Asian stereotype: why the exaggerated front teeth?
March 27, 2008 2:41 PM   Subscribe

Asian stereotype: why the exaggerated front teeth?

So I stumbled across this comic Wun Cloo, Detective off the LJ community Scans_Daily. Now the depiction of the main character is of the stereotypical Asian man at the time (1940's). I understand the slanted eyes and pigtail, but why the buckteeth? What's the reason or history behind this?
posted by sweetlyvicious to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Here's one explanation.
posted by yeti at 2:48 PM on March 27, 2008

I'm not sure of the origin, but I'm almost certain it goes back to railroad times.
posted by rhizome at 2:48 PM on March 27, 2008

By the way, I'm not sure if what I linked to above has any truth, but you gotta love the irony if so:

"The Chinese people were acting like a mirror for the physical appearance of any white person that looked the Chinese person in the face. When the white person made fun of the Chinese person, they were making fun of their own physical appearance."
posted by yeti at 2:53 PM on March 27, 2008

@ yeti: explaining stereotypes with stereotypes, eh?
posted by J-Train at 2:54 PM on March 27, 2008

Uh, the site that yeti linked also has this and sounds crackpottish in general. I wouldn't place much stock in that explanation.
posted by ignignokt at 2:57 PM on March 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Good point. Lo is the danger of making speculation on such a topic.
posted by yeti at 2:59 PM on March 27, 2008

@ Yeti, the link doesn't really explain why the caricature of buckteeth came about :(

But it does make me wonder if a) buckteeth was common among the first wave of Chinese immigrants for the railroads, b) just something made up to exaggerate the undesirability of Chinese men.
posted by sweetlyvicious at 2:59 PM on March 27, 2008

yikes to yeti's link.

It appears that there's possibly a sort-of legitimate explanation: Sinodonty.
posted by peachfuzz at 3:02 PM on March 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh man. That just proves my ill-informed link is exactly NOT the answer. Yuck.
posted by yeti at 3:03 PM on March 27, 2008

I don't have any historic chain of evidence for this, but I my pet theory is that it originates in WWII-era depictions of Hirohito (which tended not to show him in a favorable light). He wore heavy, round glasses and had a weak chin in real life. Not sure about buck teeth (one never sees pictures of him with an open-mouth smile), although buck teeth are a pretty common problem in Japan.

Japan ≠ China, of course, but tell that to most Americans.
posted by adamrice at 3:10 PM on March 27, 2008

This is a fascinating question. I've known several Chinese with overbites -- but not in numbers much different than anyone else. Most have beautiful smiles no different than anyone else. Maybe there is a phonological component (paging Dr. Languagehat!), as I've seen a few that looked like they had an overbite when they were merely wrestling with English pronunciation. The answer is probably much simpler. Given their status in the railroad era -- forced into servile positions -- there was probably a lot of "Yes, sir", "Yes, boss" type smiling going on. Lose your job, you (and your family) are pretty much screwed. And smiling is probably the best way to disarm an authority figure if you don't speak the language very well. I can imagine that this would be picked up on and exaggerated into a Jerry Lewis style teeth stereotype. And the coke-bottle glasses probably evolved from the perceived squint -- again, maliciously exaggerated.
posted by RavinDave at 3:16 PM on March 27, 2008

I feel compelled to add here, I'm Korean, and my otherwise very nice teeth have an ever-so-slight inward turn to the top two. I had no idea what it was called until now, though, and will forever think of myself from now on as "shovel-toothed".
posted by peachfuzz at 3:18 PM on March 27, 2008

Maybe there is a phonological component

Um, hell no.

For one, that guess assumes that all Asians, or all Chinese people, speak languages that have sounds requiring one to stick their tongue forward against their teeth so hard as to cause the mouth to reform during dental development. This is asinine on so many levels, and it doesn't take a language expert to verify it.

However, there is controversial linguistic evidence that correlates language remnants of Central and South American Indians to migrating groups (of Asians) into the new world...this would substantiate the idea of genetic relation of dental patterns between the two groups. This is explained in peachfuzz' link above.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:20 PM on March 27, 2008

I'd go with adamrice's explanation, in that it derives from a Hirohito caricature. In the Tintin book The Blue Lotus, which takes place in China during the time of the Japanese invasion (the Manchurian incident), Japanese people are depicted using the stereotype you mention (round glasses and buck teeth), while the Chinese are depicted more sympathetically. I was always confused by the stereotype since it seemed so far from reality.

In WWII (after The Blue Lotus), the caricature was also employed for Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo, who wore round glasses.
posted by snarfois at 4:45 PM on March 27, 2008

As a data point, the US Army's "Pocket Guide to China" (1942) explains that you can see the difference between Japanese and Chinese people by looking at the teeth: "C usually has evenly set choppers - J has buck teeth".
posted by martinrebas at 4:59 PM on March 27, 2008

It's certainly much older than WWII / Hirohito - this is perhaps not the best example (I've got better in books here), but there's a few different ones to look at. Note that the caricature of high foreheads / slanty eyes / silly grins / pigtails / buck teeth was prominent in the 1880's.
posted by Pinback at 5:09 PM on March 27, 2008

I'm beginning to agree with adamrice and snarfois. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) birthed these cartoons where none of the stereotypical men had buckteeth. Compare with the WWII anti-Japanese propaganda posters here. Add in the old chestnut all Asians look alike, it'd explain why the Chinese would eventually be portrayed with buckteeth as well.

EDIT: Just saw Pinback's link. Okay, so it's occurred before Hirohito/Tojo. Any other theories?
posted by sweetlyvicious at 5:13 PM on March 27, 2008

I don't have any historic chain of evidence for this, but I my pet theory is that it originates in WWII-era depictions of Hirohito

I can't speak as to why the stereotype arose (other than a desire to assign characteristics that were considered unattractive to Asian people), but it goes further back than WWII. Here is a postcard with a Korean man with buck teeth (from this page about the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5)). The Yellow Peril seems like a good starting point.
posted by ssg at 5:19 PM on March 27, 2008

[comment removed - if you want to bitch people out, do it over email or in MetaTalk]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:22 PM on March 27, 2008

To Hijack: Has anyone else enjoyed how commonly these stereotypes are used in modern Chinese soap operas?
posted by FuManchu at 6:41 PM on March 27, 2008

So I have absolutley no evidence for this theory, but here goes: The other features that ARE commonly depicted -- sqinted eyes, scrunched nose, false smile -- would naturally expose the teeth more. Buck teeth may have just looked "right" or in proportion to a cartoonist making those other items outlandish.

I can't imagine there being much of an actual difference in dental care in the 19th century.
posted by FuManchu at 6:56 PM on March 27, 2008

Looking at the 1880's newspaper cartoons made me think of something. The "sinister grin" of the "inscruitable oriental". I've heard people say that the display of teeth in animals is a sign of hostility, with the unique exception of humans. Personally, I've seen and recieved a few toothy "smiles" that were the facial equivalent of "Yes sir, fuck YOU sir, fuck you very much sir, I would like you to die horribly but you can't tell because I'm grinning like this and waving", and I've never seen anyone pull it off anywhere near as vividly as the Cantonese & Taiwanese folks in my city are able to. Maybe the caricatures from the "Yellow Peril" days, of the sinister grin on a Chinese face (threatening, deceptive, whatever was the fear in those days) changed over time to buck teeth?

I certainly agree that the WWII glasses/teeth caricature of Tojo (usually in a triad with fat/bald Mussolini and Hitler with the haircut/mustache/crazy eyes) was a thing of the time that somehow stuck and got appplied to a broader population.
posted by penciltopper at 7:04 PM on March 27, 2008

Buck teeth may have just looked "right" or in proportion to a cartoonist making those other items outlandish.

Hmmm. So it was probably started by one cartoonist until WWII came along, and the depiction with buckteeth became convention. This sounds very close to the winner, unless anyone else has other ideas?

I also like penciltopper's idea of the 'sinister grin'. This might have been another reason for the deranged smile the stereotypes had.
posted by sweetlyvicious at 7:37 PM on March 27, 2008

The answer is simple: malnutrition. People who grew up malnurished, as many Asians did in the last few centuries, can have sunken cheeks and poor eyesight among other things. Taking those features and exaggerating them for a characiture can give you the coke bottle glasses and buck-toothed asian stereotype.

Of course, the real answer it's a racial, racist stereotype which defies explaination in its very nature.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:40 AM on March 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't have an answer, but two related comments.
  1. I've known lots of Asians, and although 'bad' teeth are common among Japanese, I've observed a significant proportion of other Asians with problem teeth. What mystified me about Austin Powers was how so many people also 'knew' that British people had bad teeth, something I'd never noticed. Although Pollomacho's malnutrition hypothesis would apply to them, as well; neither explains why so many of both ethnic groups would (in the eyes of many Americans) benefit from some sessions with an orthodontist.
  2. When this topic came up in one of my Japanese classes, an old nisei told me buck teeth in women used to be considered cute.

posted by Rash at 11:58 AM on March 28, 2008

I think Pollomacho's simple explanation may well be it!

Rash, I don't have any evidence to support this but maybe when the GIs went back to the States after WWII they brought back the idea of Brits with ugly teeth due to the lack of nutrition/care? I know nowadays people equate the Brits' bad teeth with their love of sugar and chocolate.
posted by sweetlyvicious at 1:39 PM on March 28, 2008

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