For my next impression, Josephine Owens!

ms29_000_ModernSketchThis is a cover from the Shanghai magazine Modern Sketch. If you want to learn more about the magazine, you can go here. What I find interesting about this cover is that it is celebrating  the success of the “people of color” at the 1936 Olympics. Who is this lady? Helen Stephens would seem a possibility, although it does not look much like her.1  It actually looks like a cross between Jessie Owens and Josephine Baker to me, which may be the point.

1936 was of course the Nazi Olympics, and most Americans know how Jessie Owens stood up for the American principle of racial equality and humiliated Hitler.2 As far as I know, nobody has written about these Olympics from an Asian point of view. According to Wikipedia there were a number of non-white winners in Berlin. India defended its gold in field hockey, but I am not sure how familiar Chinese readers would have been with that sport. Son Kitei won the marathon for the Empire of Japan, but since he was actually Sohn Kee-chung and a Korean it does not seem likely that a Chinese publication would emphasize him. The suggestion that Asians could only be modern under Japanese tutelage does not seem like it would sell many magazines.  Khadr El Touni of Egypt won gold in weightlifting, and he shows how slim the choices are if you want a non-white, non-colonized winner.

There should have been another option, however. Lots of Chinese people had been hoping that Yang Xiuqiong would bring back gold for China in swimming. 3 The Mermaid was China’s heroine, model for women, and spokeswoman for the New Life Movement.

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It’s complicated. See Gao’s book. When she went to Berlin she stood shoulder to shoulder with blond women.

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She lost. China loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser, and so she became a national laughingstock. Here is the back cover of the same issue of Modern Sketch showing Yang with her goose egg.

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So it is not that surprising that the front image shows a woman. If you want to emphasize China’s national humiliation, and that was a huge theme in the 1930’s, you need to tie it to Yang, so you need a female winner. Frankly, given the level of anti-African racism in China it is not surprising that Modern Sketch would emphasize the contrast with a figure that is half Jesse Owens (who won) and half Josephine Baker, given that many of the magazine’s jazz-listening readers would have been familiar with the star of Danse Sauvage and her image of African …sexuality and primitivism?

So, if you (or I) are looking for a nice set of images to teach about gender and internationalism in China, here you go.

Gao Yunxiang’s book is an excellent source on this. Also see Morris, Visualizing Modern China


  1. not that it would much matter to Modern Sketch 

  2. Soon after that we came to the aid of Poland  

  3. Gao, Yunxiang Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making during China’s National Crisis, 1931-45. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. p.178 is where all this comes from.  

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