Slitty eyes and buck teeth? It must be China

In its rush to denounce Chinese militarism and pollution, is the British Free Tibet Campaign disseminating dubious stereotypes of Chinese people?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

The Free Tibet movement has rarely been out of the news over the past month. In London, Paris and San Francisco, Free Tibet activists have used the opportunity of the forthcoming Beijing Olympics to raise awareness about Tibetan people’s plight. Yet in their rush to denounce Chinese militarism and pollution in Tibet – and in their tendency to transform a complex political situation into a simple morality tale peopled by wicked Chinese and wide-eyed Tibetans – have Free Tibet activists propagated dubious stereotypes of Chinese people?

In his book Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, academic Donald S Lopez Jnr argued that many ‘Tibetophiles’ in the West tend to present the problems in Tibet in super-simplistic terms, where ‘an undifferentiated mass of godless Communists [are] overrunning a peaceful land devoted only to ethereal pursuits’. Consequently, Tibetans come to be seen as ‘superhuman’ and the Chinese as ‘subhuman’ (1). This risk of depicting the Chinese as ‘subhuman’, as a slitty-eyed, expressionless horde, can be glimpsed in some of the campaigning materials of the British-based Free Tibet Campaign.

The Free Tibet Campaign was founded in 1987. It campaigns for an end to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and for Tibetans’ human rights to be respected. It also takes a very simplistic, moralised, one might even say dumbed-down, view of the problems in China and Tibet. This is captured in the Free Tibet postcard shown below. The postcard was produced in 2006 to protest against the development of the Gormo-Lhasa railway line, which connects China to the heart of Tibet, and which, according to the Free Tibet Campaign, helps to strengthen China’s ‘military and political grip over the region’. Activists were encouraged to send the postcard to UK holiday tour companies that were promoting the railway. The postcard is still available to download on Free Tibet’s website (2).

The first notable thing is the postcard’s simplification of the crisis between Tibet and China. On one side it shows serene-looking, traditionally-dressed Tibetans on a seemingly peaceful hillside – on the other it shows militaristic Chinese riding in a train that is emitting thick grey smog into the air. The postcard asks ‘Whose side are you on?’, meaning: are you with the nice, naive Tibetans or with the marauding Chinese outsiders? Yet look a little closer, and the underlying message of this piece of campaigning material is ominous: it seems to depict the Chinese as slitty-eyed, alien outsiders. Note the striking contrast between the depiction of the Tibetans and the depiction of the Chinese.

The Tibetans have calm and peaceful faces. They have properly open eyes and warm smiles. Their skin tone is either brown or a pale white colour. The Chinese, by contrast, have almost featureless faces. Their eyes are extremely slitty; indeed, where the Tibetan characters have eyebrows and opened-up, expressive eyes, the two Chinese soldiers have severe diagonal slits where their eyes ought to be. And in contrast to the soft skin tones of the Tibetans, the Chinese soldiers have a sickly yellow pallor.

One of the most long-standing prejudices in Western depictions of the Chinese is that they have slitty eyes and buck teeth. As one academic study has shown, from the Western hysteria about a ‘Yellow Peril’ invasion of Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s to the dehumanising depictions of the Japanese during the Second World War, Far Easterners have long been shown with ‘exaggerated physical features’ such as ‘buck teeth, slit eyes and yellow-tinted skin’ (3). These exaggerated features are reproduced in the Free Tibet campaigning postcard, as can be seen on the right-hand side below.

On the right side of this picture, we can see a close-up of one of the Chinese soldiers in the Free Tibet Campaign’s postcard. He has very yellow skin, slit eyes and ugly protruding teeth. This sits well with the cartoon from the early 1900s, shown on the left-hand side above. This cartoon was published in the Australian magazine The Bulletin in July 1907 and was intended to show the threat of a ‘Chinese invasion’ into Australia. Note that this cartoon also shows the Chinese with slitty eyes and two prominent front teeth.

Over the past hundred years, ‘Yellow Peril’ depictions of both the Chinese and the Japanese have shown them with disgusting exaggerated teeth and also with glasses, to indicate that they have poor eyesight (as a result of their slitty eyes, presumably) and a general lack of intelligence. The picture on the right is an Australian depiction of a Chinese immigrant, first published in 1886: the Chinese is shown with thick glasses, a weak chin, and with what looks like one protruding tooth at the front of his mouth.

In his essay ‘Racial Politics in an Era of Transnational Citizenship’, Michael Chang wrote about the tendency in America for depicting the Chinese and the Japanese, at different points in history, with ‘thick glasses, buck teeth and heavy Asian accents’ (4). These stereotypes are repeated in the Free Tibet Campaign’s postcard. On the right-hand side below, there is a close-up of what looks like a Chinese Communist official riding in the train in Free Tibet’s cartoon; on the left-hand side is an anti-Japanese poster produced in America during the Second World War.

These images are strikingly similar. In both, the ‘evil’ Easterner has slit eyes, arched eyebrows, thick glasses, and large ugly teeth; note, also, how deeply yellow is the skin of the Chinese official in the Free Tibet image. Indeed, the slogan on the anti-Japanese poster from the Second World War – ‘Wipe that sneer off his face!’ – captures the essence of much of the current China-bashing in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Many have discussed the Olympics as an opportunity to ‘humiliate China’ and have welcomed the fact that, with the debacle that was the Olympic torch relay, China’s ‘mask has slipped’ (5). In other words? We are successfully wiping the grin off the Chinese face.

Leaving aside the disturbing physical features of the Chinese in the Free Tibet Campaign’s postcard, it is also striking that the image depicts the Chinese as pollutants. It shows expressionless, militarised Chinese riding a train into Tibet and pumping thick smog into the environment. Again, the Chinese have for a long time been shown as a singularly destructive force, indeed as a ‘pollutant’ that threatens the moral integrity and ecological purity of the countries they ‘invade’. For example, the Australian cartoon directly above, first published in The Bulletin in 1886, shows ‘the Mongolian Octopus’ strangling moral goodness in Australia by introducing such terrible things as ‘cheap labour’, ‘immorality’ and ‘opium’.

As Mike Conroy showed in his essay ‘Yellow Peril Incarnate’ – published in the book 500 Comicbook Villains in 2004 – in late nineteenth-century America, the Chinese were depicted as ‘physical, racial and social pollutants’ (6). At the same time in Australia, the Chinese were seen as ‘a kind of pollution’, argued Desmond Manderson in the book Migrants, Minorities and Health (7). Below, on the left-hand side, is an anti-Chinese cartoon that was published in America in 1899, at the height of American fears about an ‘invasion’ of Chinese immigrants (the US Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 and renewed in 1902). It was captioned ‘The Yellow Terror in all his glory’, and shows a Chinese man with a gun and a knife leaving behind himself a trail of grey smoke as he tramples decency – as represented by a white woman – underfoot. On the right-hand side there is a close-up of the Free Tibet Campaign’s postcard.

The message of both seems quite similar: the Chinese pollute. The American anti-Chinese cartoon captures the old idea of the Chinese as a moral pollutant. The Free Tibet image captures a very modern concern about China: that it is poisoning the environment with dirt and dust. Where the Chinese were once seen, in Desmond Manderson’s words, as ‘cultural pollution’, today they are seen as literal pollution, as the harbingers of little more than smog and disease.

Of course, the motives of the Free Tibet lobby are entirely different from the motives of old Western imperialists: Free Tibet activists demand freedom for Tibetans rather than defending the Empire. Yet the message about Johnny Chinese seems to have remained strikingly similar over the decades. Too often today, the discussion of Tibet is over-simplified and perniciously moralistic, and this seems to have given rise to some dubious images and ideas about the Chinese. Indeed, one might argue that for some Western observers, Tibet today plays the role that the beleaguered ‘white woman’ once played in crude depictions of the Chinese in the past: as the naive, innocent, prostrated victim of the buck-toothed, slitty-eyed outsider.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Donald S Lopez Jnr, University of Chicago Press, 1998

(2) See China tightens grip with Tibet railway, Free Tibet Campaign, 2006

(3) Multicultural Review, GP Publiations, Tampa, Florida, 1992

(4) Racial Politics in an Era of Transnational Citizenship, Michael Chang, Blackwell Publishing, 2007

(5) See Using Tibet to settle scores with China, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) 500 Comic Book Villains, Mike Conroy, Baron’s Educational Series, 2004

(7) Migrants, Minorities and Health: Historical and Contemporary Studies, edited by Lara Marks and Michael Worboys, Routledge, 1997

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