December 9, 2005

The "Memoirs of a Geisha" casting controversy in historical perspective

The same sort of sophisticates who tell you "Race Does Not Exist!" are currently sniping at the new movie "Memoirs of a Geisha" for casting Chinese rather than Japanese actresses in the three lead roles. After all, any worldly person can tell Chinese from Japanese people on sight, right?

Well, sort of ... When I was at UCLA and spent a lot of time studying coeds, I could probably correctly guess East Asian girls' nationalities over 50% of the time but not quite 90% of the time. I doubt if I'd come close to that accuracy today.

This question of how to tell Japanese from Chinese once came to national prominence. The Dec. 22, 1941 issue of Life Magazine carried a pictorial article entitled "How to Tell [Japanese] from Chinese: Angry Citizens Victimize Allies with Emotional Outburst at Enemy:"

In the first discharge of emotion touched off by the the Japanese assault on their nation, U.S. citizens have been displaying a distressing ignorance in the delicate question of how to tell a Chinese from a [Japanese]. Innocent victims in cities all over the country are many of the 75,000 U.S. Chinese, whose homeland is our staunch ally... To dispel some of this confusion, LIFE here adduces a rule-of-thumb from the anthropometric conformations that distinguish friendly Chinese from enemy alien Japanese.

Personally, I think LIFE would have better advised their readers not to engage in criminal assaults on anybody. But, hey, that's just me.

It was an emotional time, only days after the Japanese government had massacred 3,000 Americans. In contrast, after Arab Muslim terrorists massacred 3.000 Americans on 9/11, the U.S. government deliberated for 18 months, and then, with the at least tacit approval of most of the media, invaded an Arab Muslim country that didn't have anything to do with 9/11! So, perhaps in our age of political correctness, we aren't so much more sophisticated than in 1941, and we may well be stupider.

Anyway, the Life article includes some fascinating, if rather hopeless-sounding, tips on how to accurately distinguish Chinese (and Filipinos) from Japanese. (My impression is, by the way, that Filipino-Americans were, per capita, the most violent toward Japanese-Americans in the weeks following Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.)

The physical descriptions of Japanese and Chinese in Life magazine are in line with two habits of Time-Life founder Henry Luce. He insisted on having his journalists describe people he liked as physical paragons (according to William F. Buckley, President Eisenhower was always described in Time or Life as "tall, straight-backed, and graying" while Eisenhower's rivals were "short, squat, and nose-picking"). And Luce, who was born in China to a Presbyterian missionary family, admired the Chinese, especially Chiang Kai-shek's regime, and loathed the Japanese who invaded China. The Life article goes on:

To physical anthropologists, devoted debunkers of race myths, the difference between Chinese and [Japanese] is measurable in millimeters. Both are related to the Eskimo and North American Indian. The modern [Japanese] is the descendant of Mongoloids who invaded the Japanese archipelago back in the mists of prehistory, and of the native aborigines who possessed the islands before them [the Ainu]. Physical anthropology, in consequence, finds [Japanese] and Chinese as closely related as Germans and English. It can, however, set apart the special types of each national group.

The typical Northern Chinese, represented by Ong Wen-hao, Chunking's Minister of Economic Affairs [see picture, top], is relatively tall and slenderly built. His complexion is parchment yellow, his face long and delicately boned, his nose more finely bridged. [Translation: Henry Luce likes.] Representative of the Japanese people as a whole is Premier and General Hideki Tojo [see picture, below], who betrays aboriginal antecedents in a squat, long-torsoed build, a broader, more massively boned head and face, flat, often pug, nose, yellow-ocher skin and heavier beard. [Henry Luce no likes.] From this average type, aristocratic [Japanese], who claim kinship ot the Imperial Household, diverge sharply. They are proud to approximate the patrician lines of the Northern Chinese.

Captions to pictures included:

Chinese public servant, Ong Wen-hao, is representative of Northern Chinese anthropological group with long, fine-boned face and scant beard. Epicanthic fold of skin above eyelid is found in 85% of Chinese. Southern Chinese have round, broad faces, not as massively boned as the Japanese. Except that their skin is darker, this description fits Filipinos who are often mistaken for [Japanese]. Chinese sometimes pass for Europeans; but [Japanese] more often approach Western types.

I particularly enjoyed this caption, with its appeal to cultural rather than physical diversity:

Japanese warrior, General Hideki Tojo, current Premier, is a Samurai, closer to type of humble [ Japanese] than highbred relatives of Imperial Household. Typical are his heavy beard, massive cheek and jaw bones. Peasant [ Japanese] is squat Mongoloid, with flat, blob nose. An often sounder clue is facial expression, shaped by cultural, not anthropological, factors. Chinese wear rational calm of tolerant realists. [Japanese], like General Tojo, show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics. [Emphasis mine.]

We are repeatedly assured these days that an exclusive academic focus on cultural rather than biological differences among people is necessary to prevent group animosity, although the historical record (e.g., the extermination of "kulaks" in the Ukraine) should raise severe questions about this contemporary consensus.

In reality, human beings are awfully creative at coming up with reasons to resent other human beings. And there's little evidence to suggest that telling people that other people aren't born that way induces greater tolerance. "You mean, they aren't born that way, but they choose to be so annoying? Then, they're evil Let's get 'em!" is a common human response to modern "progressive" theories of cultural determinism.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

No comments: