Cover of 'Ornamentalism' by Anne Anlin Cheng

Oxford University Press
Jan. 18, 2019


Focusing on the cultural and philosophic conflation between the “oriental” and the “ornamental,” Ornamentalism offers an original and sustained theory about Asiatic femininity in western culture. This study pushes our vocabulary about the woman of color past the usual platitudes about objectification and past the critique of Orientalism in order to formulate a fresher and sharper understanding of the representation, circulation, and ontology of Asiatic femininity. This book alters the foundational terms of racialized femininity by allowing us to conceptualize race and gender without being solely beholden to flesh or skin. Tracing a direct link between the making of Asiatic femininity and a technological history of synthetic personhood in the West from the 19th to the 21st century, Ornamentalism demonstrates how the construction of modern personhood in the multiple realms of law, culture, and art has been surprisingly indebted to this very marginal figure and places Asian femininity at the center of an entire epistemology of race.

Drawing from and speaking to the multiple fields of feminism, critical race theory, visual culture, performance studies, legal studies, modernism, Orientalism, object studies and new materialism, Ornamentalism will leave reader with a greater understanding of what it is to exist as a “person-thing” within the contradictions of American culture.


  • Offers what is arguably the first sustained theory of Asiatic feminism, filling a glaring absence in critical theory.
  • Brings legal history, cinematic history, and art history into a dynamic conversation.
  • Proposes a brand new way to approach the well-rehearsed problems of racial and sexual commodification and objectification.
  • Supplies original readings of previously overlooked materials: one of the most important habeas corpus cases of the 19th century, a fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum, a film by one of the great “race actresses” of the 20th century, and more.


“What Anne Cheng looks to offer in her new monograph Ornamentalism is a heretofore-missing theory of Asiatic femininity ... Ornamentalism offers an alternative vision of agency as not resistance but resilience, of forms of living produced under impossible conditions — providing, too, a much-needed concretization of post-humanism’s rhetorical gestures.”

— Chalay Chalermkraivuth, Brink

“Through a constellation of mesmerizing scenes — from the courtroom to the museum to the sushi bar, from early photographs to cyberfiction film — Anne Anlin Cheng reveals the drama of Ornamentalism in Anglo-American culture: the ontological force with which Asiatic femininity resides in an aesthetics of ornamental personhood. Within the dynamics of this drama — conflating the abstract and the corporeal, the figural and the real — personhood and objecthood ineluctably converge. Above all Ornamentalism tracks new and essential questions for the study of racialized gender.”

— Bill Brown, University of Chicago

“A worthy successor to Edward W. Said’s Orientalism, Cheng’s Ornamentalism contours the breadth of ornamentation’s enmeshment with orientalist logics and poses socially pertinent questions regarding the distinctive ways in which Blackness and Asianness are visualized and adorned.”

— Rache l Lee, UCLA

“This bold and astonishingly original book is many things at once. Attending to the ways in which race and beauty troublingly but also pleasurably intertwine, it begins as a study of comparative racialization that shows how the dehumanization of persons transpires differently: some by being reduced to flesh and biology, others, by being turned into artificial shells. A much needed theorization of Asiatic femininity in the Western imagination that thinks without moralizations, Ornamentalism is a brilliant, groundbreaking book that shows how the ideology of race renders subjects excessively visible but also simultaneously hard to see.”

—Sianne Ngai, University of Chicago

“This is a stunning critical-historical unpacking of the figure of the ‘Asiatic yellow woman’ as a peripheral person/object, exotic/erotic, she/it. This haunted ‘theory of being’ nudges and advocates a fuller critique adding to #MeToo universalism and the shorthand of ‘black and brown’ women and fem bodies-opening a more decolonizing internationalist theory of raced, gendered, and sexualized intimacies, differentiation, and power.”

— John Kuo Wei Tchen, Rutgers University-Newark