Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Another new book in the former native speaker's library

Just received my copy of Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 by Christina Klein. I got the hardback edition for US$9.95 through the University of California Press website's sale. (Other books should be coming soon.)

Klein's book looks really interesting and useful to me. I'll probably post some goodies on my dissertation blog soon. [here] For now I want to quote something from the beginning of the book, where Klein is analyzing a scene from the play/movie The King and I. Klein argues that although the setting for the play is the late 19th century, it really spoke to American concerns with their relationship to Asia during the Cold War period. She argues that the sentimental relationship of Anna to the Siamese is "an idealized self-representation of the middlebrow artists and intellectuals" Klein discusses in her book. Klein illustrates this by analyzing two things going on in the scene that culminates in the "Getting to Know You" singalong:
At one level the scene produces a hierarchical relation between West and East: Anna is an adult who dispenses knowledge, and her students are ignorant children subordinate to her authority. When Anna replaces the old Siamese map with the new English one, she replaces the local and implicitly inferior knowledge of the Siamese with a metropolitan and implicitly superior knowledge derived from European models. In the best Orientalist fashion, she denies the Siamese the ability to represent themselves and insists that they can only know themselves through a Western and literally Eurocentric system of knowledge. But something else is going on here as well: Anna is more interested in forging connections between East and West than she is in demarcating racial and cultural differences. ... She presents a world in which East and West can be understood as related to one another outside the coercive ties of empire. A shared history of political independence, as well as small size, implicitly connects England and Siam. Anna animates this vision of interconnectedness by infusing it with emotion: as she sings "Getting to Know You," she translates the map's geography lesson into a playful song about the intimate bonds of friendship that can reach across national and cultural divides. More important, Anna opens up a way for the children to participate in the forging of these emotional--and international--ties when she invites them to sing along. ... By the end of the number the hierarchical differences that structured the scene at the outset ... are looser, although they do not disappear entirely. (11-12)
I must admit that when I have watched the movie The King and I in the past, I never looked at the "Getting to Know You" scene from this kind of perspective. But Klein's point about Anna's encouraging the students to sing along with her puts a new twist on the lyrics of the song. If we just think about Anna's point of view--when she's singing--lines like "Telling you my dreams, / Getting to feel that you're with me" sound as though her main concern is with having her students identify with her. But when the students sing, the point of view changes and now they're telling her their dreams. Thus there's at some level the expectation of an intercultural interchange going on here, despite the hierarchical relations between Anna and the Siamese children. I am struck by this because it complicates the notion of the cultural imperialism of Anna's actions.

Later in the book Klein engages in an in-depth analysis of the play and movie, concluding that
Anna's loving instruction establishes an exemplary hegemonic relationship: it achieves its goals through sentiment rather than through physical force and by inculcating a desire on the part of its objects to behave in a certain way. It suggests power exercised not through political or military control, but through relations of exchange and influence. Anna's influence, like American-guided modernization, results in local leaders governing themselves but always according to Anna's precepts. (215)
I should note that Klein stresses the "ideal" nature of the images of Anna and of the United States here. She isn't suggesting that this is what actually happened. (Certainly Taiwan's experience during the postwar years is enough to illustrate how tenuous the connection was between this image and the reality of U.S. influence in Asia.)

Anyway, I'm glad I found this book--and grateful to Rex at the Savage Minds blog who mentioned the U. of California Press book sale!

[I should add here--for people who are wondering why I'd go to the trouble of buying this book rather than getting it out of the library--according to Taiwan's National Bibliographic Information Network, no library in Taiwan owns this book... *sigh*]

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