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The Multiple Layers of Mandarin Brazil


This is a review of Mandarin Brazil. Race, Representation, and Memory by Ana Paulina Lee.

The Multiple Layers of Mandarin Brazil

At the beginning of Mandarin Brazil, Ana says that “This book explores the function of overlapping layers of racialization with a focus on Chinese racialization.” As the book proceeds, the expression “layers of meaning” recurs numerous times, in different chapters. I believe it reappears because it contains an important nucleus of the author’s research. A reader of highly varied archives, Ana chases down these layers and manages to extract meanings that bring a new understanding to the construction of the Brazilian nation and the roles of different races in modernizing the State. With our very first reading of Mandarin Brazil, we uncover the intense commercial and political ties that linked China and Brazil by way of Portugal. Ana builds a new documentary archive that allows her to go back to the sixteenth century and trace the commercial routes and political transactions between China and Portugal. The resulting map reveals a complex and intense itinerary of comings and goings between East and West. Using this historical-methodological framework, she develops the research that re-thinks the construction of modern Brazil. As readers, we must keep this framework in mind throughout the book because it is crucial to understanding the dynamics between the different layers of the process.

The nucleus of the research begins in the mid-nineteenth century and goes to almost the mid-twentieth. Just like she had to expand time to understand modern Brazil, Ana also had to go beyond national borders. Her research has no territorial limits because she constructs and studies a “circumoceanic” world, where traffic (of merchandise and slaves), colonization, and imperialism recognize transactions and negotiations, not borders. Ana details extra-territorial transactions that include Portuguese merchants in Macau, Chinese diplomats in Brazil, and the Portuguese writer and diplomat Eca de Queiroz in Cuba, where he studied racial politics that would be applied in Brazil. And then there was the constant presence of the United States, where politics and racial stereotypes against and about the Chinese population were developed and then globalized. In studying these routes of conquest and expansion, Ana radically questions the ideas of East and West, and North and South, as separate hemispheres, and instead describes a world integrated by the development of capital and imperialism.

The book narrates the process by which “the Chinese question” became a problem for both China and Brazil, with Portugal’s active mediation. And it focuses on the implications of the construction of Chineseness and the yellow peril for racial politics in Brazil. The book thus problematizes the geopolitical perspective as well as static ways of understanding racialization, racial dynamics, and racial hierarchies in a multiethnic country. And key to this work is Ana’s archive. She assembles a singular archive that contains ceramics, popular theatre pieces, highbrow literature, newspaper chronicles, popular music, debates over abolition, graffiti, comics, caricatures, diplomatic documents, and (pseudo)sociological essays. It also contains memoryscapes of Macau, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, urban spaces that preserve the names and other vestiges of old and new power dynamics. Opening with a poster of a street in Macau and ending with street graffiti in Rio, the book exhibits layers of the China-Brazil relationship that remain alive in the urban memory.

Of these multiple layers, I want to highlight two that I find particularly compelling. The first emerges when the book moves beyond the political and commercial links between China, Portugal, and Brazil to describe the frameworks that these transactions imprinted on culture. It is a visual culture that most obviously registers the Chinese presence in Luso-Brazilian society as a true otherness. The Chinese appear as the objects of exoticist representation, subjects who had been in the country for centuries and yet still are not integrated into the national community. Chinese hats, Chinese ponytails, and slanted eyes appear in sixteenth-century porcelains but also in recent graffiti, magazines, and music. The book makes the political point that both lettered and popular cultures are allied with capital and power, an alliance that causes the Chinese in Brazil to be seen as others, even today. Cultural productions reveal these continuities.

The second layer that calls my attention is present throughout the book: human capital. Mandarin Brazil can be read as a miniature version of the appropriation of the workforce as the principal input of global capitalism. Although the Portuguese initiated the traffic of slaves from Africa, they also initiated unfree labor, an alternative to slavery built on the traffic of Chinese workers. This workforce and its reproduction were racialized from the capitalism’s very beginning, and Ana shows that Brazil played a central role in this process. The Chinese migration was a transition between slavery and more modern forms of exploitation of human work.

The conclusions to the book, which describe contemporary cases of Chinese migrants used as slave labor in Brazil, demonstrate a subterranean continuity in the exploitation of the workforce, from the beginnings of capitalism to its current form. Although twenty-first century migrants the world over no longer resemble sixteenth-century slaves, capital remains largely the same as it implements new forms of exploitation that are adapted to the current conditions of global capitalism.

Mandarin Brazil thus questions race, representation, and memory and politicizes an archive and a history. It returns us to the sixteenth century in order to bring a new perspective to contemporary challenges. In the context of conversations about Latin America, Mandarin Brazil questions that “misplaced ideas” comprise the history of that country, and also suggests that the ideas are not placed but in motion.

Last Updated 8 months ago


Graciela Montaldo, « The Multiple Layers of Mandarin Brazil », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on October 3, 2018. Full URL for this article

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