BoB Curated Playlists

Chinese Whispers: China in Western Minds since 1300
By Dr Stephen McDowall, University of Edinburgh

Turandot (Sky Arts 1, 2023)


This playlist brings together examples of ‘China’ (very broadly conceived) as represented in Western film and television over the past century. Individual works occupy different positions on a spectrum from the overtly racist (e.g. The Face of Fu Manchu) to the more sympathetic, but even many positive portrayals employ age-old stereotypes we would consider to be problematic today (e.g. Charlie Chan at the Olympics), while many of the films included here also feature performances by non-Asian actors in yellowface. China appears as chaotic and corrupting (e.g. The Shanghai Gesture), as needing to be saved by Western intervention (e.g. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness), and as a nation of inhuman communist automata (e.g. Pork Chop Hill), while the Chinatowns of London and California are dark settings for mysterious and sometimes supernatural criminal activity (e.g. Big Trouble in Little China). Chinese women are presented as being available to the white male gaze (e.g. Piccadilly), while also being dangerously corrupting and duplicitous (e.g. M. Butterfly), although the superiority of Western values is usually enough to overcome the inherent barbarity of China in the end (e.g. 55 Days at Peking). Andrei Șerban’s staging of Puccini’s Turandot at the Royal Opera House in 2014, the final entry, is a useful reminder that China as an object of Western fantasy exists on stage as well.

The history of China on Western screens is also a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood legends; this list includes performances by William Holden, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Jack Nicholson, Nancy Kwan, James Hong and, of course, the great Anna May Wong.


By Dr Stephen McDowall, University of Edinburgh


  • Chinese studies


China, Chinatown, Race, Yellowface

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