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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Edith Maud Eaton (Sui Sin Far)

Between the late 1890s and 1914, short stories and articles signed "Sui Sin Far" appeared in such popular and prominent national magazines as Overland, Century, the Independent, Good Housekeeping, and New England Magazine, and Americans of Chinese ancestry began to have a literary voice in the United States. Hatred and fear of the Chinese had spread throughout the nation, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The courageous pen of Sui Sin Far, the first person of Chinese ancestry to write in defense of the Chinese in America, countered beliefs widely held at the time that the Chinese were unassimilable, morally corrupt, and corrupting. Sui Sin Far demonstrated that the Chinese were human, like everyone else, but victimized by the laws of the land.

Born in Macclesfield, England, in 1865, Edith Maud Eaton was the eldest daughter and second child of fourteen surviving children of an unusual and romantic couple: Grace Trefusius, a Chinese woman adopted by an English couple and reared in England, and Edward Eaton, an Englishman and struggling landscape painter. According to Me, the autobiography of Edith's sister, novelist Winnifred Eaton, who used the pseudonym Onoto Watanna, the Eaton household was bohemian (artistic and poverty-stricken), offering fertile ground for self-expression. Their mother read them Tennyson's Idylls of the King and the children would act out the characters. Artistic endeavors, as well as early financial independence, were encouraged. While still in their teens, Edith and Winnifred began publishing poems, stories, and articles for the local newspaper, becoming the first Asian American writers of fiction.

Edith Eaton's autobiographical essay, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," focuses on the education in race relations of an Eurasian in Caucasian-dominated societies. The essay emphasizes the pain endured by a person considered socially unacceptable on two counts: her race and her single state. Yet the essay also reveals her courageous spirit: her willingness to confront wrongs done to herself and others and to right those wrongs. Though her facial features did not betray her ancestry, Edith boldly asserted her Chinese identity. Though single women were mocked, she remained unmarried, channeling her energies and her income into the care of her numerous siblings and of Chinese people in need. Her stories were collected in one volume, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, originally published in 1912 and recently reprinted. Set in Seattle or San Francisco, these stories show the struggles and joys in the daily lives of Chinese families in North America. Particularly poignant are the stories delineating the cultural conflicts of Eurasians and recent immigrants. In the ironically titled "In the Land of the Free," Sui Sin Far shows the suffering inflicted by discriminatory immigration laws. Edith Eaton died April 7, 1914, in Montreal and is buried in the Protestant Cemetery there. In gratitude for her work on their behalf, the Chinese community erected a special headstone on her tomb inscribed with the characters "Yi bu wang hua" ("The righteous one does not forget China").

Amy Ling
University of Wisconsin, Madison

King-Kog Cheung
University of California, Los Angeles

Dominika Ferens
University of Wroclaw, Poland

In the Heath Anthology
Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian (1909)
from Mrs. Spring Fragrance
      In the Land of the Free (1909)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Immigrant Dream and the US as a Land of Opportunity

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A Chinese Ishmael
The complete text of Eaton's story provided by the UVA Electronic Text Center.

Teaching Asian American Literature
From The Heath Anthology Newletter.

(All roads lead to) SUI SIN FAR
A hypertext biography, rich with images.

Secondary Sources

Elizabeth Ammons, Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn Into the twentieth Century, 1991

James Doyle, The Fin de Siècle Spirit: Walter Blackburn Harte and the Canadian Literary Milieu of the 1890s, 1995

Dominika Ferens, "Tangled Kites: Sui Sin Far's Negotiations with Race and Readership," Amerasia Journal 25:2 (1999) 116-144

Dominika Ferens, Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances, forthcoming

Amy Ling, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, 1990

Sean McCann, "Connecting Links: The Anti-Progressivism of Sui Sin Far," Yale Journal of Progressivism 12.1 (1999)

S.E Solberg, "Sui Sin Far: The First Chinese-American Fictionist," MELUS 8:1 (1981) 27-37

Annette White-Parks, "A Reversal of American Concepts of 'Other-ness' in the Fiction of Sui sin Far." MELUS 20:1 (1995) 17-34

Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography, 1995

Xiao-huang Yin, "Between the East and West: Sui Sin Far-the First Chinese American Woman Writer," Arizona Quarterly 47:4 (1991) 49-84

Xiao-huang Yin, Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s, 2000