Harry Potter was an integral part of an entire generation’s childhood, but as children we rarely get the opportunity to look at things with a critical eye. With the return of J.K. Rowling’s magical world to both stage and cinemas this year, ComicsVerse will take a look at the Harry Potter series. We will explore the cultural representation of the books, as well as try identify how the books ignited such a massive and dedicated following. To read the entire ComicsVerse Harry Potter Series, check out this tag!

Race in the HARRY POTTER series has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation. The argument is usually over J.K. Rowling’s representation of POC characters. Is it enough for Rowling to merely imply the character’s race, but not address it? Meaning, is it worth having a POC character without giving some culture-specific background? Is it better not to dwell on race in order to remove characters from stereotypes? In order to address these questions, let’s look at Cho Chang, one of the series’ handful of East Asian characters. Although the Patil twins are also Asian, Cho Chang has more material to analyze (which is also questionable, but I digress), so this article will focus on her instead.

READ: Interested in more about Asian representation in media? Check out this roundtable!

Cho Chang’s Character

Overall, Cho Chang seems like a well-rounded character. She is the Seeker on her house’s Quidditch team and has been a fan of the sport since she was six years old. In Ravenclaw’s match against Gryffindor in the PRISONER OF AZKABAN, she’s able to block Harry, despite riding a much older broom model than him. Her character is not singularly submissive, either, like the usual stereotype of Asian women. In the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, she proudly defies her parents instruction to pander to Umbridge’s good side and joins Dumbledore’s Army. In short, she is very popular, generally seems confident, and is incredibly skilled. Even though she is in Ravenclaw, following the “smart Asian” trope, her popularity challenges the “quiet, socially-awkward Asian” stereotype, found in movies such as PITCH PERFECT.

Cho’s film actress, Katie Leung, a strong advocate for racial equality and Asian representation in media, praises J.K. Rowling for Cho’s character. “Even though my character is Chinese, we don’t dwell on the fact that she is Chinese,” Leung said in an interview with POPSUGAR. “She’s just a student at Hogwarts, and that’s amazing.” Leung is no stranger to racism or stereotypes in media. She consistently speaks out about it in interviews and through her twitter. So, if the actress herself has no problem with the character, is there anything wrong?

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The way Leung phrases her opinions about Cho Chang sounds dangerously close to those who say “I don’t see color” or “we’re all one race.” Of course it is important for there to be representation of Asian characters in a Western context. There is nothing significant about seeing Chinese people in China. So, on that criteria, Cho’s character is a success! However, Rowling missed the opportunity to elaborate on her ethnic heritage in the context of magic. Were Cho’s parents immigrants? Did Cho maybe possess a Chinese heirloom that suggests that there are magical institutions in China, as well? Did her parents train in wizardry in China or also at Hogwarts? By not addressing any of these ideas, Rowling failed to represent Cho as an Asian character. She might as well have slapped any other name on her, since her ethnicity doesn’t say much about her.

Ambiguous Asian

The HARRY POTTER books never specify Cho’s ethnicity. Cho and Chang can both be either Korean or Chinese surnames, and Rowling never specifies which race Cho is. This confusion could have been avoided with a more obvious Korean or Chinese first name. For example, many Korean names come in two parts: Da-won, Eun-Hye, Hye-Bin, etc. Chinese names can have more “l” sounds, unlike Korean names. For example: Liling, Liu, and Maylin. So, either Rowling couldn’t be bothered to specify, or she misunderstood that there is a huge difference between specific Asian cultures.

Generally, there is a huge issue with lumping all Asians into the same category. Many people are under the misconception that “Asian” means Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and sometimes Indian, and that we all are smart, and have basically the same experiences. For example, the idea is that we all have strict parents, we all have to get good grades, we’re all about rice and weird food, etc. While there are overlapping features of our respective cultures, no one can equate one to another. Furthermore, there are plenty of Asian countries that go unrecognized, like Malaysia, Taiwan (which, contrary to popular belief, is not China), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. Oftentimes, these South Asian cultures are completely ignored. They seem like “niche” races to the general public. Why couldn’t Cho be from one of these countries? Perhaps they weren’t generic enough.

This ties back into the point that Cho’s ethnicity plays no role in her background as a character, and the bottom line is this: Cho is only Asian for the sake of being ethnic. So, who benefits from this kind of representation; unrecognized Asian minorities, or writers trying to fulfill a diversity quota?

Cho Chang’s Role in HARRY POTTER

Rachel Rostad, a professional slam poet, says it best in her performance To J.K. Rowling, from Cho Chang. She emphasizes Cho’s uselessness to the plot. Her main role is the pretty love interest, and while Harry and Cedric’s ethnicities are not explicitly stated in the books, both boyfriends are white in the films. Why is this significant? Rostad powerfully cites the tragic “Asian woman falls in love with a white man” film trope in her poem. “Madame Butterfly: Japanese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself. Miss Saigon: Vietnamese woman falls in love with a white soldier, is abandoned, kills herself.”

Thankfully, Cho doesn’t commit suicide in the series, but the tragedy is still there. She is there to mourn Cedric after his death in the Triwizard Tournament throughout the entirety of the ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. After Cho and Harry’s awkward kiss scene, Hermione notes how she is literally constantly crying all day, every day, everywhere. A good chunk of her motivation for joining Dumbledore’s army is to honor Cedric’s death. Of course it is entirely reasonable that his death would have an intense impact on Cho’s life. However, coupling that with a complex love story with Harry, who treats her insensitively throughout the story and emotionally abandons her, unnecessarily perpetuates the tragedy of Asian girl/white guy relationship. While Rowling clearly does not have a political agenda against Asian communities, she, despite all her good intentions, made a mistake. Her representation of one of the only POC characters had nothing to do with that character’s ethnic background, while still following one of the most notorious tropes that an Asian girl could fall prey to.

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Things to Consider

Rowling’s relationship with imbuing diversity in her books has always been a rocky one. She has recently come under fire for writing about Native American Wizards in her most recent book, and has continuously been criticized for announcing her characters’ unexplained background after the fact on Twitter. For example, Dumbledore’s sexuality or Hermione’s race. On one hand, it’s great to see diverse characters in film and media. On the other, if that portrayal reinforces certain stereotypes, no matter how unintentional, we shouldn’t have to settle for being misrepresented to the entire world.

Although Rowling gives her a sporty background and popularity, Cho still is emphasized as a gentle Asian girl caught in two tragic relationships with white boys. Writers need to have a racially conscious mindset when adding minorities to their writing. It is not good enough to throw an ethnic name in the mix and call it a day. Given Rowling’s background and struggle with the start of her writing career, it’s no wonder she might not have had the time to be conscious of every aspect of her story. This is not a call to denounce Rowling’s efforts, or her incredible cultural influence on an entire generation. She is a talented author in her own right, despite incorporating certain Asian stereotypes into her work. This is a call to future writers to seriously do their research if they intend to create a racially diverse cast for more than just to fulfill a quota. It is important that the people who exist in this world are represented fairly and accurately in all forms of media, and nothing less.

One Comment

  1. Jane

    November 19, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    I was like “What the heck?!” after reading Katie Leung’s quote above. That was an incredibly stupid thing to say. It is NOT amazing that the film doesn’t dwell on the fact that her character is Chinese, as if it’s something to be ashamed of. Her ethnicity should be celebrated, explored further, because she is a unique individual by her circumstances and background. The Chinese culture is incredibly ancient, rich and complex; it’s the birthplace of culture in East Asia. The purpose of stories should be help readers gain an understanding of others who are different from them, expand our worldview and celebrate our uniqueness, not hide it. Anyway, times have changed now, so hopefully the actress has changed her mind now.


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