Chinese Traditional Religion in
Detective Comics #39
This page presents excerpts from Detective Comics #39, which revolves entirely around Batman and Robin solving a murder and double-kidnapping comitted by a Chinese gang centered in Gotham City's Chinatown district.
All of the comic book excerpts on this page come from Detective Comics #39, written by Bill Finger, pencilled by Bob Kane, and inked by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson; published in May 1940; reprinted in Batman Chronicles Volume 2, published by DC Comics (2006).
The story in Detective Comics #39 is somewhat typical of superhero stories of this era that focused on a specific "exotic" ethnic, religious and/or cultural minority. By today's standards, this story may seem naive and may seem replete with stereotypes in both its text and imagery. Yet this was in no way intended as a disrespectful story. By the standards of contemporary comic book storytelling, most issues of Detective Comics might be viewed as naive and stereotypical, regardless of whether the subject matter focused on a minority group (such as this issue's Chinese people) or "plain vanilla" white Americans.
Another aspect of this story that is typical of this era's comics focusing on minority groups is the inclusion of both a villain and a noble hero from the minority group. Even today, this technique is commonplace in comic books (and stories in other media) when the writers want to utilize a minority group, but are afraid of causing offense. In Detective Comics the principle villain is the unnamed "master of the Tong of the Green Dragon." To balance this out, the story also features an ill-fated noble Chinese character named Wong, who is the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. Wong (who only merits one name) is described as "a wise, honorable man."
Both Wong (the good Chinese character) and the master of the Green Dragon Tong (the bad Chinese character) are adherents of Chinese Traditional Religion. Chinese Traditional Religion is not a specific organized religion, but a term for describing the conglomeration of worship traditions and respected belief systems commonplace in Chinese culture. Chinese Traditional Religion includes Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor veneration and Chinese folk religion. The portrayal of the Chinese characters in Detective Comics #39 reflects the observations of the story's writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane. The statue that is seen in Wong's home and the Green Dragon statue used as an idol by the villainous Green Dragon Tong are very similiar to each other. It may not be possible to positively determine whether these statues are intended to be Buddha, Confucius, or some other idol entirely.
In addition to Wong, we know there are other good Chinese people in Chinatown who are adherents of Chinese Traditional Relgion. On the last page, a Chinese woman tells her daughter that they should "pray for the well-being of one called the Batman."
The good Chinese characters and the vilainous Chinese characters can all be classified as adherents of Chinese Traditional Religion. But the evil followers of the Green Dragon Tong follow a sect which is distinct from the religious tradition of the good characters.
Throughout most of this story, Batman and Robin spend their time fighting various members of the Tong of the Green Dragon, until they finally defeat the master himself. The Chinese members of the Green Dragon Tong serve as cannon fodder. They are portrayed both as gang members and as adherents of a religious sect that worships a massive "Green Dragon" idol and follows the Tong's master as a religious leader. Significantly, there is no indication that this group's crimes (including kidnapping, opium smuggling, human smuggling, and murder) are religiously motivated. They are portrayed as criminals who simply happen to adhere to a distinctive form of Chinese Traditional Religion.
Webpage created 22 May 2007. Last modified 22 May 2007.
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