In American Literature, the literary form of “abolitionist writing” is usually connected to the many brave voices that cried out against the enslavement of black Americans in the 19th century. Among these voices were authors such as Lydia Marie Child, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson who used abolitionist writing to reform social discrimination and abolish the institution of slavery. In comparison to these abolitionist writers, Jessie Juliet Knox can also be considered as an abolitionist writer who used In the House of the Tiger to reform anti-Chinese attitudes and eliminate the Chinese slave system that was occurring in the United States during the 20th century. By vividly exemplifying the pernicious experiences Chinese women and girls had to endure, Knox was imposing sympathy on her Anti-Chinese readers in order for them to renounce their prejudiced attitudes and help these Chinese slaves acquire freedom. According to Mason Lowance, the author of Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader, there are many elements and techniques abolitionist writers used to make Americans of the 19th century aware of the evils that were tied to slavery. Abolitionists used characteristics like the emphasis of freedom, the exposure of physical and emotional abuse, and the destruction of family ties as a way to make overt appeals to Americans that slavery needed to be abolished. Though Knox does not use her novel to support black Americans, she does use abolitionist characteristics to advocate for the freedom of Chinese slaves.
**Reader’s Note: You can click on the number by the quotes to view the actual passages from In the House of the Tiger.
The Cruelty of Slave Owners
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, one characteristic Lowance argues is that abolitionist authors like Stowe emphasized the cruelty of slave owners and barbarous practices like the separation of family ties in their works (293). Throughout In the House of the Tiger, Knox uses this same technique to exemplify how abusive highbinders were and how Chinese girls and women were kidnapped or taken from their mothers because of male patriarchy. A prime example that vividly conveys how cruel Chinese slave owners were to Chinese slaves is when Ah Ping, a Chinese girl, feels so hopeless, she is willing to end her life to stop the brutality she endures. “She had once heard of a slave girl committing suicide by drinking pow fah, (a hair dressing used by Chinese ladies) so why could she not do the same? There was no need for her to live, no one wanted her she was only fit to be beaten and abused” (207-208). This passage is significant because it reveals to the audience the neglect and abuse Chinese slaves had to undergo. By the use of presenting this horrific scene, Knox makes the readers imagine how horrendously Ah Ping is being treated by her domestic masters. From a Christian’s view point, committing suicide meant that after death an individual would be condemned to Hell. Thus, from this dreadful scene Christian readers would sense that the environment Ah Ping is in is more abusive and horrendous than Hell. This image is also important because it embodies the terrible domestic violence that was experienced by Chinese slaves. By focusing on the last sentence of the passage, Knox exemplifies the abuse even more by making the readers feel Ah Ping’s hopelessness through her use of language. As Ah Ping feels her life is only important to be ruthlessly beaten, readers get the idea that Ah Ping is used as an animal where she is beaten, neglected, and abused every single day. With the use of this abolitionist characteristic, Knox exposes the dehumanization and wickedness behind Chinese slave owners to advocate anti-Chinese slavery sentiments.
The Breaking of Family Bonds
Besides unveiling the brutality behind Chinese owners, Knox also vividly highlights the destruction of family bonds like many other abolitionist writers did in the 19th century. Throughout the novel, Knox presents the breaking of Chinese family ties in two ways: the kidnapping of Chinese girls from their families, and the selling of Chinese girls as they are taken from their mothers by the males of the family. “Running to her mother she fell at her feet in an agony of tears. She knew there was no escape. The agonized mother could do nothing. Being poor heathen woman there was nothing for it save to allow her precious child to be torn from her arms, to go into what fate she knew not” (67). In this passage, Knox exemplifies the tearing of family bonds by exposing Tai Loy, a young Chinese girl, who is sold by her grandfather to a highbinder. The passage is important because it represents the idea of Chinese patriarchy; in the passage readers can see how Tai Loy’s mother has no authority or power over her father to stop her child from being exploited and sold into the slave market. From a feminist perspective, Knox is able to hint at how Chinese men viewed woman in their culture; women were considered inferior beings that needed to submit to male authority, while Chinese men were superior and had authority over all family ties. By Knox using “language of tears” in this passage, she also evokes sympathy in the reader as they can realistically feel Tai Loy’s desperate emotions as she is being taken away from her mother. Overall, Knox reveals the true hypocrisy behind Chinese men as many of them sold their own flesh and blood out of selfishness and greed.
The Tearing of Hopes and Dreams
Another theme Lowance argues that was prominent in abolitionist writing during the 19th century was that authors conveyed how white slave owners shattered every bit of hope and aspirations for black Americans (105-108). Again, Knox uses the elements of abolitionist writing to show how heartless and inhumane slave owners were to their Chinese slaves. “‘Come up into the light, my dear little slave!’ when the harsh voice of the old woman fell rudely upon her ear, and the sweet vision vanished. ‘What do you mean by doing nothing , you worthless slave? Come quickly, and put the offerings before the gods’” (16)! In this image, Ah Ching, the main character of the novel, begins to day dream about being free. As she comes across some Chinese lanterns, she begins to imagine that they are dainty ladies who have come to save her from her wretched servitude. Ah Ching imagines the ladies are taking her to another place where she is free and does not have to do any hard labor. However, as she is day dreaming Ah Ching’s master, an old ruthless hag, realizes Ah Ching is not doing her domestic duties but instead pretending she is free. Upset and offended that Ah Ching is not doing her choirs, she ruins Ah Ching’s dream and forces her to give tribute to the Chinese Gods. In comparison to abolitionist writers for black Americans, Knox symbolically shows how Chinese owners crushed the hopes and dreams of freedom for many Chinese slaves. Focusing on the word light, which can represent freedom, hope, and Heaven, readers are able to see that the lanterns for Ah Ching symbolize her way out of the abusive environment she is in. Ah Ching is not free physically; however, even when she tries to imagine herself living in a life with freedom, her dream is shattered. Readers cannot help but feel sympathetic towards Ah Ching as they see that even in her dream world she is still confined from experiencing any type of freedom. Knox uses this abolitionist technique as a way to show how Chinese slaves were not only stripped from their lives physically, but also mentally as their dreams and hopes of freedom were shattered by Chinese slave owners.
The Emphasis of Religious Themes
One of the main characterizations of abolitionist writing was that many authors used religious ideas and influences to connect with their readers. Whether it was to show the hypocrisy behind slavery or evoke anti-slavery sentiments among Americans, many abolitionist writers used this as a technique to reform the enslavement of black Americans ( xxi). Creatively, Knox uses this characterization in her literary craft to recognize the severe issue of Chinese enslavement that American people needed to support in stopping. “Looking high up, she now saw for the first time the great shining star which she thought had guided her to that place. It must be the same; and now it was resting, radiant, scintillating, on the topmost bough of the tree of heaven , and just beneath it, swaying gently, was the figure of the Christ-Child, and it held out its arms, pink and dimpled, and it seemed to beckon the rescued one” ( 225). This passage is important because it embodies the story of Ah Ping. After running away from her abusive masters and miserable home on Christmas day, Ah Ping follows the North Star which guides her to a Christian church. Inside, Ah Ping thinks she is in Heaven as she encounters a Christmas tree, a figurine of baby Jesus, but most importantly Donaldina Cameron who tells her she can come live at the Mission Home. Aware that her audience would identify with religious themes and motifs, Knox uses the symbol of Jesus Christ as a way for her American readers to feel sorry for Chinese slaves. Within the quote readers can analyze how Knox uses vivid imagery to make it seem like Jesus Christ is summoning Ah Ping with open arms and in a sense with freedom and love. Symbolically, Knox was trying to communicate to her audience of the day that they needed to be like Jesus Christ. Americans needed to overcome their anti-Chinese attitudes and embrace Chinese people, specifically Chinese slaves, to give them the opportunity to experience freedom, love, and hope.
The Emphasis on Freedom
One of the last techniques Lowance argues that was significant in abolitionist writing was the emphasis of freedom (xiii). Many abolitionist writers used this to advocate the demolishing of the slave system and promote the liberty of black Americans. In addition, the emphasis of freedom was also used to show the hypocrisy within the Declaration of Independence and the American people (xiv). At the heart of her novel, Knox uses this element of abolitionist writing to exemplify how Chinese slaves were being hindered from their freedom and exploited by immoral Chinese slave owners and traders. “Choy Won fell on her knees in front of the paper god hung on the wall, and touching her head three times to the strip of matting spread before him in her queer little heathen way: ‘Please open the iron barred door for me! I am a cloud,’ she whispered, ‘and want to get out with the other clouds’” (164). In this passage Choy Won, also known as Little Cloud in English, pleads to one of the Chinese Gods to let her be free from the wretched environment she is trapped in. Within the quote, readers can analyze how Knox metaphorically embodies the idea of freedom by emphasizing the double meaning of Choy Won’s name. When readers typically think of clouds, the idea of beauty and freedom usually comes to mind; they are particles in the sky that are boundless and have the ability to move infinitely. However, within this quote readers can see that Choy Won does not have the opportunity to experience freedom. Instead, she is confined and suppressed by the iron door that has deprived her from her humanity. Knox uses this image not only to invoke sympathy in her audience, but to also remind her American readers the idea of freedom. Considering the United States symbolizes the land of the free, Knox in a sense forces Americans to see the immorality inside the Chinese slave system as a way to promote freedom and reform Chinese slavery.
Knox, Jessie J. In The House of the Tiger. New York& Cincinnati: Library of the University of Michigan, 1911. Making of America Archive. University of Michigan & Cornell University. Web. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/agw6821.0001.001/1?xc=1&g=moagrp&q1=in+the+house+of+the+tiger&view=image&size=100>.
Lowance, Mason. Against Slavery: An Abolitionist Reader. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.
Other Useful Source:
Campbell, Donna M. “Literary Movements.” Slave Narratives. Washington State University. Web. http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/slave.htm.