said best encapsulates some of the traditional foundations of Western bias:

Orientalism was the distillation of essential ideas about the Orient – its sensuality, its tendency towards despotism Ö its habits of inaccuracy, its backwardness Ö for a writer to use the word Oriental was a reference for the reader sufficient to identify a specific body of information about the Orient. (Said 208)

Particular attention should be paid to ideas concerning sensuality and despotism as these have developed into modern forms of media bias. Modern cinema has found many ways to depict Asian culture with a specific emphasis on portraying despotism as innate to the Asian mindset. American war cinema dehumanizes Asian male into faceless, dirty masses, psychologically incapable of ascending beyond the dictates of a foreign ruler.

Most Hollywood productions very rarely depict Asians as legitimate Americans. The Asian male is presented in an extremely limited fashion: at their most positive, to introduce the wisdom of the East9 (Said 208) and at their most negative, to function as racially denigrating comic relief. Movie actors Jet Li, Jackie Chan (both of whom I’ve been said to resemble, despite any real resemblance in facial and body structure) and Chow Yun-Fat are three of the most famous Chinese male actors in America. Yet, in their American films, they are still not portrayed has having any “real American” traits. They introduce us to glamorized kung fu and gangster behavior, shallow cultural aesthetics, and a stoic foreign inability to assimilate into American culture. An additional observation of note is that they conspicuously never engage in sensual behavior in their American movies. There is little exposure of their bodies in American film, and any sensual behavior is usually undermined by treating it as a light comedic element.

Throughout the gamut of American movies starring Asian males – “The Corruptor,” “The One,” “Lethal Weapon 4,” “Bulletproof Monk,” “The Replacement Killers,” and “Anna and the King” – being a few significant ones, these limiting themes are perpetuated10. Asian-produced films, however, such as “The Lover11,” “2046,” “Fallen Angels,” “Chungking Express,” and “Happy Together12” do much more than illustrate the potential of Asian males as sexually courageous creatures: they depict them with depth, complexity, and sensual romance.

It should be noted that while Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Chow-Yun Fat are not Asian Americans, by virtue of their popularity in mainstream North American culture, their images deeply influence American attitudes about both Asians and Asian Americans. In fact, their films have a significant place in the Asian American foreign/domestic divide: the popularity of foreign Asian culture is actually detrimental to producing an understanding of Asian American culture and upbringing. Even if Asian films themselves portray Asian men as sexless, faceless, perpetually foreign, timelessly conservative, and naturally despotic, they bear very little relation to Asian American men.

Stereotypes about Asian gender oppression are equally misrepresentative of Asian American men: the significance of literary culture, however, makes the issue more complex. Amy Tan has long been at the forefront of popular Asian American female writers. During the late eighties and early nineties, there was a deluge of Asian American women whose voices exploded onto the popular scene. With the introduction of The Joy Luck Club, it seemed as though American had finally found the authority on Asian Americans. Amy Tan’s works displayed a new insight into Asian culture that promoted an “understanding” that was before then, exotically secretive. Currently, however, there is a growing consensus in the Asian American population (much of it coming from Asian American women writers) that feels that Amy Tan’s work portrays Chinese culture in the most negative light:

China doll. Meek, submissive, mysterious and sultry. White man’s geisha. She shrieks at the sight of a mouse. She takes insults as a reminder to improve upon her flawed self. She is the survivor of abuse by Asian men from her past, just as she watched her mother abused by the hands of her father. She endures. She sits quietly alone, waiting for her white knight to come untie her from generations of misery. Who is she? The answer is simple. She is a creation. She is a fantasy of Asian woman crafted by the minds of white men. (Oh 1)

Tan’s literary dominance has received criticism from Asian Americans for portraying Chinese women as victims, specifically, victims of Chinese culture. The negative impact this victimization has on the Asian American consciousness is the suggestion that Asians need to be somehow “saved” from their cultures. To some, Tan has become the proverbial “Uncle (or Auntie) Tom” of Asian America: her popularity among the American mainstream is for some a testament to her propagation of anti-Asian views. To many Asian Americans her message is very clear:

“I said to myself when I was 17, I’m not going to have anything to do with anything Chinese when I leave home. I’m going to be completely American. None of that Chinese torture or guilt ever again in my life. None of that responsibility crap, you owe it to your family. You have to do this for your family.” (Tan 4)

Tan’s idea of being “completely American” (Tan 4) suggests that being Chinese in America is not in her cultural equation. Although Tan’s perspectives eventually became sympathetic towards her family, her works still emphasize an oppressive aspect in Chinese culture that stems from Chinese males. In her depictions, when Chinese males aren’t being oppressive, they either engage in clumsy infidelities or are outright perverse. These illustrations are given even more emphasis in the film production of “The Joy Luck Club.13” Tan was a literary vanguard for a pool of similar works by writers like Maxine Hong Kingston and Joan Chen. This established a literary groundwork for the de-mystification of gender inequalities in Asia. Unfortunately, since the audiences of these works were primarily North American, portrayals of oppressive gender inequalities in Asia created deleterious stereotypes of Asian American men in the United States.

This brief overview of Asian American stereotypes provides the context for analyzing Falun Gong demonstrations from an Asian American political perspective. Essentially, Falun Gong demonstrations perpetuate several negative stereotypes which have a harmful effect on Asian Americans. The perpetual foreigner phenomenon acts as a medium through which the images portrayed inadvertently become associated with Asian Americans. They perpetuate the notion that Asian males understand only despotism and oppression, and are only capable of the same. The Asian male comes to represent an inherently abusive, faceless, cowardly inhumanity. The deliberate use of Asian women as victims in the demonstrations to garner sympathy reinforces common stereotypes about Asian gender oppression. Although this isn’t a topic of controversy in Asia, in popular Asian American literature and culture, this subject is a primary and recurrent theme. The image also exacerbates current stereotypes by introducing a severity of violence that was suggested but absent from prior portrayals of Asians and Asian culture. Additionally, most participants in the demonstrations are foreign Asians, lending a greater authority to the imagery. To most North American observers, the foreign/domestic dynamic is invisible, and associations between the actions of a government and the actions of an ethnicity become blurred. Essentially, the content of Falun Gong demonstrations inject stark imagery of a foreign political issue into American society, unconcerned that the image may be interpreted as a portrayal of overall Asian culture and social structures

Even 120 years after the first major flux of Asians into North America14, the process of understanding Asians in America is still undergoing demystification15. This means that Asian American identity is still being formed: thus, negative public imagery of Asians will have a great influence on current and future social perception. For foreign Asian organizations operating within the United States, it is important to acknowledge these complexities, lest peaceful intentions produce violent results for citizens who are not associated with them.