Asian Women, Christianity, and American Purity Culture

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1995.

A genre-bending poetry collection written by Cha that focuses on several women: the Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon, Joan of Arc, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Demeter and Persephone, Cha's mother Hyun Soon Huo, and Cha herself. It is considered her magnus opus and found on numerous Asian American literature syllabi and reading lists as well as the subject of a seminal collection of essays theorizing Asian American women and writing.[1]Dictée gives insight into the inscrutability of the Asian female subject in terms that are made legible by colonial grammars. Of note is the figure of the diseuse, one who recites at a distance, like an oracle or perhaps like the shamanistic priestess found in Korean indigenous spirituality.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts. New York: Vintage International, 1989.

The Woman Warrior focuses on the stories of five women—Kingston's long-dead aunt, "No-Name Woman"; a mythical female warrior, Fa Mu Lan; Kingston's mother, Brave Orchid; Kingston's aunt, Moon Orchid; and finally Kingston herself—told in five chapters. The chapters integrate Kingston's lived experience with a series of talk-stories—spoken stories that combine Chinese history, myths, and beliefs. Kingston’s work offers us thick descriptions of a wide range of voices, and stories full of ghosts and myths and hauntings. These narratives offer a different engagement of Asian female subjectivity that cuts across national, cultural, and religious borders.

Kim, Eugenia, The Kinship of Secrets, London: Bloomsbury Press, 2018.

A story about Najin and Calvin Cho, with their young daughter Miran, who travel from South Korea to the United States in search of a new life. The Chos make the difficult decision to leave their infant daughter, Inja, behind with their extended family; soon, they hope, they will return to her. War breaks out in Korea, and there is no end in sight to the separation. Miran grows up in prosperous American suburbia, under the shadow of the daughter left behind, as Inja grapples in her war-torn land with ties to a family she doesn't remember. The narrative illustrates the effects of war and the impact of transnational estrangements as parallel or twinned phenomena embodied by the two sisters, and a look into the particular effects of U.S. interventionism in constructing Asian womanhood.

Lê, Thi Diem Thúy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

The novel is a fragmented sequence of events recounted by a female narrator who tells the stories of her past experiences. The story describes the life of her family in America from the lens of her childhood, but it constantly shifts back and forth between Vietnam, the home of her parents, and California, the home of their present. The novel engages themes of identity, family dynamics, and war through a disjointed narrative of five stories through poetic, liturgical cadences. Most meaningful is the narrator’s voice, and what it suggests about her agency and subjectivity as an Asian woman in America.

[1] Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Kim, Elaine H. Lowe, Lisa; Sunn Wong, Shelley, Writing Self, Writing Nation: A Collection of Essays on Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (Berkeley, CA: Third Woman Press, 1994).

Tu, Thuy Linh Nguyen. Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021.

An examination of the legacies of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty, showing how US wartime efforts to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin has impacted how contemporary Vietnamese women use pharmaceutical cosmetics to repair the damage from the war’s lingering toxicity. In particular, Tu leads us to see skin as “a repository, an alternative archive,” through which Asian women are figured through the intimacies of many continents. 

Kang, Milian. The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

This study looks closely for the first time at the intimate encounters across tables at nail salons, focusing on New York City, where such they have become ubiquitous. Kang discovers multiple motivations for the manicure--from the pampering of white middle class women to the artistic self-expression of working class African American women to the mass consumption of body-related services. The Managed Hand invites us to consider how Asian women are figured in relationship to women of other ethnicities, and how this particular labor often exacerbates economic and social disparities.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese American Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press 1995.

The custom of footbinding is the thematic touchstone for Judy Yung's study of Chinese American women during the first half of the twentieth century. Using this symbol of subjugation to examine social change in the lives of these women, she shows the stages of "unbinding" that occurred in the decades between the turn of the century and the end of World War II. The setting for this history is San Francisco, which had the largest Chinese population in the United States. Oral history interviews, previously unknown autobiographies, both English- and Chinese-language newspapers, government census records, and exceptional photographs from public archives and private collections. Yung gives us a view of how Asian women are incorporated and assimilated into the larger U.S. American body politic--its nuances and flaws. 

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Ornamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Focusing on the cultural and philosophic conflation between the "oriental" and the "ornamental," Ornamentalism offers an original and sustained theory about Asiatic femininity in western culture. Tracing a direct link between the making of Asiatic femininity and a technological history of synthetic personhood in the West from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, Ornamentalism demonstrates how the construction of modern personhood in the multiple realms of law, culture, and art has been surprisingly indebted to this very marginal figure and places Asian femininity at the center of an entire epistemology of race.

Kang, Laura Hyun Yi. Traffic in Asian Women. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

"Asian women" functions as an analytic with which to understand the emergence, decline, and permutation of U.S. power/knowledge at the nexus of capitalism, state power, global governance, and knowledge production throughout the twentieth century. She specifically proposes “thinking ‘Asian women’ as method” (Ch. 1)––as analytic rather than hapless object of study subject to “empathetic identification with those bodies in pain” (35). Her work is instructive in its focus on “comfort women issue,” especially honing in on topics like truth, reparation, and memorials for our re-consideration, as well as helping us to consider how these systems perpetuate certain patterns of violence towards marginalized women.

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996.

Lowe argues that understanding Asian immigration to the United States is fundamental to understanding the racialized economic and political foundations of the nation. She discusses the contradictions whereby Asians have been included in the workplaces and markets of the U.S. nation-state, yet, through exclusion laws and bars from citizenship, they have been distanced from the terrain of national culture. A national memory haunts the conception of Asian American, persisting beyond the repeal of individual laws and sustained by U.S. wars in Asia, in which the Asian is seen as the perpetual immigrant, as the “foreigner-within.” She argues that “racialization along the legal axis of definitions of citizenship,” as well as the gendered formations of such racial politics included and excluded men or women from Asia as they attempted entry into the U.S.

DeRogatis, Amy. Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation In American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

An exploration of evangelicals' surprising and often-misunderstood beliefs about sex--who can do what, when, and why--and of the many ways in which they try to bring those beliefs to bear on American culture. Demolishing the myth of evangelicals as anti-sex, she shows that American evangelicals claim that “fabulous sex”--in the right context--is viewed as a divinely-sanctioned, spiritual act. DeRogatis elaborates specifically on how “for American evangelicals, sexuality and salvation are closely linked,” and how this fuels much of the outward, public conversations of behavior delineating not only the values of marital sex, but ultimately the evils of extra-marital sex.

Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. New York: Basic Books, 2017

The origins of the conflicts around gay marriage, transgender rights, birth control, or broadly sex, historian R. Marie Griffith argues, lie in sharp disagreements that emerged among American Christians a century ago. From the 1920s onward, a once-solid Christian consensus regarding gender roles and sexual morality began to crumble, as liberal Protestants sparred with fundamentalists and Catholics over questions of obscenity, sex education, and abortion. Griffith provides a way into numerous ways sex and sexuality as mediated through a specific Christinaity are used to construct the U.S. American subject, and those bodies and identities that necessary for constituting those borders.

Kim-Kort, Mihee. “I’m a Scholar of Religion. Here’s What I See in the Atlanta Shootings,” New York Times. March 24, 2021.

An op-ed piece I wrote on the victims of the Atlanta spa massacre to highlight the constitutive nature of religion, race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S.

Moslener, Sara. Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Moslener offers a history of the sexual purity movement of contemporary evangelicalism that goes beyond the Religious Right, demonstrating a link between sexual purity rhetoric and fears of national decline that has shaped American ideas about morality since the nineteenth century.

She explains in the introduction: “In response to the threat of moral and national decline, the movement provides ethical regulations derived from religious values and nationalist ideologies. At this intersection of nation and religion, purity reformers, now and then, employ theories of rise and decline in order to position sexual purity, and the adolescents who embody it, as the greatest hope for restoring America’s lost innocence.” Especially salient here is how post-Cold War contexts were ripe for the “rhetoric of sexual purity, or more precisely a rhetoric of sexual fear, connecting sexual immorality with national insecurity.”

Asian American writers workshop podcast, one of the latest:

Crying in H Mart , Michelle Zauner

Asian Americans, PBS series

Seeking Asian Female, Debbie Lum, dir, documentary film

Call Her Ganda, PJ Raval, dir, documentary film 

[1] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 4.
[2] Elaine Kim, Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (Philadephlia: Temple University Press, 1982), 13.
[3] Ibid., 4.
[5] Kandice Chuh, Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
[6] I expand on the language that Lowe provides in Immigrant Acts.
[7] I borrow from language in Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism.
Mihee Kim-Kort is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University. She is broadly interested in Asian American identity, Christianity, and the relationship between race and religion.