Edith Maud Eaton
    (Sui Sin Far) (1865-1914)

    Contributing Editor: Amy Ling

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    If students are to appreciate the work of Edith Eaton fully, they must be given its historical and social context, namely the reception of Chinese by dominant Americans before and during her period. Students should know that though the Chinese were never enslaved in this country, as were Africans, they were brought here in large numbers as indentured laborers or coolies. The Chinese Exclusion Act was only repealed in 1943 and naturalized citizenship for Asians was permitted in 1954, long after African-Americans and American Indians were recognized as American citizens. Initially attracted to California by the discovery of gold in the mid-nineteenth century, by the l860s thousands of Chinese laborers were enticed here to construct the mountainous western section of the transcontinental railroad. Almost from the beginning, prejudice against them was strong. They were regarded as an alien race with peculiar customs and habits that made them unassimilable in a nation that wanted to remain white; and their hard-working, frugal ways, their willingness to work for lower wages than whites, rendered them an economic threat and thus targets of racial violence.

    Into this environment, Edith Eaton came as a small child from England, living first in Hudson City, New York, and later settling in Montreal. Though her writing career began on the Montreal newspaper, The Star, she was to make her mark in the United States (she lived most of her adult life in Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco), writing articles and short stories using the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far.

    Edith Eaton's autobiographical essay and her stories, of which "In the Land of the Free" is an example, show what it was to be a Chinese woman in the white man's world. Though Eaton herself was only one-half Chinese (and one-half English), she was devoted to her mother and to the cause of counteracting the hatred and prejudice against her mother's people that was so pervasive during her own formative years. She took the Chinese name of a flower popular among the Chinese (Sui Sin Far means narcissus) and courageously asserted her Chinese heritage, even though this background was not evident on her face.

    In "Leaves" she describes through personal anecdotes chronologically arranged, her growing awareness of her own ethnic identity, her sensitivity to the curiosity and hostility of others, the difficulty of the Eurasian's position, and the development of her racial pride. The other theme apparent in "Leaves," and in many of her short stories, is Eaton's defense of the independent woman. The biographical fact that Eaton herself never married and the intimate details of this woman's journal entries would indicate that she is telling her own story, but she refrained from identifying herself out of a delicate sense of modesty.

    "In the Land of the Free" is typical of Edith Eaton's short fiction. Her themes are of utmost importance: racial insensitivity, the human costs of bureaucratic and discriminatory laws, the humanity of the Chinese. The creation of rounded characters is a secondary concern. Lae Choo is little more than maternity personified, maternity victimized by racial prejudice. But the very portrayal of a Chinese woman in the maternal role--loving, anxious, frantic, self-sacrificing--was itself a novelty and a contribution, for the popular conception of the Chinese woman, whose numbers were few in nineteenth-century America, was that of a sing-song girl, prostitute, or inmate of an opium den. In Lae Choo, Eaton gives the reading public a naive, trusting woman whose entire life is devoted to the small child that the law of "this land of the free" manages to keep away from her for nearly one year. By the end of the story, the irony of the title becomes forcefully apparent.

    Edith Eaton hoped to effect a change by means of her pen, to be the pioneer in bridging the Occident and the Orient, but the last article she published, less than a year before her death on April 7, 1914, was still a plea for the acceptance of working-class Chinese in America. She asserts that many former laundrymen become college graduates and influential people, that half the Chinese children in the Sunday School class she visited in San Francisco wore American clothes, while in eastern public schools, all the children wore American clothes. The pathetically shallow arguments she makes reflect not her thinking but that of the opposition. At the time of her death, the newspapers were full of stories about keeping Asian children out of public schools in reaction to the murder of a white woman by her Chinese "houseboy," and the Chinese Exclusion Act had been extended indefinitely.


    Anonymous. Marion, the Story of an Artist's Model. By Herself and the Author of Me. New York: Watt, 1916. Biography of Sara Eaton Bosse by Winnifred Eaton. Includes anecdotes of the Eaton family life with Edith referred to as Ada.

    Anonymous. Me, a Book of Remembrance. New York: Century, 1915. Winnifred Eaton's autobiography.

    Sui Sin Far. (Pseud. of Edith Maud Eaton.) "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian." Independent 66 (January 21, 1909): 125- 32.

    --. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Edited with introductions by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

    Watanna, Onoto. (Pseud. of Winnifred Eaton.) A Japanese Nightingale. New York: Harper, 1901.

    White-Parks, Annette. Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.