The Chinese of the American Imagination: 19th Century Trade Card Images



    1. Lenore Metrick-Chen received a joint PhD from the Committee on Social Thought and the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago. For a number of years, she was the Contemporary Art Educator at the Des Moines Art Center. Currently she teaches art history in the Department of Art & Design at Drake University. Metrick-Chen's interest in the dialogue between “Western” and “Eastern” arts informs her knowledge of contemporary culture. Her most recent writings are “Between Two: Herbert Brün's Computer Graphics,” appearing in the upcoming volume Herbert Brün Symposium Notes, published by the Kentler Gallery, NY and “Andy Goldsworthy's Art as a Cultural Measure,” appearing in (Im) permanence: Cultures In/Out of Time, published by Carnegie Mellon.
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In the last third of the 19th century thousands of advertising trade cards were created and distributed throughout the eastern United States. The ascendancy of trade cards coincided with the years surrounding the first Chinese Exclusion Laws banning Chinese immigration. Because of this suppression, few Americans in the eastern states had direct contact with Chinese people. Nevertheless, hundreds of trade card images depicted Chinese figures and the Chinese image became a familiar icon. Trade card iconography had little to do with the product advertised but was part of the emerging new visual language. Its visual semiotics reflected social and cultural issues arising during this tumultuous period of modernization. Images of Chinese people became part of the changing economy of signs; presented as liminal figures, they allowed Americans to explore social and personal boundaries, and to express unfamiliar sensations that were less readily acknowledged in the written language of the time.