© Copyright 2018 Whitney Rahardja, Ryerson University
World War II was a victorious era for North America, with their triumph over Germany and Japan. Canada and the U.S benefited their victory from notable allies, mainly the U.K, Soviet Union and France. One of these allies included China. War comics portrayed the Chinese as allies to the West (U.S and Canada), as illustrated in “Clift Steele and the Mystery of Magon” in the 14th issue of Commando Comics, where a soldier code-named Captain Frank Hillary was sent into the Japanese camps as a spy, with the objective of unraveling their heinous plans and military secrets (Darian 5).
Though not directly mentioned in the comic, Hillary’s Asiatic features confirmed that he was in fact, a Chinese ally. Both China and the West shared Japan as their common opposition, therefore they co-operated as allies in defeating Japan, as recorded in World War II history. This exhibit explores the relationship between China and the West as allies, focusing on the role of the Chinese as sidekicks, which resulted in a victorious glory for both nations.
In the 1940’s, comics reflected hope for a better future after the war, where enemies were defeated by North American heroes like the beautiful and mighty Nelvana, the clueless yet lucky Loop the Droop, and the youthful symbol of hope, Captain Marvel Junior. In some of these comics, it is suggested that the heroes had assistance from Asian allies.
First, the depiction of Asian characters in World War II comics will be examined. Aside from their mutual physical attributes of caricatured eyes and high cheekbones, unlike the Japanese, Chinese characters are illustrated as courageous, full of leadership and ambition (Goodnow and Kimble 58). These courageous Chinese are also drawn in comics that featured the American air force team known as The Flying Tigers. Historically, the Flying Tigers were an American based Volunteer Group (AVG) of fighter pilots founded in 1941, because Chinese fighter pilots were incapable of being trained to prevent Japanese forces from entering through Western China, and into Burma (Troha 85). This showed early co-operation and partnership between America and China.
So why can’t the Chinese be the heroes? Goodnow and Kimble stated that, “The Flying Tigers story lines had established the Chinese as a kind of contemptible and erratic sidekick, not a fellow hero” (63). This could be for a variety of reasons, such as the fact that China did not have advanced aircraft technology and training, which prevented them from defeating the Japanese on their own. China was, however, a large nation with sufficient military. Combined with the U.S and Canadian army, China became a powerhouse in driving the Japanese out of their country.
This cultural stereotype of the Chinese being bound by their feudal tradition dates back to the political relationship between China and the U.S in 1944, where the Chinese government experienced internal turmoil between the Nationalists and Communists, making them unstable in planning their defense against Japan. American aid came when U.S Army Commander, General Albert C. Wedemeyer used his strategic reasoning and tactful approach to integrate himself with the Chinese Nationalists. Wedemeyer was able to identify the weaknesses and lack of coordination within the Chinese government that made them vulnerable to Japan’s attacks (Wang 238). At this stage, the Japanese had begun their notorious Ichigo Operation in April 1944, which has taken over most of Central China. When Wedemeyer realized that China was falling further under Japanese control, he made it a priority to drive Japanese forces out of China. In terms of war strategy, Wedemeyer ensured his tactics were compatible with those of Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, with whom Wedemeyer cooperated well with (238).
Going back to the comic series, how is it acceptable for Asians to remain as sidekicks, and not as equals with the West? Despite the physically unattractive, grammatically incorrect depiction of Asian characters in comics, there is evidence to suggest that the Chinese had a more significant role in the war. Aside from serving as allies, the Chinese also benefited from the West, which has allowed them to experience modernism, economic growth and global empowerment.
Asians in Contemporary Films
An issue from Critical Arts journal introduces a new era of Chinese and Western collaborated movies in which, unlike in the comics, Chinese characters are pictured as decently cut, well-dressed and attractive individuals who speak correct English with only a hint of their native tongue. Set during the 1938 Japanese invasion, the film Pavilion of Women defies all stereotypes of Asian women being sexual objects for Western men’s desire, and Asian men as mere sidekicks (Yang 249). Here, the marriage-oppressed, Chinese female lead of Madame Wu is “led to the ‘correct’ track of freedom and liberty” by the male character of Andre (251), who is an American missionary-doctor, while still maintaining her independence and ability to make a decision that liberates her household from the chains of feudalism. This differs greatly from most Asian movies that are solely created for Western audiences, where the female Asian protagonist does not do much other than falling in love and being rescued by her “white male saviour”. Though this does not contribute directly to the argument of Asians as loyal allies, it does show early co-operation and a positive relationship between China and the West in a World War II setting.
What can be derived from the above points? First, it’s an undeniable fact that the role of Asians in comics and films cannot exceed the heroic roles of Western characters. From World War II, it had been a clear fact that the Chinese needed help from the West; therefore the Flying Tigers air force was formed. Even the late Chinese Nationalist, Chiang Kai-Shek stated his disappointment in the West’s view of China as only needing aid (Wang 244). But is this really a bad thing? The answer is no. For there are many factors influencing the Chinese governance that made it difficult for them to achieve victory. One is their strict influence of Confucian teaching (Wang 246), which puts values in social order and limits of individuality, and is greatly implemented in their military strategies. For this reason, Western influence became crucial in modifying those traditional, feudal strategies into tactics that could bring victory. The West provided a ‘bridge’ that guided China toward a path that promised victory over Japan, and China returned the favour by crossing that bridge to the West as allies, forming a partnership. Similar how in Pavilion of Women, the character Madame Wu was led out of feudal oppression in the correct path by the American missionary-doctor Andre. This film not only shows racial integration between China and the U.S, but also features early feminism in Asia. In a wonderful irony, this film was released in 2001, just before China made its entry into the World Trade Organization (Yang 250).
Modern China and Japan
On a great, triumphant ending, Asian roles in comics and the battlefield is not a gesture of the West in belittling them, but is a gateway that allows Asians to showcase their courage, cleverness and heroic deeds that contributed to the victory of World War II. Integration with the West has resulted in positive outcomes for China and Japan, as both nations have become advanced and industrialized today, each holding a powerful position in the global economy. Both China and Japan have come out of Imperialism and have become modern nations that continue to benefit from Western ideology, while maintaining the uniqueness and exoticism of their people and culture.
Darian, Jon “Cliff Steele and the Mystery of Magon”. Commando Comics No.14, pp.1-6.
Bell Features Canada, 1944.
Goodnow, Trischa, and James J. Kimble. The 10 Cent War: Comic Books, Propaganda,
and World War II. University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Troha, Anthony L. “Historical Note on the ‘Flying Tigers’. “ Physics Today, vol. 55,
no. 7, 2002, pp. 84-85. Ryerson University Library & Archives. Accessed 10
November 2018 from https://physicstoday-scitation-
Wang, Peter C. “Revisiting US-China Wartime Relations: A study of Wedemeyer’s
China Mission”. Journal of Contemporary China, vol.18, no. 59, 2009, pp. 233-
247. Ryerson University Library & Archives. Accessed 20 October 2018 from
Yang, Jing. “The Reinvention of Hollywood’s Classic White Saviour Tale in
Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Pavilion of Women and the Flowers of War”.
Critical Arts, vol. 28, no. 2, 2014, pp. 247. Ryerson University Library &
Archives. Accessed 20 October 2018 from https://journals-scholarsportal-
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.