I must admit that Broken Blossoms is not quite what I expected. Given its early production date (1919) and its connection with D.W. Griffith--the man responsible for the overtly racist The Birth of a Nation--I was expecting to see a grossly stereotyped portrayal of Asian people, and to a large extent this was the case. The character of Cheng Huan--as portrayed by the white actor who plays him--is depicted as being feminine, weak, and addicted to opium, not to mention the stereotypical way in which he carries himself and articulates his face. All this I was prepared for, although still deeply horrified by it.
What I was not expecting, however, was Griffith's decision to cast Cheng Huan as the hero of the story, and even to hint at a meaningful and caring interracial relationship. I cannot say that this is atypical for the time period; in Filming "Chinatown": Fake Visions, Bodily Transformations, Sabine Haenni argues that the fantasies of racial miscegenation were implicit in many early films about Chinatown, and certainly her desciption of The Deceived Slumming Party suggests that Asian characters were sometimes the heroes, or at least the characters who got the last laugh. Even so, I found Cheng Huan's gentleness and the way he was juxtaposed with the girl's brutish and completely unsympathetic father surprising. Additionally, I was impressed by several comments made in the titles that bordered on being progressive (when the titles observe that the one thing the girl's father can't stand is people who don't happen to be born in the same "great" country as him, for instance, seemed to be using sarcasm to make an argument against intolerance).
Even so, I felt that the film did not go far enough to be hailed as being ahead of its time. I was very conscious of the fact that Cheng Huan and the white girl never share so much as a kiss, and while his love for her is obvious, the nature of her feelings for him are never made clear. If Griffith really wanted to make a statement about racial equality, he could have had Cheng Huan and the girl run away together and live happily ever after, or even just have made it clear that his advances were welcome, but instead he made the girl's feelings ambiguous and then made it impossible for them to ever be together by killing her off (somewhat improbably). Moreover, it struck me that, while the movie featured several actual Asian faces, the main Asian character still had to be played by a white man, as if it would have been too controversial to have an actual person of Asian descent in such close proximity to a white woman. Finally, although Cheng Huan's gentleness was arguably one of his most attractive features (especially when compared to the girl's raging father), it also served to "sterilize" him for a white audience. If Cheng Huan is gentle and pure, then he is rendered harmless and fears of rape and racial miscegenation can be allayed. Furthermore, his gentleness--when seen in contradistinction to the rowdy and aggressive nature of white men pictured in the film--marks him as unmanly and as an "other" (I'm thinking here not just of the girl's father but of the sailors at the beginning of the film, whose fighting merits the title: "Just a sociable free fight for the Jackies, but the sensitive Yellow Man shrinks in horror"). As such, while I do admit that I was surprised at the way Broken Blossoms gestured toward being progressive, I think the deep-seated racism of the age was still present and explicit.