Made-up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era

February 4, -
Speaker(s): Esther Kim Lee
Due to COVID concerns, this event is now only offered virtually (updated 01/25/22).

Registration is required to attend by Zoom:

Please join the Franklin Humanities Institute for its Friday morning series, tgiFHI! tgiFHI gives Duke faculty in the humanities, interpretative social sciences and arts the opportunity to present their current research to their departmental (and interdepartmental) colleagues, students, and other interlocutors in their fields.

Yellowface describes the theatrical convention of using makeup, costumes, and visual technology to transform someone to look East Asian. Based on the forthcoming book, Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era, this talk focuses on the most consequential justification for yellowface: scientific descriptions of the "Mongolian" race. Scientific writings about racial differences provided a rationale for excluding Asians, but at the same time, they suggested how actors could transform themselves to look Asian. Yellowface makeup during the Exclusion Era closely followed the descriptions of human racial differences published in books written by European and Euro-American scientists and physicians. In such books, the term "Mongolian race" encompassed all East Asians, but in practice, it was often synonymous with "Chinese." Yellowface makeup was developed for characters that were identified racially as "Mongolian" but who looked "Chinese," and the talk examines how writings about physiognomy, in particular, shaped the look of yellowface.

Esther Kim Lee is Professor of Theater Studies and International Comparative Studies and the Director of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies at Duke University. She teaches and writes about theatre history, Asian American theatre, Korean diaspora theatre, and globalization and theatre. She is the author of A History of Asian American Theatre (Cambridge University Press, 2006), which received the 2007 Award for Outstanding Book given by Association for Theatre in Higher Education. She edited Seven Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora in the Americas (Duke University Press, 2012) and authored The Theatre of David Henry Hwang (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015). Her latest book, Made-Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era is forthcoming with the University of Michigan Press.

Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI)


African and African American Studies (AAAS); Asian & Middle Eastern Studies (AMES); Asian American and Diaspora Studies; International Comparative Studies (ICS); Theater Studies

Made-up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era


Zhou, Jennifer