Elizabeth Paich Professor Bloom CPLT143 February 23, 2011
When Bias Shows: Comparing Accurate and Racist Portrayals in The Blue Lotus
This essay will examine Hergé’s portrayal of Chinese, Japanese, and Western peoples in his graphic novel The Blue Lotus. The characters of Tintin and Chang, in both actions and appearance, show camaraderie established between East and West as they bond in The Blue Lotus – discussing and refuting misleading stereotypes about their respective cultures. However, it is apparent that the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and eventual exiting of the Japanese from the League of Nations during the 1930s influenced Hergé and Zhang Chongren, Hergé’s confrere for the album. While Hergé does not combine the appearances of the Chinese and the Japanese into an indistinguishable group of “Asians”, racist portrayals of both Asians and Westerners are still intentionally perceptible, especially in characters who are supporters of governments that tote Imperialistic ideology like that of Mr Gibbons, the Chief of Police of the Shanghai International Settlement, and the majority of Japanese officials including Mr Mitsuhirato. Thus, The Blue Lotus contains characters that are a combination of both accurateness and racist exaggeration.
After Tintin rescues Chang Chong-chen from drowning, the two young men take time to share exaggerated misconceptions about their respective cultures and come to form a bond shaped from new understandings within the panels found on page 43. This bonding happens in the two central rows of the page as Tintin and Chang dry themselves on the riverbank. Between panels 6 and 7, a dumbfounded Chang questions Tintin as to why he would even consider rescuing a Chinese person, assuming that all Caucasians are “white devils” (Hergé, 43/7). Chang explains his feelings about Westerners to Tintin: “I thought all white devils were wicked, like those who killed my grandfather and grandmother long ago.” (Hergé, 43/6-7). Chang mentions that his opinions originate from his father - an interesting note that denotes the “hearsay” of prejudices, and also how such biases can be passed from generation to generation until such views become intolerance (Hergé, 43/7). Tintin is shocked to hear Chang’s reasoning, but assures him that such beliefs come from a lack of cultural understanding (Hergé, 43/6, 8). As Tintin explains the negative consequences of ignorance and stereotypes, he points out that Westerners also have misconceptions about the Chinese. From panels 9 through 11, examples of Western stereotypes about the Chinese are shown: a cunning and malicious-looking man, adorned in Manchurian garb including a queue and deadly fingernails, Chinese women sobbing in pain because of their bound feet, and also Chinese infants being discarded into a river. Tintin’s explanation of such imagery follows thusly:
Lots of Europeans still believe that all Chinese are cunning and cruel and wear pigtails, are always inventing tortures, and eating rotten eggs and swallows’ nests. The same stupid Europeans are quite convinced that all Chinese have tiny feet, and even now little Chinese girls suffer agonies with bandages designed to prevent feet from developing normally. They’re even convinced that Chinese rivers are full of unwanted babies, thrown in when they are born. (Hergé, 43/9-11) After such descriptions of erroneousness beliefs about Chinese culture, Chang and Tintin share a laugh – displaying how ridiculous such exaggerated assumptions about other cultures can become. Chang and Tintin form a bond on this philosophy and learn to successfully work together throughout the rest of the adventure as partners.
In addition, it is impossible not to notice the similarities in Tintin and Chang’s appearances throughout the panels on page 43. They are both of similar heights and builds, especially visible in panel 18 as Tintin and Chang begin walking to Hukow (Hergé, 43). In addition, it is evident that the two characters have uniquely flipped bangs, an intentional and endearing parallel between the two of them, especially when Tintin’s iconic cowlick is dampened and hanging downwards as he rescues the drowning Chang between panels 2 and 3 (Hergé, 43). Such similarities are pushed even further on page 62, when Mr Wang officially recognizes Chang and Tintin as brothers during Tintin’s farewell banquet (Hergé, panel 2). In the first panel on the page, it is almost impossible to distinguish the teary-eyed Tintin from the other capped and black haired Chinese guests at the table because of Tintin’s own Chinese costume and black skullcap (Hergé, 62). Tintin’s appearance shows his successful assimilation into the Chinese culture by the end of his adventure.
However, Hergé’s work is not without racist portrayals of both Asians and Europeans – specifically those who support Imperialism in The Blue Lotus. Such characters include the Westerners Mr Gibbons, the Police Chief of the Shanghai International Settlement and the Japanese Mr Mitsuhirato along with other various Japanese officials. Theses characters’ appearances are warped into racist caricatures because they all support Imperialism – an ideology Hergé began to frown upon as he did his detailed research with Zhang for The Blue Lotus and learned about the supposed Japanese sabotage of a South Manchurian Railway (see Hergé, Historical Note, 60/1-2, 4-5; Jühne, Mar, Remick, Durrant, Chevalier, and Masami).
Because of their racist and imperialistic beliefs, Mr Gibbons and the Police Chief are two Westerners who are negatively portrayed as arrogant and uncouth. In pages 6 and 7, Mr Gibbons is introduced after an accident with a rickshaw driver in last row on page 6. Immediately, it is apparent that Gibbons is racist as he assumes the rickshaw driver is fully to blame for the accident and declares, while threatening to beat the driver barbarically with his walking cane: “Dirty little China-man! To barge into a white man” (Hergé, 6/7). Gibbons then proceeds into the Occidental Private Club where he ironically meets up with his other white comrades, including the Chief of Police of the Shanghai International Settlement. Gibbons then begins his tirade, irate from his run-in with the rickshaw driver: “What’s the world coming to? Can’t we even teach that yellow rabble [the Chinese] to mind their manners now? It’s up to us to [civilize] the savages. and look what we’ve done for them, all the benefits of our superb western civilization. ” (Hergé, 7/7-8). As Gibbons gesticulates during his rant, he slaps the tray out of a Chinese waiter’s hands – and does not cease to begin belittling him as he did the rickshaw driver. Gibbons’ actions and words carry with them an air of white supremacy and Western imperialistic ideology.
However, the Police Chief, who has been listening to Gibbons diatribe, does not even need to speak for the readers to understand that he is sinister and corrupt. He is introduced in 5 on page 7 with bared teeth clenching a pipe and a malicious brow as he welcomes his friend Gibbons into the Occidental Private Club (Hergé). It is shocking to learn in panel 12 on the same page that he is a police chief, who should stand for order and safety for all citizens, and yet is willing to catch Tintin solely on the grounds that he defended the scapegoat rickshaw driver Gibbons bumped into, a native Chinese (Hergé). With his agreement to catch Tintin on that basis alone, it is clear the Police Chief is not only a racist caricature of a Westerner but also a racist himself.
In addition, Hergé’s emphasis on accuracy for his portrayal of the native Chinese population in Shanghai is contrasted by his racist portrayals of Japanese officials throughout The Blue Lotus. An interesting example of the contrast is easily seen on between the pages of 59 and 60. The large gauche panel at the bottom of page 59 depicts Tintin peering into the Blue Lotus opium den – filled with accurate Chinese script on scrolls, colorful lanterns, beautiful wall scrolls, and opium smokers lounging in what appears to be a very well run establishment. Two men on the left of the panel, and a waiter carrying a tray, appear to be native Chinese, while the man on the right with his back turned and his face obstructed by the angle appears to be either Western or Chinese (there is no reason it could not be either, as Mr Mitsuhirato ships opium to Western nations as well) (Hergé, 18/2). While the smokers lounge and take hits of their pipes, they each look like unique and identifiable individuals with no racist stereotyping of their faces or dress – when it could be very easily drawn and portrayed in much more negative manner (Hergé, 59/8). On page 60, panel 6 shows three Japanese officials storming out of the League of Nations – each one a toothy, haughty and racist caricature and each barely indistinguishable from one another – especially in their uniform Western clothes (Hergé). Their appearances match that of Mr Mitsuhirato – seen on page 61 for the final time in an article that details how he commits hara-kiri – otherwise known as seppuku, the ritual suicide made famous the by samurai warriors (Hergé, 61/7). The self-admitted “true Japanese” is portrayed as pug-nosed, spectacle wearing, high-cheeked, and bucktoothed – just like the Japanese delegates storming of the League of Nations (Hergé, 8/5, 61/7). Aside from build and height, the majority of Japanese officials in The Blue Lotus are made into scowling and goofy villains that are recognizably similar to one another. This is racist caricature, as it separates the Japanese, bundled into a single type, from the Chinese, each drawn as an individual person – even in crowds (take for example the gauche panels on pages 6, 45, and the final image in the news article panel on page 60).
Hergé’s representations of characters in The Blue Lotus are a mix of accurate and racist portrayals of Asians and Westerners. Misunderstandings between cultures are settled as the characters of Tintin and Chang appear similar in appearance and mindset after meeting one another – and in the end become brothers. Their bond represents the meeting of East and West, along with the dispelling of misconceptions about both cultures. But Hergé also presents Japanese and Western Imperialists as racist caricatures, displaying a dislike, along with his Chinese colleague Zhang Chongren, for imperialism and the Japanese actions in China during the Manchurian Incident. Thus, while Hergé does not combine the appearances of the Chinese and Japanese into single group of “Asians”, as Orientalists have in the past, there are still racist portrayals of both Asians and Westerners in The Blue Lotus.
Ellis, Allen. "Comic Art in Scholarly Writing: A Citation Guide." ComicsResearch.org. Comic Art & Comics Area of the Popular Culture Association, 15 Sept. 2002. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.
Hergé. The Adventures of Tintin: The Blue Lotus. Trans. Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. 6th ed. Boston: Little, Brown and (Inc.), 1984. Print.
Jühne, Jesper, Irene Mar, Aaron Remick, Anthony Durrant, Etienne Chevalier, and Chikahiro Masami. "The Blue Lotus." Tintinologist.org: The Tintin Fan's Resource. Tintinologist.org, 26 Apr. 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.