Fantasies of Genocide

This painting, titled the unparalleled invasion, took five months to complete and has been the structuring principle in my working life for the first half of 2020. Recently I heard the great Vincent Desiderio describe painting as truly successful only when the artist’s aspiration is about to collapse on itself, but stops just short. I will not make any claims about the success of this painting (I am still in an ongoing debate with myself about whether it is even actually finished, let alone good), but each day, as I went to work on it, I felt something of the possibility of the imminent collapse of my aspiration, and each day, I tried to stop just short.

I think it is possible that, when you have it in your head to invoke the terrible and the sublime, the formal strategies available to you converge onto a type. As I painted this, I did not directly look at Hieronymous Bosch, or El Greco, or Michelangelo, but I must have been thinking about them, because the resemblance feels familial. I suppose I didn’t need to look because these images are buried somewhere deep in my head, and my hands.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510

El Greco, The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1586-1588

Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1536-1541

What business do I have invoking a pictorial strategy so inseparable from the religiosity that birthed it? I cannot fully account for the reasons why Gothic cathedrals or paintings of judgment resonate so much with me, an avowed agnostic. I do not fully know why it feels sufficient as a means of dealing with what this painting is about.

But more so than most of my paintings, this painting is very specifically about something. I spent a long time thinking like an illustrator before I ever had ambitions as a painter, and this painting’s basic ambition is to illustrate Jack London’s short story, The Unparalleled Invasion.

You might know Jack London for Call of the Wild, or White Fang, pastoral fantasies of wilderness enacted through anthropomorphized dogs. I would be hard pressed to think of anything more quintessentially American. 

But London was also a prolific early writer of short stories in the genre we now term “science fiction”. Published in 1910, The Unparalleled Invasion begins with a China unable to be modernized because of a lack of mutual intelligibility between Western and Chinese ways of thought. Japan magnanimously baby steps her into an age of industrial prosperity, since her “hieroglyphs” have something in common with China’s (here I defer to London’s use of “she/her” to describe China and Japan as nations/peoples/monoliths). Armed with modernity, China’s population explodes, and her people begin to spill into the territories of the Western world. Scientists nervously note that there are more Chinese people than white people combined (London defines white people as the populations of “the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, European Russia, and all Scandinavia”, in case you were wondering). 

The (white) world is helpless at China’s feet. A middling scientist employed in the Health Offices of New York City, Jacobus Laningdale, hatches a plan to take care of “the Chinese problem”, and the nations of the West agree. In 1976, America’s bicentennial, a united front of Western nations launch little glass vials containing all known pathogens all across China during the summer heat. Barricading the borders in squadrons and warships, they wait for plague upon plague to wipe every single Chinese person out. Once the wasted country is “sanitized”, straggling survivors summarily executed, and a treaty promising that the West will never use biological warfare again is ratified, China is taken over by a “happy intermingling of nationalities” according to “the democratic American programme”. The (white) world heaves a sigh of relief as a “splendid” renaissance of scientific, cultural, and intellectual output follows.

Perhaps I might be accused of a lack of neutrality in my synopsis, but by my account, this is no work of science fiction. It is a work of speculative genocide. It is a written psychodrama in which our protagonist self-soothes his racist anxieties by inserting himself (as the fictive scientist Jacobus Laningdale, in case the subtlety was lost on you) as the lynchpin whose ingenuity kills every single remaining Chinese person on the planet.

I first read The Unparalleled Invasion in 2012, in a Chinese American literature course. I have not stopped thinking about it since. There are many things of note. London/Laningdale’s “every plague ever in a tube” proposal is medically implausible. Non-western and non-white nations are curiously absent from the story. By imagining a China so resurgent and powerful that genocidal action must be taken, London reveals that he, more than almost anyone, fundamentally believes in China’s power and potential.  At the same time, his estimation of the Chinese people could not be more reductive or diminishing.

I asked my friends to pick out the most racist passage in the story. Is it London describing “the chattering yellow populace, every queued head tilted back, every slant eye turned skyward”? Perhaps it is that he thinks that China’s real threat  “lay in the fecundity of her loins”. I read with visceral disgust about Chinese “carcasses festering in the houses and in the deserted streets, and piled high on the abandoned death-waggon”, but for me, London’s cruelest act of misunderstanding is definitive. It is his characterization of the Chinese mind itself:

The Chinese was the perfect type of industry. He had always been that.
For sheer ability to work no worker in the world could compare with him.
Work was the breath of his nostrils. It was to him what wandering and
fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure had been to other peoples.
Liberty, to him, epitomized itself in access to the means of toil. To
till the soil and labour interminably was all he asked of life and the
powers that be.

It was as if London somehow lanced me through time, from beyond the grave. Perhaps I could be satisfied that the ideas and attitudes of London and his ilk died with him, if these words didn’t ring with painful familiarity in relation to my own 21st century experience. As I applied to college, I was told that I was lucky that I was a girl, because Chinese boys didn’t stand a chance at admissions, even with perfect grades. There were simply too many of them, and to admissions committees, they were functionally interchangeable. Robotic test-optimized STEM machines with work ethics literally whipped into them by tiger moms. At least I was a girl, and at least I was an artist - what demographic providence. Even so, I railed against this perception in my formative years. I looked for nuanced portrayals of Chinese characters in the media I consumed and found none. I began to actually believe that perhaps we were simply not interesting or complex enough to tell stories about. And there was the rhetoric, increasingly prevalent as I got older, about China’s productive potential as a threat to American trade. For London, as much as for his ideological descendants, the Chinese person is at first blush benign. She is a hard worker with enough human intelligence to be expedient to industry, but without the imaginative horsepower to truly be a threat . She is the model minority, apolitical and uninterested in the democratic principle of liberty as long as there is work to occupy her. The threat she poses, when it arises, lies not in any germ of human initiative, but in sheer quantity. This is the crux of why London could so easily kill his fictive hundred millions  - were these beings without wanderlust, without the spirit of adventure, even really human at all?

The Unparalleled Invasion was the first time I had read something that so gleefully imagined my own destruction. Here, the logic of how the violent misimagining of a people could lead to atrocities of scale was laid bare. Of course, for some people, this horror is not merely hypothetical. I think immediately of the Holocaust, of Armenia, of Rwanda. I remember that, in spite of the adverse treatment I’ve faced as a Chinese American, I belong to a racial majority that has been spared some of the cruelest collective traumas. And I still feel a kind of anger and disgust that is hard to shake off. 

Over time, my anger morphed into curiosity. Last year, I decided to paint, one to one, a reproduction of the frontispiece of The Heathen Chinee, a humorous picture book about two honest American men getting cheated by a devious Chinese man with trickery literally hidden up his oversized sleeves. Through the page, you can see the ghost of Phil Little’s illustration of the slant-eyed, crooked-toothed “Chinee”.

The thought here was manifold. In a frontispiece that proudly proclaims authorship, I thought the physical act of reinscribing the authors’ names was a way of holding them to account. Perhaps it was also a way of attempting to neutralize or reclaim the virulence of their words and images through the transmutation inherent in my painter’s hand. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, painting this was, perversely, an act of empathy. To paint a reproduction of a Phil Little illustration, I had to inhabit the logic of how he thought, drew, and designed. I conjured his hand motions. In an embodied sense, I felt something of what it would take to commit this act of what was probably then thought of as benign prejudice. I do not know if this was morally reprehensible. But I do know that I feel more equipped to fight the things I hate when I understand them.

The Unparalleled Invasion is no different. For nearly a decade, finding a way to visualize the story has been my white whale. I cannot see things in my mind’s eye, so I have to find my paintings by fumbling around wrongly in the dark until I get it right. My earliest studies are a far cry from the final.

What they lacked, to return to Vincent Desiderio’s assertion, is a certain enormity of aspiration. I started by merely attempting to depict the Chinese landscape, desolate after the plague. I claim that my painting is an attempt to illustrate The Unparalleled Invasion, and it is. But it is also trying to hold Jack London to account for his fantasies by making them explicit in the way that only representational images can. What would it be to simultaneously be London’s accomplice and executioner, doing him the sarcastic obeisance of faithfully rendering his ugliest imaginings in the cold relief of day? Is it so easy to heave a sigh of relief at dispatching “the Chinese problem” when you see it play out in front of your eyes? And it is an act of deliberate and corrective misunderstanding, because my painting is most surely not what Jack London saw when he wrote this story.

The painting holds something of my baggage too. Jack London could not imagine a Chinese mind capable of wrapping its yellow head around Western ways of thought. I wonder if I would be something of an abomination to him, with my love of Saint Sebastian, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Tintin, and Étienne-Louis Boullée. I wonder what he would think of me mashing space race bubble suits with fictional Levittowns in the same picture plane as Tang Seng and Sun Wukong. Am I not finally proof that the premise of his prejudice is fundamentally flawed? Isn’t the very fact that I could make such a painting a kind of vindication across time? It was when I decided that the painting had to try to hold all of these things that I finally found “it”, whatever “it” is.

I will not tell you what to think about the final product. It is my hope that this essay is not taken as an attempt at explication, but as a potentially fruitful contextualization about history and lived experience. Any painter hopes that their work stands alone. Sometimes I am guilty of looking at the exhibition label before I even look at a painting, because, as you can see, I rather like words too. But I would never want these words to precede the painting itself. If I am convinced of anything about this painting, it is that is doing something. I hope it is doing something akin to what the most dizzying El Grecos to do me. I hope you can feel the near-collapse of my aspiration in its messy edges and squiggled gestures. And, for those so inclined, there is also the story of Jack London, anti-Chinese sentiment, and the 21st century Chinese American painter chasing after poetic justice and the last word in the midst of it all, the story that has been written here.

I began work on this painting before the pandemic swept our lives. I cannot talk about it now without thinking of the grotesque resonance it has with our current times, and perhaps that is exactly the point. The reason I would drag the zombie corpse of an obscure century-old short story back into the present is because it isn’t a zombie corpse at all. There are parts of London’s sentiments and language about the Chinese are present, almost verbatim, in the rhetoric around the pandemic now. I wonder if there aren’t people today who might find the image I have created a call to action, rather than a cautionary tale. I wonder if shining a spotlight on London’s lesser known work helps at all. Should we remember, or should we forget? I think constantly about the power of images, and my responsibility as a maker of them. I suppose I have to accept that, like London, the things I create might be weaponized against my explicit intentions. The decision to make this image was an imperfect one. And it was the one I made. At the very least, this has been the story of why I did so.

Katherine Du, May 2020

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