Writing Across the Pacific9 min read

Michael Gibbs Hill reviews Transpacific Community by Richard Jean So


My collection of Chinese writer and linguist Lin Yutang’s books in English was acquired for $1.50 in total. My Country and My People and With Love and Irony came out of a box marked “FREE PLEASE TAKE” in the lobby of the apartment building where I used to live in Washington Heights, New York. For two whole quarters I got The Importance of Living and The Wisdom of Confucius at a yard sale in Seattle, and my biggest purchase, a second edition of Moment in Peking, cost a buck at His House, a Christian resale shop on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina.

I might not have paid much, but in Lin Yutang’s case, price is no reflection of quality. Mostly forgotten today, his books lurk in church basements and on grandparents’ bookshelves across North America. The same goes for Lin’s contemporary, Pearl Buck. When I lived in Taipei in the late 90s, the used bookstore in my neighborhood had a pile of four or five copies of The Good Earth in Chinese. The only copy without mildew went for the price of a sugary milk tea sold from a street-side stall.

Despite their commercial success, Lin and Buck’s writings still meet with skepticism on both sides of the Pacific. Critics regularly interrogate their writings for accuracy and political undertones, more often than not dismissing them for peddling caricatures of China and, in Lin’s case, of Asian-Americans. Taking up the cause of Lin and Buck along with writers like Agnes Smedley, Paul Robeson, Liu Liangmo, and Lao She, in Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network (Columbia, 2016) Richard Jean So provides a new way of understanding these cultural impresarios. Transpacific Community places this cultural network of writers, artists, performers, and intellectuals within the context of the vast network of communications technologies that connected them not only to their audiences, but also to one another. In So’s argument, it is only “in the space between things, in transmission” that we can grasp the true significance of their efforts.

In the opening chapter, we follow Agnes Smedley as she convinces US intellectuals and activists to call on the Kuomintang regime to release the well-known writer Ding Ling from detention. Smedley, working with Chinese collaborators, translated Ding Ling’s stories into English,  telegraphing them, a few lines at a time, to Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and other writers. This telegraphic campaign led to Ding Ling’s eventual release in 1936, and So makes a good case that more than a simple “American Orientalism,” the push to rescue Ding Ling brought people together through the savvy use of technology.

In the second chapter, by putting the The Good Earth (1931) in the context of Pearl Buck’s life in Nanjing, So gains new insights into the novel’s origins. As he points out, ideas about minzhu (democracy) and Chinese peasants’ connection to the land in The Good Earth reappear in Buck’s studies of classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh, which Buck herself translated under the title All Men Are Brothers. Buck’s ideas about Outlaws of the Marsh and “natural democracy” mirrored Chinese-language discussions during the first decades of the twentieth century, when critics saw their ideal versions of democracy, equality, and liberty realized in sixteenth-century novels. In China, “democracy” was used to imagine alternatives to the imperial system that was toppled in 1911 and, later, the Kuomintang regime. As So argues, The Good Earth’s focus on the peasantry invoked Jeffersonian agrarianism while also drawing inspiration from Chinese intellectuals’ reconsideration of the rural population and economy.

A high point of So’s analysis in Transpacific Community comes with his discussion of Paul Robeson and Liu Liangmo, authors of idiosyncratic treatises on the human voice and music. Robeson’s theory of the “human stem,” a universal pentatonic scale, culminated in Robeson and Liu’s collaboration on Chee Lai! Songs of New China (1941). This recording remains not only a touchstone for politically progressive Afro-Asian music, but also a remarkable example of the use of comparative aesthetics to connect people across the divide of race and nation.

In his fourth chapter, So brings his attention to bear on Lin Yutang’s Chinatown Family (1948), a novel that Lin wrote just as the tide of curiosity about China in the US was receding. Archival research by So and others has shown that Richard Walsh, the editor at the John Day, supervised Lin’s work on the novel closely, dictating changes in the plot concerning immigration and many other details. Critics have traditionally seen Chinatown Family as an ethnography of Chinese Americans, leading to questions about its historical accuracy and about how its characters resist or accommodate the social norms of white America. Taking a different tack, So draws in Lin Yutang’s now-famous Chinese typewriter project to argue that, despite Walsh’s meddling, Lin moved toward a “typographic ethnic modernism” whose artistic vision went beyond the surface of words on the page to ultimately surpass the double bind of resistance vs accommodation. While I’m not ready to follow So in placing Lin Yutang in the same category as Xu Bing, his reading of Chinatown Family as an example of Lin Yutang trying to break out of the pop-philosophy mold that he had cast for himself is compelling.

In his final chapter, So looks at Rickshaw Boy (1945), Evan King’s English translation of Luotuo Xiangzi (1936–1937), which made Lao She as close to a household name in the US as any Chinese writer could get. (Following a spot as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, we learn that the US Council on Books in Wartime even armed US troops with copies of the novel.) King, however, is notorious for having switched out the grim final chapters of Lao She’s novel with a happy ending that strikes a false note with what has come before. In so doing, as So points out,  King turned Lao She’s critique of capitalism and individualism, told through the story of a hero who had nothing to sell but his body’s labor, into a hymn of praise to the Chinese work ethic.

Fortunately, the success of Rickshaw Boy gave Lao She the chance to come to the United States and work on a new book. Yellow Storm, a translation of his novel Four Generations Under One Roof, was completed not long after in collaboration with Ida Pruitt at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. As a writer who had been engaged on the cultural front of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Lao She thought of literature first and foremost as xuanchuan, which can be translated as “transmitting,” “broadcasting,” or “propaganda.” For many left-leaning Chinese authors writing during the political chaos of the early 20th century, this principle defined  how literature and art should relate to its audiences and to the state. It was because Lao She was so pleased with the response to Rickshaw Boy as xuanchuan in the US that he could look past the many problems in King’s translation. He hoped his work with Pruitt would achieve a similar result.

At Yaddo, however, propaganda was not on the agenda, a fact that Pearl Buck personally confirmed in a letter to Lao She – one of the many archival gems So includes in this chapter. Reading the unpublished manuscript of Yellow Storm, we see the failure of Lao She’s collaboration with Pruitt unfold. While Pruitt insisted on maintaining what she thought was the Chinese flavor of Lao She’s prose, he worried that unfamiliarity would drive away readers. Lao She’s plans for his work did not suit to the Yaddo way, which promoted creative self-expression over politics. Unable to resolve the conflict between two very modern ideas about literature, Lao She went home.

This work on Lao She shows how much we gain from linguistically rigorous studies of transnational literature and culture. In terms of method, it’s about more than the arithmetic of adding another language: critics must also piece together archives that are vastly different from one another. In the Chinese case, decades of war and political upheaval have either destroyed or kept from view the kind of unpublished material that can be found on many twentieth-century US writers. Researchers have to get creative, looking to sources such as magazine advertisements and fuzzy memoirs for clues to what’s been lost. Transpacific Community consistently succeeds in working across this uneven terrain.

The cultural network that So describes also allows the reader to see very different sides of Pearl Buck, Lin Yutang, and Richard Walsh than, for example, in Hua Hsu’s A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific. In Hsu’s treatment of the same figures, we see how they battled for status and the authority to speak for China to readers in the US, whose tastes were largely defined by white America. For many readers and writers, even today, figures like Buck and Lin still cast too long of a shadow; the meaning and impact of their work will continue to be debated.

Finally, from a historical perspective, I couldn’t help but notice the important role of missionaries played in laying the foundation for so much of what transpires in Transpacific Community. Missionaries operated some of the earliest transnational organizations between East and West – albeit with much slower technologies of communication – defining as they did the terms of engagement. Buck, of course, was born to missionary parents in China, and Lin’s father was a minister who sent his son to Christian schools. The missionaries’ call on the faithful in North America to “save China,” meanwhile, whether from poverty, Japanese invasion, or Communist subversion echo through many conversations about China we see not only in this book, but in the media’s treatment of China today.

I did notice a few small miscues, such as when Agnes Smedley’s reportage in Battle Hymn of China (1943) leads So astray. Smedley mentions that Lu Xun had read her novel Daughter of Earth in a Russian translation, which is unlikely because Lu Xun did not know enough Russian to read seriously in that language; all of his translations of Russian writers were based primarily on versions in Japanese and German. Such minor lapses are hard to avoid when navigating such a remarkably deep and varied set of sources, and do not detract from Transpacific Community’s wealth of hard-won insights. Future studies of the Transpacific have a new standard to work from in this book. ∎

Richard Jean So, Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network (Columbia University Press, May 2016).