Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Good Earth

I invited my mom to watch this video with me, just for some Mommy-Daughter bonding time. Two minutes into the opening credits, accompanied with the sounds of gongs a-bangin’ and zithers a-zitherin’, she gets up saying, “Honey, I really want to watch this and support you, but I can’t sit through this.” And so she leaves me for the longest 180 minutes of my life.

The film begins on "Wang Lung the Farmer's" wedding day. Wang (played by Paul Muni) is to be married to a servant woman named O-Lan (Luise Rainer) who lives and works in the city. They live out in a tumbledown shack and work in the fields together. They are very happy together, even if O-Lan barely talks. Wang Lung soon earns enough money (not sure how he does this, but whatever) to buy some more land. O-Lan gives birth to two sons, or "man-children" as they are called in the script, and a daughter, who obviously isn't loved. Then a drought strikes and Wang's plot of land dries up. They are forced to go to the city to look for work but end up begging and stealing to find food for their family. There is a riot that ends in looting at the house where O-Lan used to work at, and she gets caught up in the tides of people and then gets trampled. Then she finds a forgotten sack of jewels that give her and her family enough money to go back to their plot of land. O-Lan keeps two pearls for herself. Then the drought ends and they return to their home. Years pass and the two eldest sons (played by Roland Lui and Keye Luke) grow up and go to school. Wang Lung becomes wealthy enough to purchase the Great House (the one where O-Lan used to work and was later looted). He then goes to a local tea house and spies Lotus (played by Tilly Losch) a "sing-song" girl and promptly marries her and begins to favor her over O-Lan. Then Lotus seduces Wang's Second Son (yes, that's the character's name) and Wang throws both of them out. Soon afterwards, a swarm of locusts threaten to attack Wang Lung's fields of crops. With a plan from Elder Son and help from lots of nameless Asian extras and the wind, the crops are saved and Wang reconciles with Second Son. The film then skips forwards a few years to Elder Son's wedding night. O-Lan is sick in bed and Wang Lung realizes how foolish it was to marry Lotus. Then O-Lan dies and Wang goes outside to shout, "O-Lan! You are the earth!"

Initially, The Good Earth's intentions were to have a very respectful portrayal of China and Chinese people. The novelist, Pearl S. Buck intended for the cast to be entirely Chinese. The producer of the movie, Irving Thalberg, also wanted to have an all-Chinese cast, but he decided that American audiences were not ready for it. Oddly enough, the Chinese government threatened to not approve the film if anyone of Japanese descent was cast in the film. You can see this in the insane amounts of Asian extras and… the… who am I kidding, it didn’t end up being a very respectable movie...

Let’s talk about casting and yellowface, shall we? Cool. First off – Luise Rainer, a clearly Caucasian woman who happens to produce very Asian-looking babies is the main character and ultimately, the only one with her head screwed on straight. Rainer ended up getting an Oscar for her performance in The Good Earth the year after she won the Oscar for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld. (Two Oscars in a row! Jeepers!) There's no denying that Rainer was a spectacular actor - her facial and vocal acting are superior to anyone else in the film. However, it is how Rainer chose to portray O-Lan that really gets me. We first meet O-Lan on her wedding day to "Wang The Farmer" when she is a servant in a wealthy household in the nearby city. She is the lowliest servant and doesn't speak a single word until 20 minutes into the film. O-Lan is the subservient mother whose job description includes making babies, raising babies, cooking, cleaning, and assisting her husband in any way she can, often working in the rice paddies (which are situated on rolling hills... Did anyone check to see if that's actually how one grows rice??) and carting stuff around. She kills her newborn baby girl because there is a famine and O-Lan knows she will not be able to feed her. She constantly reminds her husband to not sell their land and she remains faithful to him, even when he takes a second wife who is a prostitute. The character of O-Lan is interesting because it does not evenly fit into one of the Asian female stereotypes. She is no dragon lady, no exotic sex appeal and not trained in martial arts. She does not fit the role of the childish and mute butterfly, bowing at the waist for every man, woman and white person that waltzes across the screen. She is depicted as being much too coarse and hardworking; however, O-Lan is the almost ideal “Oriental” wife. The only thing she lacks is sex appeal. Now this is where it gets interesting. Often times, the Asian woman will be eroticized (see later Miss Saigon, The World of Suzie Wong, Memoirs of a Geisha) to an extreme level. However, this is not the case with O-Lan. She is just portrayed as very wise, hardworking, and able to bear children without complaint. Whether this was a conscious choice of Rainer’s I have no idea. Interestingly, the film still follows the trend of desexualizing the Asian male. All of the male characters are obnoxious, gluttonous and slightly misogynistic pigs. In short, nobody is sexy in this film except for Tilly Losch's character of "Lotus the Sing Song Girl." She's so sexy she even seduces Wang the Farmer's son! (Side note: sing-song is not even a Chinese word! This term for concubines was developed in 1911 by Westerners in China...)

The role of O-Lan was originally going to go to actress Anna May Wong; however, when the male lead went to Paul Muni, anti-msfaweruuh laws decreed that Wong would not be able to portray O-Lan because the two main characters were supposed to kiss onscreen (and yet they never did in the version I watched…) and the anti-miscegenation laws under the Hays Code that was later gotten rid of. Wong was then offered the part of the "sing-song girl" and second wife to Wang the Farmer, Lotus. She turned the role down in a letter telling MGM "You're asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." (citation) Props to Wong! Jeebus, if only there had been more like her during this "Golden Era" of Hollywood. The role of Lotus then went to Austrian-born Tilly Losch. 

Interestingly, the amount of yellowface used on O-Lan is very minimal. Again, this is the era of black and white films – the yellowing of the skin does not need to be exaggerated as much as in a color film. No prosthetics were used to slant Rainer’s eyes at all – she remains Bambi-eyed the entire film. However, prosthetics on Paul Muni’s face end up as what I wish could be laughable. At some parts, you can see the tape used to tape down his eyelids. I’m pretty sure those were not his real teeth. Losch has got almost no makeup on either - slanted eyes aside. Why is it that taping down an actor's eyelids counts as making them Asian? That implies that if we didn't have such slanty eyes, we'd look white and... more acceptable? More on this later...

Remember in Broken Blossoms how no words were said? No mixing up of the “r”s and “l”s? Welcome to the movie with talking in it. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that both Paul Muni and Luise Rainer don’t know what a Chinese accent is. They both sound pretty Swedish or Dutch or something from Europe than anything Asian. (Isn’t generalization fun?) Losch doesn't even adopt an accent, she just draws out the vowels in all of the words she says. "Iiiiiiiiiif I pleeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaase youuuuuu?" Last time I checked, that wasn't an accent. In fact, none of the characters really had an over-exaggerated accent, it was really only the cadence of the words that passed as an accent. Interesting how the emphasis an actor will put on a word will make an "accent." I'm still unsure if this is good or bad. One stereotype that also comes into play is the notion of the laughing “Chinaman.” Indeed, Paul Muni laughs a lot. Very loud belly laughs.  Laughing because he's bathing, laughing because he's getting married, laughing because whatever he ate was delicious, laughing because of whatever. It’s a little concerning. I know a fair few Asian men (having them in your family helps), and none of them really laugh that much. Where did this stereotype of a guffawing Chinaman come from? Or was this an actually "valid" stereotype, and nowadays Asian men just don't let loose with a hearty ha-ha because they are afraid of the potential backlash? The first time I was introduced to this stereotype was when I was reading Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese, in the chapters with Chin-kee, a gross caricature of every negative stereotype you could slap on a person of Asian descent. But I digress. I'm unsure as to where this clapping and laughing portrayal of a Chinese man originated...

There's a scene where Wang is celebrating the birth of his first son and his whole extended family is, and they're singing some sort of celebratory song... that isn't even in real Chinese. Honestly, it sounds like gibberish. Methinks the director just told the actors, "Yeah, make up any noise you want, just sound uniform." Respectful representation my hat! And this is only the beginning of the numerous ching-chong slurs, even up until our time... Rosie O'Donnell, anyone?

They didn't even list Keye Luke...


  1. Okay, first off I'm a retired Caucasian American male.
    A few paragraphs into the review I began to understand the reviewer is the opposite of me: young, Asian and female.
    This is an interesting review, from my recollection of this movie based on my last viewing a decade or two ago. Yes, it is one-sided, but I'm a forgiving sort.
    I just this week returned to the US from 7 years in central China teaching English in a university. I found the book "Good Earth" in my ancient pile of books rescued from libraries updating their collections, and I'm about a quarter of the way through now. It's very well-written and received a Nobel Prize. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading through this little gem.
    One very important real-world point about Pearl Buck's book and her later speaking tours of the US is how very pro-Nationalist China the American people became in the run-up to WW2, partially due to this movie. Read Tuchman's "Stilwell" for an historian's more balanced view of US-Asian foreign policy in the 1940s.
    As for the reviewer's viewpoint, I guess the issue I most agree is a false portrayal is O-Lan's meek acceptance of her lot in life without complaint.
    I confess to being a womanizer, with intimate relations with more than 100 Asian women ranging geographically from Japan to the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. And, as a veteran of 40 total years of marriage to one Chinese and one Korean lady, I can assure you that portrayal is pure Hollywood. Hot anger routinely bubbles to the "yellowface" surface, much like Vesuvius.

  2. We recognize and empathize that with which we are familiar. I am familiar with class struggle and depressed economies, so I could empathize with Wang’s trepidation upon entering the Great House – and the despair of owning land that is worth much less than its original price.

    I am not familiar with the stereotypes of yellowface, so I did not recognize things in The Good Earth that are seen as offensive. (In fact, I was quite captivated by the movie when it was shown recently on TCM). That is why I appreciated reading your blog post. I didn’t recognize the celebratory song Wang sings with his family as gibberish. Nor was I familiar with the concept of the guffawing Chinese man. In fact, I thought it was delightful because Paul Muni’s characters were rather glum. I read somewhere that he and Luise Rainer visited Chinatown to observe people and their mannerisms. I wonder what they saw that they felt was authentic.

    I love to learn as I read, and I learned a lot from your blog post. Thank you for writing it.