Who speaks for China? The question motivates American academic Hua Hsu’s look at an obscure Chinese-American writer in the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1931, graduate student H.T. Tsiang began walking the streets of New York, endlessly shopping his epic novel China Red. He would spend the rest of the decade failing to sell his books, accumulating polite rejections and lukewarm commendations. Tsiang was an artistic and commercial failure, but in this study he is of interest because of the way he demanded that his story of China be heard. The way was open to shape the image of China in the American popular imagination, and Tsiang didn’t like what he saw.
So what were the stories of China that he resisted?
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers demonstrated one story: countless workers threatening to take American jobs. Pearl Buck, with her bestselling novel The Good Earth - winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 - told another. She was raised in China and for her it was the home of noble peasants struggling to be left alone and live a hardworking, honest life.
Meanwhile Henry Luce, founder of Time magazine among others, also grew up in China. But unlike Buck, Luce rarely left his Western enclave or interacted with locals. This didn’t stop him from presenting himself as a voice of expertise, eventually to baleful effect when he strongly urged the US to support Chiang Kai-shek to the bitter end. To him, China was engaged in a power struggle that the whole world should support. And then there was Carl Crow, author of 400 Million Customers, who presented China as the ultimate untapped market. China for him was a place for the ambitious to make their name.
Tsiang is intriguing, because he reminds us that there is no one story, least of all for a place - and idea - as elusive as China. In fact, the author reminds us, his was one of many stories we never hear: “His blast radius was tiny and sporadic...He longed to be part of a conversation about China and Chinese people... Barred entry, he aspired instead to...mock, critique, and haunt this conversation to which he was not invited.”
Tsiang never did break through, though he did make enough noise for the Hoover-era FBI to open a file on him, described to rather moving effect. He spent two years in Ellis Island awaiting a deportation hearing, and ended up a working actor, with parts in Gunsmoke and the original Ocean’s Eleven movie - in which he was credited as “houseboy” and spent “one entire scene shuffling about on his knees.”
In this clever and rigorous study, it is an intended irony that our framing device for this debate over narrative and truth is Tsiang, a man who failed to make his voice heard. The point is that we should always think about where our stories come from and that there are those we don’t hear.
by Peter Desmond
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