One of Doonesbury’s most complex characters first appeared on 22 January 1976. Honey Huan, Duke’s translator during his time as U.S. Ambassador to China, was everything her boss wasn’t: smart, competent, and politically savvy, Honey shepherded Duke through the minefields of Chinese politics, and became Duke’s long-time accomplice in schemes as varied as an organised tour to observe the Falklands War and governing the Iraqi town of Al-Amok during the American occupation. In this post, I want to frame Honey as someone whose trademark characteristics, though they risk dealing in historical stereotyping, can be seen as a reflection of a deeply painful history.
Honey Huan is based loosely on Nancy Wensheng Tang, one of Mao’s interpreters. Tang was born in New York City in 1943: her mother was a student at Columbia; her father a labour activist, academic, and diplomat. After Tang’s family returned to China, she studied at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Languages and was an interpreter at China’s Foreign Ministry before working for Mao and Zhou Enlai, including during Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn imply strongly that Mao and Tang were intimately involved: they exchanged displays of affection during official functions and had pet names for each other. Tang used her proximity to Mao to gain political power, “virtually controlling access to the Chairman,” speaking for him at Politburo meetings, and even forcing Zhou to engage in self-criticism. Much like First Lady Edith Wilson, who managed Presidential affairs after Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke, Tang exercised such a degree of power because Mao was in poor health and “no longer lucid.”
Like Tang, Honey uses her position as the only person who can understand Mao’s pronouncements to go beyond an interpreter’s official role to shape politics. As Duke prepares to meet the Chairman, Honey tells him that, between Mao “[speaking] an obscure rural dialect” and suffering the effects of a stroke, she “[seems] to be the only translator who can still understand him.” “In a way,” Honey reveals, she’s “sort of running the country.”
Although Honey speaks for Mao with characteristic confidence, it’s unclear how faithfully she interprets his words. During his meeting with Duke, it’s clear the Chairman is senile: he mistakes Duke for David Eisenhower (the grandson of Dwight Eisenhower who had recently visited China), and asks why Julie, Eisenhower’s wife (and Richard Nixon’s daughter), is not with him. Hearing Honey’s translation of Mao’s enquiries, Duke thinks she’s putting him on. Honey replies : “I call them as I hear them.” Later, however, Honey creatively fills in the gaps when Mao is too out of it to speak, telling Duke that though he may be silent, “the Chairman’s eyes speak volumes.”
Working for Duke, Honey engages in political freelancing, making problematic statements palatable and preventing international incidents. During Duke’s first meeting with Deng, she astutely prevents a shooting war by rendering Duke’s threat to “shell … pagodas” into an anodyne greeting to Deng’s wife. At a state banquet, she instructs guests to laugh instead of translating Duke’s politically-insensitive joke about “Mao’s Little Red Book.” When she and Duke visit Deng during his political exile, she again prevents a political crisis by interjecting to keep Duke from offering the disgraced Vice-Premier political asylum.
Honey’s ability to effectively navigate challenging political terrain with utmost confidence and grace exists in tension with another of her defining traits: her profound social awkwardness. While she may be able to slip effortlessly between languages, Honey often struggles to comfortably negotiate social interactions. One way this awkwardness manifests itself is in her conviction that she and Duke are madly in love.
Twitter friend Mr. Completely effectively sums up a core contradiction in Honey’s character : “in a lot of ways she’s among the most grounded in consensus reality but she’s so spun up around Duke.” This is no unrequited crush. Honey will spend years believing she and Duke are a couple, while he will give no indication of the slightest romantic interest in her. Honey’s imaginary romance with Duke became a running gag soon after they met.
The first hint of Honey’s one-sided romance with Duke appeared on 12 April 1976, when Duke suggests a Summer Palace tour that becomes a lecture on Western imperialist atrocities. I’ve always read Honey’s reply to Duke’s invitation – “Are you asking me out on a date, Sir?” – as an indication that she viewed the idea with scepticism, but I’ve come to imagine that it’s equally likely that, behind her trademark glasses, her eyes are lighting up at the prospect. After all, the next day we learn that somehow, “word got out” that they require a chaperone: Honey is far too politically astute to let their encounter that leak unless she believed there was something there.
While Honey spends years acting like she and Duke are living out one of history’s great love stories, there are only a few moments when he demonstrates genuine appreciation for her. One day, Honey recounts how she’d fooled Mao into thinking that she’d supervised the complete dismantling and subsequent rebuilding of the Great Wall after he’d decided on a whim to have it destroyed as a “symbol of ancient tyranny,” only to change his mind a few days later. “Actually,” she confesses, “I spent the whole week watching T.V., but he thinks I’m a genius.” “In a way you are, Honey.” Duke replies.
Another strip shows Duke, in his own weird way, flirting with Honey. After Honey chides Duke for his unseemly behaviour during a recent hospital stay, he teases her about being unusually demonstrative: “How positively scrutable of you!” he says, smiling. “I do believe you’re upset.”
The fear of Asian inscrutability — the Orientalist, “yellow peril” variety that presents Asians as unreadably devious — has been a mainstay in American politics: in the late 19th century, it was ideological fuel for the Chinese Exclusion Act … today, it manifests as the “Chinese Flu” …
After Duke kids Honey about being upset, Honey replies that she’s “been told [she’s] prettier that way” and asks if he’s going to take off her glasses, an old-fashioned romantic move that he, of course, has no intention of making. Right when the question of her “scrutability” is brought to the fore, Honey draws our attention to the very thing that makes her character difficult to read.
While Duke has, on a few occasions, appeared without his shades, Honey is always drawn with her eyes hidden. In Duke’s case, the sunglasses emphasise his sleaziness. But what purpose do Honey’s glasses serve, if not to underline her remoteness? By always depicting her in those trademark Coke-bottle glasses, GBT robs her character of a vital dimension of Doonesbury’s visual language, namely how variations on the standard Doonesbury eye effectively convey a variety of interior states from innocence to shock to profoundly-altered states of consciousness. Honey, unique among Doonesbury’s core characters, cannot express herself that way.
(That said, as we saw in a panel from Duke’s meeting with Deng, as he hides Honey’s eyes, GBT finds other visual cues to reveal her interior state. A small line indicating an involuntary head movement, and, as Twitter friend @SquirrleyGirl mentioned to me, a slight tightening of the shoulders: these gestures may be less blatant than what Trudeau does with eyes, but they effectively reveal something about Honey’s subjectivity…)
Honey’s glasses and social awkwardness reveal the influence of another bespectacled comic-strip sidekick, Marcie, Peppermint Patty’s friend in Peanuts. Comics critic Kevin Wong writes that he had grown up assuming that Marcie was Asian-American, in part because of her appearance, in part because he longed to see his identity reflected on the comics page, and in part because elements of her story reflected his own experience as an Asian-American kid, specifically how her parents were overprotective of her and tended, as a result, to over-schedule her:
Marcie couldn’t come out to play. She had to practice her organ. She had to study. She had to read. There was very little leisure time in Marcie’s day; her parents were protective of her, and their method of keeping her safe was keeping her busy … Similarly to Marcie’s parents, my first generation parents were concerned about the dangers outside the predictable structure of their home.
As Wong notes, that kind of upbringing isn’t likely to give a kid a lot of social confidence. Like Honey, Marcie’s lack of social confidence leads her to latch onto a stronger personality and put their needs before her own. Tellingly, both Honey and Marcie use the same word to address their companions. Wong again:
… having few friends and fewer social skills made me servilely loyal to my meager acquaintances. I was a desperate people pleaser, in a manner that’s embarrassing in retrospect. I cringe whenever Marcie calls Peppermint Patty “sir”
There’s a question Wong doesn’t ask: why were Chinese-American parents of his and Marcie’s time so protective of their kids? Part of the answer might lie in a history of profound trauma that China was barely beginning to address when Duke was in Beijing.
In her review of Wieke Wang’s novel Chemistry, Jane Hu draws our attention to how a sense of protectiveness can grow out of the experience of intense trauma. The history of China through most of the twentieth century is one of sometimes unspeakable horror: most people lived in crushing poverty to begin with; catastrophic, if not genocidal, political and social experiments like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution compounded the horrors that the Chinese people endured. It’s not hard to imagine how living through that kind of sustained suffering could make protecting oneself and one’s children and a sense of emotional remoteness a basic survival strategy. Hu describes a moment from Wang’s book:
… the narrator learns that, when her father was young, he carried his dying sister on his back to see a doctor, and that his sister died on the way there. She hadn’t even known that he had a sister. It is “the Chinese way,” she explains, “to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”
During the China arc, aside from some stuff about the semi-regular political purges that marked Mao’s rule, we don’t really get a strong sense of the tragic history that Honey and her people experienced, but, as we’ll see next time, there are a few oblique references to some extremely traumatic elements of Chinese history: a few years later, when Honey was called home to testify at the trial of the Gang of Four, some of the horrors of the time were made more explicit. Stay tuned.